For all the bloodshed at Attica forty years ago, it is important to remember that the uprising also inspired important, concrete prison reforms in facilities across the nation that exist to this day. As former Chair of the New York Commission of Correction from 1976 to 1981, I saw the rise of these reforms—and the difference they made in prisoners’ lives—up close. If there is a role for rehabilitation in our prisons today, programs like these must be continued and invested in.
Family visits. Contact visits—during which prisoners can actually touch and hold their loved ones—were established in 1972. Against heavy political opposition, New York legislators instituted conjugal visits in 1976. They were labeled “family visits” first, and many of the early visits were actually with siblings and parents, to blunt the criticism that they were simply “for sexual release.” Prisoners spoke with as much passion about what it meant to be with their children as with their wives. So from the beginning, it was a huge disciplinary tool (and surely, sometimes, abused as such).
Access to Courts, Law Libraries and Inmate Grievance Committees. In the 1960’s being a “writ writer” (jail house lawyer who helped other inmates appeal their convictions or bring charges against the prison authorities for conditions of confinement) was considered grounds for punishment. Letters were destroyed. Today law libraries have given countless inmates a crucial introduction to the law and, to the surprise of many, helped them realize that they have the intelligence to navigate the legal system. Now all prisons have law libraries.
High School Equivalency Certificates and College level work: It was difficult at first to swim against the political tide when it came to offering “free college” to people who had committed crimes. Officers who could not afford to go to college themselves, or send their children, were understandably resentful of escorting prisoners to classes. But the benefits have been enormous. Many prisoners, having been told they were stupid growing up, are surprised by the speed with which they have been able to learn. Prisoners are more curious about the world. They read at every opportunity. They are less likely to get in trouble. There are 1,121 prisoners currently enrolled in the various college level, for-credit courses in New York State. And there are GED programs in all maximum and medium security prisons.
America still locks up too many people, for too long. But small efforts combined have made a big difference in New York State. In December Arther Kill Correctional Facility in Richmond County will shutter its doors, making it the twelfth prison to close since 2008. The prisoner population has dropped from 72,000 to 56,000 in the past decade, and the crime rate of those released has gone down dramatically. New York-based re-entry groups like the Fortune Society, The Osborne Association, and others should exist across the country. As progressives and conservatives alike embrace prison reform, the lessons in New York, especially after Attica, would serve us well.