A Brutal Beating Wakes Attica’s Ghosts

Tom Robbins, A Brutal Beating Wakes Attica’s Ghosts: A Prison, Infamous for Bloodshed, Faces a Reckoning as Guards Go on Trial. The New York Times, 28 February 2015. “This article was produced in collaboration with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on criminal justice issues.” On the evening of 9 August 2011 guards told George Williams, an inmate at Attica prison, that he was being taken from his cell for a urine test. “Mr. Williams was wondering why a sergeant would be doing the grunt work of conducting an impromptu drug test when, he said, a fist hammered him hard on the right side of his rib cage. He doubled up, collapsing to the floor. More blows rained down. Mr. Williams tried to curl up to protect himself from the pummeling of batons, fists and kicks. Someone jumped on his ankle. He screamed in pain. He opened his eyes to see a guard aiming a kick at his head, as though punting a football. I’m going to die here, he thought.”

Inmates in cells across from the dayroom watched the attack, among them a convict named Charles Bisesi, 67, who saw Mr. Williams pitched face-first onto the floor. He saw guards kick Mr. Williams in the head and face, and strike him with their heavy wooden batons. Mr. Bisesi estimated that Mr. Williams had been kicked up to 50 times, and struck with a dozen more blows from nightsticks, thwacks delivered with such force that Mr. Bisesi could hear the thud as wood hit flesh. He also heard Mr. Williams begging for his life, cries loud enough that prisoners two floors below heard them as well….

[Mr. Williams’] ordeal is the subject of an unprecedented trial scheduled to open on Monday in western New York. Three guards — Sergeant Warner and Officers Rademacher and Swack — face charges stemming from the beating that night. All three have pleaded not guilty. An examination of this case and dozens of others offers a vivid lesson in the intractable culture of prison brutality, especially given the notoriety of Attica, which entered the cultural lexicon as a synonym for prison havoc after 43 men died there in 1971 as the state suppressed an uprising by inmates. This account is based on investigative reports and court filings, as well as interviews with people on both sides of the bars at Attica, state officials and prison reform advocates….

Mr. Williams was handcuffed and pulled to the top of a staircase. “Walk down or we’ll push you down,” he heard someone say. He could not walk, he answered. His ankle was broken. As he spoke, he was shoved from behind. He plunged down the stairs, crashing onto his shoulder at the bottom. When guards picked him up again, he said, one of them grabbed his head and smashed his face into the wall. He was left there, staring at the splatter of his own blood on the wall in front of him….

Opened in 1931, the prison has long been the largest local employer. More than 600 officers patrol the prison today, all but a handful of them white. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the prisoners are black or Hispanic, almost half of them imported from New York City and its suburbs. The prison sustains the local economy. In all, it encompasses 1,000 acres, including a farm where inmates worked until budget cuts ended the program. Nearby is a cemetery where prisoners are buried when no one claims their remains. Older headstones carry no names, just identification numbers….

New York has 17 maximum security facilities, a constellation that sprawls from Sing Sing just north of New York City, to Clinton near the Canadian border, to Elmira, just north of Pennsylvania. They are often places of strife and violence, although most of what goes on remains shrouded from view both by remoteness and official secrecy….

Unlike Rikers Island, the huge New York City jail complex that has been roiled by revelations about the mistreatment of inmates in the past year, what occurs in the toughest state prisons has garnered little public notice. At Attica, most violent encounters between inmates and guards are handled internally. Charges are filed against the offender, a hearing is held and then a sentence is imposed, usually a hefty term in the Box. Inmates are invariably convicted. Of the 228 cases at Attica in which inmates were accused of assaulting corrections employees between 2010 and 2013, only one prisoner was found not guilty of all charges. Everyone else was sent to the Box for periods ranging from two to 16 months, records show.

These records were obtained by the Correctional Association, a 170-year-old nonprofit that monitors conditions in New York’s prisons. “It’s a kangaroo court,” said Jack Beck, the association’s project director, who has been inspecting New York prisons for more than 30 years.

Had the nurse on duty the night George Williams was beaten played down his injuries, he believes the episode would have been logged as one more inmate assault on staff members. “She was a blessing,” he said. “If she hadn’t of said I needed a surgeon, I would have been dead.”

Instead, Mr. Williams’s case took a very different route. The corrections department’s inspector general began an inquiry, and the State Police were soon called in as well. Over the following weeks, investigators asked guards, inmates and medical personnel what they had seen….

[T]he investigations continued. On Dec. 13, 2011, a state grand jury in Warsaw handed up criminal indictments against four Attica guards….

It was the first time, state officials said, that criminal charges had been brought against corrections officers for a nonsexual assault on an inmate….

Inmates at Attica were stunned by the indictments as well. To them, the remarkable thing about the beating Mr. Williams endured that August night was not the cynical way in which it seemed to have been planned, or even the horrific extent of his injuries. What was truly notable was that the story got out, and that officers had been arrested and charged.

“What they did? How they jumped that guy? That was normal,” said a prisoner who has spent more than 20 years inside Attica. “It happens all the time,” he said. That view was echoed in interviews with more than three dozen current and former Attica inmates, many of whom made the rounds of the state’s toughest prisons during their incarceration. They cited Attica as the most fearsome place they had been held, a facility where a small group of correction officers dole out harsh punishment largely with impunity. Those still confined there talked about it with trepidation. If quoted by name, retaliation was certain, they said….

Mr. Fischer, the former state corrections chief, reluctantly agreed with the conclusion that Attica should be closed. “Of all the maximum security prisons, I would probably argue, given the history of it, we’d probably be better off if we did,” he said.

Inmates say a minority of guards engage in brutality, but those who do exert a powerful influence throughout the prison. Officers viewed as too lenient often received warnings of their own. A common tactic used to punish inmates without having to file paperwork is to shut down power for a row of cells. “When the power goes off, nothing works,” one inmate explained. “The light goes off, the water won’t come out of the sink, the toilet won’t flush.” One officer who turned the power back on after a guard on an earlier shift had shut it down got a note left on his desk: “Inmate Lover,” it read, according to a prisoner who saw it.

Tom Robbins and Lauren D’Avolio, 3 Attica Guards Resign in Deal to Avoid Jail. The New York Times, 2 March 2015. “Three guards accused of beating an inmate at the Attica Correctional Facility so severely that doctors had to insert a plate and six pins into his leg each pleaded guilty on Monday to a single misdemeanor charge of misconduct. The last-minute plea deal spared them any jail time in exchange for quitting their jobs.”

Democracy Now!, Attica’s Ghosts: New Calls to Close Site of Prison Revolt After Guards Avoid Jail for Brutal Abuse. 5 March 2015. “Over four decades after the infamous Attica prison uprising, we look at the savage conditions inside the New York facility where three guards nearly beat a prisoner to death in 2011. The guards were charged for the attack, but just before the trial was to begin, they all have pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and will not serve jail time. This marks the first time a prison guard in New York has been criminally charged with a nonsexual assault of a prisoner, and it’s also the first time in state history a guard has pleaded guilty to committing an unauthorized violent act against a prisoner while on duty. More than 2,200 men are walled inside Attica, and reports of guards using force against them are up 25 percent in the last four years. The maximum security prison has few security cameras, and prosecutors in the case say this has let guards and prisoners get away with violence. Critics have called for the prison’s closure. We speak to reporter Tom Robbins of The Marshall Project, whose investigation of the guards’ case was published in collaboration with The New York Times; and former Attica prisoner Antonio Yarbough, who served 20 years for a triple murder but was exonerated last year.”

ProPublica Podcast, MuckReads Podcast: Inside Attica with Tom Robbins. By Nicole Collins Bronzan, 16 March 2015. “The trouble with reporting on prisons is that most of the people you need to talk to don’t want to talk, for one reason or another. As veteran reporter Tom Robbins tells Assistant Managing Editor Eric Umansky and Senior Reporter Jesse Eisinger in today’s podcast, his recent, gripping New York Times story on a 2011 beating at New York’s infamous Attica prison– the first to result in criminal charges against New York corrections officers for a nonsexual assault on an inmate — ran into the typical obstacles. Prison authorities wouldn’t grant him access, Robbins says, even though the Department of Corrections’ own website advertises tours for schools and youth programs. “So after they said no I called back — I said, ‘Did I mention the fact that I teach journalism at the CUNY graduate school?’ ” he recalls. No dice.”