America must listen to its prisoners before we make a major mistake

Roundup
tags: prison, Attica, Incarceration, criminal justice reform



A professor at the University of Michigan, Heather Ann Thompson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of "Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy" and "Whose Detroit: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City."

... In the four decades after Attica, the issue of prison conditions faded from the national consciousness. As a result, penal institutions grew ever more crowded, and the treatment of the people within them became even more horrific. And, thus, the protests last fall.

Now this pattern threatens to repeat itself. In the wake of the 2016 prison protests and with some serious criminal justice reform now possible, a new generation of law-and-order politicians is again taking advantage of our short memories and threatening to deepen our justice crisis if we don’t pay attention. We must learn the lessons of history, rather than making life worse still for the more than 2 million people locked up in American prisons.

Importantly, the Attica uprising occurred at a moment in which the fate of the nation’s criminal justice system was similarly up for grabs. On the one hand, President Lyndon Johnson had begun a war on crime that President Richard Nixon had doubled down on by 1971. On the other hand, across the nation, there had just been landmark court cases that affirmed the right of the incarcerated to humane treatment. There was also a serious push to reduce the number of Americans serving time in prisons.

The rebellion at Attica inspired New York’s politicians to implement vital improvements to confinement conditions in that state despite the punitive mood that threatened to envelop the country in the wake of the civil rights gains of the 1960s. They had listened to the voices from inside Attica. As one 21-year-old there on a parole violation had declared so powerfully, “We are men! We are not beasts, and we refuse to be beaten and driven as such!”

But after the initial burst of reforms that followed the uprising, legislators soon forgot about the terrible stories of suffering that they had heard. They stopped worrying about prisoners erupting in their state, and all talk of comprehensive changes ceased. The calls for the country to get tougher and tougher on crime, no matter what the human fallout might be, grew louder and louder.

The result? By the close of the 20th century, the United States had more people locked up than any other country on the planet — with more than 7 million Americans living under some form of correctional control — and was building penal institutions at a historically unprecedented rate. ...




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