Thirty-Two Years After Attica: Many More Blacks in Prison but not as Guards

by Peter Wagner and Rose Heyer, September 25, 2003  

Originally published on September 25, 2003 on Alternet

By Peter Wagner and Rose Heyer

In September 1971, thousands of prisoners at Attica prison in rural New York State rebelled, taking control of D-yard. Sixty-three percent of the prisoners were black or Latino, but at that time there were no blacks and only one Latino serving as guards. Seventy percent of the prisoners were urban, mostly from New York City, but 80 percent of the guards were from rural New York.

The disparity between the keepers and the kept increased tensions at the prison by inserting a cultural gulf between guards and prisoners, and by giving black and Latino prisoners painful evidence that their fate was, in part, determined by race.

After four days of negotiations, Governor Rockefeller ordered an assault on the prison, turning what was then the largest prison rebellion into the bloodiest. Thirty-two prisoners and 11 guard hostages died, almost all in the retaking of the prison.

Attica and the investigation into its causes caused a fundamental reexamination of correctional policy throughout America. While food, mail policies and rehabilitative programs were improved, the demand for more black and Latino staff proved to be among the easiest to support and the most difficult to implement. Writing in 1973 about “modern” correctional facilities, leading scholar William Nagel well summarized the response and the dilemma: “To avoid a federal Attica, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is now feverishly attempting to recruit black staff, but its task is complicated by the remoteness of its facilities.”

By 1995, the latest year with complete data, the prisoner population at Attica had increased to 80 percent black and Latino. But out of a total staff of 854, the number of blacks had only risen to 21 and the Latino staff to 7. Attica’s staff remains 96.7 percent white because Attica itself has not moved. It remains in a rural, overwhelmingly white region in New York State.

While prisons themselves are impossible to move, this lesson of Attica about the dangers of prisoner-staff disparities has been lost in the rush of the late 1980s and 1990s to build more prisons. Speculative ideas about rural economic development have trumped safe and rehabilitative correctional policy. Two-thirds of new prisons have been built in rural areas despite the experience at Attica and despite the research showing that incarcerating a prisoner close to home aids family visits and helps reduce the odds a prisoner will re-offend and be returned to prison.

Prior to 1980, 36 percent of prisons were in rural areas, although only 20% of the country is rural. But by the early 1990s the trend was going the wrong way, with 60 percent of new prisons being built in rural areas.

Senior federal officials explained the results to Nagel in 1973: “In the rural areas you get the very best type of white, mid-American line staff; but it is admittedly more difficult to recruit blacks and professional staff which are available in the cities.”

Has the federal Bureau of Prisons or state departments of correction succeeded in overcoming the difficulties in attracting black staff to rural prisons? According to our analysis of prison staffing at each prison operating in 1995, the answer is no.

In 1995, there were 889 federal and state prisons with at least 100 black prisoners. After excluding a handful that did not provide the race of prisoners or staff, we were able to identify only 64 prisons where the percentage of staff that were black was at least as high as the percentage of the prisoners that were black. Of those prisons, not one was outside of the south or the urban cities of the north.

Half of the prison cells in this country are filled with black citizens, but only 20 percent of the prison jobs are held by black employees. In the eyes of the American justice system, it appears every race still has its separate place.

Peter Wagner is a Soros Justice Fellow at the Prison Reform Advocacy Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rose Heyer is an independent researcher in Massachusetts.

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