Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Commissioner Brian Fischer
NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
Keynote Address - Attica Riot 40th Anniversary Symposium
Hamilton College
September 16, 2011

Early this week I participated in symposium at the University at Buffalo’s Law School regarding the 40th anniversary of the Attica riot in September, 1971. As part of my involvement, I took a tour of Attica on Monday and spent time talking to staff and offenders alike. I spoke to an officer whose father was killed in the riot, and to two offenders with serious mental health issues who were in what we call a Residential Mental Health Unit. I mention this because it highlights how different Attica and any prison are from what exists on the outside.

On Tuesday, before I spoke to the symposium’s participants, I listened to ex-offenders, advocates and legal experts talk about the problems they see in how prisons are run. While many of their concerns were appropriate, it struck me that what was missing is a picture of the situation from the other side.

Let me paint a picture of prison life before we talk about changes that have taken place since 1971. The prison system is large and complicated.

Within the prison system of about 57,000 offenders, 8,000 have mental health issues and of that number, 2,500 are considered seriously mentally ill. There are white collar criminals, sex offenders and murderers. Offenders range from 16 years old to 100. There are about 30,000 state employees spread out through 61 prisons and various central offices.

For every offender who just wants to do his time without problems and get out, there is another offender, who for various reasons cannot stop being a problem to himself, other offenders and to staff. The same is true of some staff. In both cases, 80% of everyone’s time is often spent on dealing with 20% of the problems.

For me, the most critical component is what is at the core of the system, is that it’s a place where a person is locked behind walls and fences and supervised by other persons. In reality, we have one group of people being controlled by another group of people.

Consider where we are today, in a college setting. There are administrators who make the rules that have to be followed by students and faculty, mangers who monitor compliance and consequences for those who break the rules. The college tells you what classes are available, when they meet, when tests are required, etc. I suspect many of you, at least at times, resent being told what to do. After all, you’re an adult and you’re free to make decisions. Just think what would be going on here at the college if there were no rules and everyone did as he or she pleased.

Now take this image and magnify it one thousand times to the point where your movement and decisions are strictly controlled and on top of that, certain basic rights, especially the right of privacy, are taken away. If that is not enough, consider that you’re in a place where you don’t know when you can leave, or cannot leave, ever.

I say all this so you can understand why overall, a prison can be a place of violence and despair, while also a place where society wants to see positive transformation. As strange as this may sound, positive things indeed happen inside a prison.

Let me go back now to what many people have criticized the system for, using Attica as the baseline and point out that while there are many differences of opinion of how things should operate, there is relatively little disagreement on the ultimate goals of both sides, the advocates and the administrators. Each want the prisons to be safe, offer treatment, prepare offenders for when they will come home and provide for as much individual freedom as possible. The problem isn’t where we want to go; it is how to get there.

There have been many reports, books and articles about the Attica riot in 1971 but there was one whose summary I found most helpful in setting the stage for any discussion of what was and what had to change to prevent another riot.

“The prison system at that time did not have any formal means for inmates to bring their grievances to the attention of prison administrators. There was a dearth of academic and vocational programming to prepare inmates for their return to society. There were little means available for inmates to maintain family ties. Certainly, such shortcomings played a major role in the heightened tensions at the facility at that time.

Warning signs of impending danger either went unnoticed or unheeded. When the riot did erupt, the state was completely unprepared to deal with an incident of such magnitude. The state lacked the skilled negotiators of the current Crisis Intervention Unit. There was no Correctional Emergency Response Teams (CERT), trained to use the least possible force to resolve incidents. These, among other factors, unquestionably escalated the final toll of dead and injured.”

The authors of this 2003 report provided to then Governor Pataki entitled, “Attica Task Force, Report to the Governor,” point out two critical elements. The first were the conditions inside the prison at the time of the riot, meaning the management of the prison and by extension, the overall management of the whole prison system.

The second element is the decision on how to end the riot – the decision to use force.

Let me start with the first element, conditions and management decisions on how the prison should operate.

In 1971, there was no structured mechanism for offenders to voice their concerns and the administration was not required to listen to them anyway. Since the Attica riot, programs like the Inmate Liaison Committee and the Inmate Grievance Program have developed. The key here is that both sides are required to use these programs. They do not guarantee success, but they force everyone to at least talk and listen to one another and provide for an opportunity to resolve problems before they develop into a crisis.

In terms of programs, over the years, and developed out of concern, law suits, legislative mandates and just plain common sense, many meaningful programs have been established. Health care, mental health treatment, sex offender treatment, academic education and vocational education are just a few. Programs for the developmentally disabled, hearing impaired, pregnant mothers and those suffering from Alzheimer’s and AIDS dementia are all part of the system today.

We also support a wide-range of community volunteers and encourage and support offender-developed and managed self-help organizations inside the prison. This expansion of services is designed to be inclusive of services previously denied or discouraged in the past.

Beyond these matters, and a key element in why the system today is so different from what it was, is that we understand that prison management must be as concerned about staff as it must be for offenders. I stressed this earlier this week, but it deserves special attention here today.

To ignore staff needs while providing for offender needs is no better than ignoring offender needs while providing for staff needs. Perhaps this single concept helps explain why the system overall has remained relatively safe. Our experiences with serious disturbances since Attica suggest that the attention we have provided to all parties have allowed us to respond appropriately without violence. To ignore the needs of one group over the needs of the other simply invites confrontation.

Going back now to the second conclusion of the Attica report, that the system chooses to use force to end the riot was in part due to a lack of how else to end it.

Since Attica we have spent time, money and most importantly, training in creating two specially developed units. One is called our Correctional Emergency Response Teams (CERT). These units, made of up of security staff, are meant to deal with disturbances in a highly structured and controlled manner, using riot control techniques designed to disperse groups or go into crowded situations with the least amount of force necessary to secure the area.

These teams coordinate with our Crisis Intervention Unit (CIU) teams. These units are staffed by civilian personnel trained in hostage negotiations, intelligence gathering, gang identification and other matters designed to provide management with the level of information needed to make appropriate decisions.

Other unique changes that have taken place over the years include the number of state, federal and community oversight programs that have been established inside our facilities. These oversight programs make the system more accountable and more transparent, fostering change in a cooperative and constructive manner.

The clear goal is to contain situations, gather intelligence and negotiate, rather than attempt to override the situation.

I can give you a litany of all the programs and specialized services we have today that did not exist in 1971, but I think you can get the picture without them. What I think is more important than statistics and the quantity of data we can talk about is the theme I’m trying to provide. It breaks down into two components.

The first is that prisons are inherently complex mini-communities that reflect the best and worst of society. While we may argue over the number and extent of the rules which are in place, the rules are made to provide for a safe environment for staff and offenders alike.

Society locks people up for committing a crime, with little regard to the reasons behind the crime and even less concern over the personal background of the individual.

I’m not suggesting we forgive people who commit a crime, but just like the Attica administration was unaware, insensitive or simply did not care about what was going on with the offenders, too often society misses the early warning signs with respect to an individual’s needs until that person acts out in an unacceptable manner and reacts, like in Attica, with overwhelming force – prison. While prisons are now places where an offender’s needs are assessed and provided for to the extent possible, they should not be the place of last resort.

The second component is that while prisons don’t get to choose who enters, they must still provide for each offender, regardless of their crime, sentence, or special needs. To that extent, the New York prison system has not only come a long way since Attica, it continues to evolve and respond to the demands of the courts, legislators and advocates. There is a saying that you may hear from time to time, “good programming is good security.” The idea behind this is clear. The best run prison is a prison where offenders are involved in programs, idleness is kept as low as possible, special needs are addressed and management stays on top of what is occurring on a daily basis throughout the prison.

Let me end now by suggesting that you take a look at the agency’s web site, and that of Parole’s. You will see that today’s systems are far more open and inclusive than ever before. You will also see the policies and rules by which we function as they show the magnitude of the system and its complexities. A prison system is made up of people, most of whom do not want to be there, many with chronic and acute personal problems. Meeting society’s often unrealistic expectations is but one dilemma, along with maintaining a balance between potentially conflicting requirements.

Thank you.