Murderers. Rapists. Armed robbers. Home invaders. Child molesters. The worst criminals in our society are behind bars at the Attica Correctional Facility, simply “Attica” for a generation that remembers it for one of the deadliest prison uprisings in our country’s history.
Once the criminal trials are over and the publicity dies down, society goes back to what it was doing, and these new felons start a life hidden from view, behind 30-foot-high reinforced concrete walls in a rural Western New York town.
More than 2,200 inmates call Attica home, more than 80 percent of them convicted of violent felony offenses. Thirty-eight committed crimes so heinous they were sentenced to life terms without parole. They will die in Attica.
Society, for the most part, says good riddance. What goes on behind the walls is none of our concern.
But the 1971 Attica rebellion shattered that narrow view. It is our concern. When police and National Guard troops retook the prison, 43 people died; 11 of those killed were corrections officers – all shot by the very people trying to save them.
Two groups of people do time at Attica, the prisoners and their guards. One group does its time in court-ordered sentences, the other in eight-hour shifts.
Teresa A. Miller, a law professor at the University at Buffalo Law School, has come to know both groups, through dozens of visits to Attica over the years with her students, through her work as a
prison advocate, and through her work as a volunteer adviser to what is called the Attica Lifers Group – those serving life sentences.
“Attica is a very complicated place, it’s its own very complicated institution with a lot of frankly human interest drama,” says Miller, a Harvard-educated lawyer, who also has graduated from Duke University and has a master’s of law from the University of Wisconsin. “There’s a lot going on. And I thought, those were stories that I wanted to tell.”
But how to tell them? A law journal article might be read by a few hundred people in her field. Miller decided, with no prior experience except as a still photographer, to shoot a documentary film, “Attica, The Bars That Bind Us.”
The film, she says, is about the human toll exacted upon those who live and work in places like Attica, America’s maximum security prisons.
The experience has been eye-opening, for Miller and for the prisoners and prison staff. She hopes to show it to a national audience once she edits the film and finds an outlet.
“I found out things I never thought that I would, that officers and inmates lead parallel lives,” says Miller. “Their experiences are two sides of the same coin. I didn’t expect that.”
She and a UB film crew shot 60 hours of interviews with inmates, corrections officers and prison staff who describe what it’s like to be in Attica 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year.
Miller filmed the wife and children of a convicted murderer from Buffalo, spending the weekend with him in one of the simple, one-story duplex homes set up for family visits behind the wall.
She shot a football game between prison blocks – inmate versus inmate in full uniforms, a more authentic “The Longest Yard,” with laughter, friendly taunting and no more violence than you would see in a typical high school game.
And she filmed a haunting trip through a prison cemetery. Those who die in Attica who have no one left to care about them are buried here, under simple concrete headstones etched with their names and prison numbers.
Living and working
Filming in a maximum security prison requires approval from the state Corrections Department. That came with a hearty endorsement from Attica’s superintendent, James Conway, an Attica prison brat whose father and uncle were guards at the time of the uprising. He started working in the prison as a maintenance worker a year later, in 1972.
Conway has spent 38 years working in the state’s prisons, most of the time at Attica, where he was warden for eight years before retiring in 2010. He was the calm in the daily storm of life in Attica, for both the inmates and guards, who respect someone who worked his way up through the ranks.
“I have an interest in this place running well, and so do they,” Conway tells Miller in one of the interview segments. “This is where they live and this is where I work. We want the place to be clean and safe and secure.”
Not surprisingly, so do the lifers who will call Attica home for 25 years or more.
Conway speaks of both the inmates and the prison staff when he uses an ancient fable to show the difference between doing hard time and easy time.
It seems there was a king, Conway says, who had brought before him two young miscreants caught stealing livestock. Their penalty, the king said, was to carry a bean in their shoe for a full year and then return to him.
On the appointed day a year later, one of the thieves, crippled in pain, limped toward the castle walls. The other seemed to walk with a spring in his step.
Did you not follow the king’s order of wearing the bean in your shoe? the crippled thief asked. Of course I did, replied the other. But I boiled it first.
Each new inmate and corrections officer has to learn that about Attica, says Conway, doing time the easy way or the hard way.
‘It takes its toll’
The older inmates and officers know the difference, Miller has found through her interviews.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to speak with a lot of officers who are able to recount how, when they come in, they’re like their backs are against the wall, ‘Nobody is going to make a fool out of me,’ ” says Miller during an interview at her UB office. “That’s what they learn in their six weeks of training. ‘I’m not going to be played,’ sort of putting on that kind of mask.”
“It takes its toll,” she said. “They go on and they’re still doing the mask thing, they’re still doing the big tough guy, even at home. ‘You’re not doing your homework? You’re lying to your teacher about not doing your homework? You’re not going make a fool out of me.’ You know, the same thing they do at the prison. They end up in conflict at home, they start drinking, they hang out with people from work. And they consume a lot of alcohol; some consume drugs. Divorce? Oh my gosh, these guys have gotten more divorces, it’s unbelievable.”
The average life span of a corrections officer, she said, is 59, adding, “There’s a shocking number of both inmates and officers who commit suicide.”
“You talk to inmates, they say I came in, they say no officer is going to make a fool of me. One guy spent 11 months in (solitary confinement). Eleven months. And he said, ‘It broke me. I’ve got to come in here and start differentiating between the good guys and the bad guys. I can’t treat everybody like a monolithic rat.’”
“And officers say the same thing,” Miller said. “I can’t put on this mask. So I have to decide who I can be pleasant to, who I won’t give any quarter to, and sort them out. In that way, I think they’re saying, it allows their humanity to come out. In some way, you can be humane. Because that’s what I think is the hardest thing about working in the prison.”
By the numbers
Jack Kerr is a longtime Attica corrections officer, one of the 573 guards at the prison. Like the vast majority, he is white, and like his fellow guards, he came in hard but he mellowed through the years.
“I’ve learned the ropes,” he tells Miller. “Maybe not the right ropes, but I survived 32 years in Attica. We’re all in this place together.”
“When you first come in, all the inmates are considered scumbags, the lowest part of society,” he says. “You’re killing yourself emotionally. If you come in as a tough guy, it eventually takes over for you.”
Kerr has no illusions. He knows what some inmates are capable of doing.
“I’ve seen every crime in the world committed here,” he said. “Murder. I saw a guy get his throat cut right in front of me. Drugs, rape.”
But many of those crimes are committed by the so-called short-timers, the transients, the gang members who do their time and move back into society. The lifers either shun these guys, or try to tell them the difference between hard time and easy time.
The numbers tell the story. Attica is a segregated prison. Figures from both the prison and the Correctional Association of New York State show the inmates are mostly black, the guards mostly white. Fifty-seven percent of the inmates are African-American, 28 percent Hispanic. Only 10 percent are white. The remaining five percent are Native American or Asian American, or listed as “other.”
The reverse is true for guards. Of the 580 or so guards, only 9 are black. There are only 17 female guards. The rest of the officers are white males.
Conway said most of the minority staff come from urban areas and bid for prisons closer to cities– Wende, Collins and Gowanda for those near Buffalo.
Meet Big Lew
If there’s a shortcoming in Miller’s film, it’s the lack of voices from new inmates or new corrections officers. She has a request in with the Department of Corrections for those interviews, but for now we learn from the old-timers what the rookies are going through.
“We don’t tell them what not to do,” said Jose “Ahmed” DiLenola, 29, from Livonia, who has served 13 years of a 25-year-to-life term for second-degree murder. “We say, ‘If you keep doing these things, this is where you’ll end up.’ ”
DiLenola is talking about the Special Housing Unit, or keep lock, where he spent 11 months locked up for 23 hours a day for acting out when he first came to Attica.
“I basically had to be broken like a wild horse,” he told Miller. “I had to be bridled.”
“It drove me nuts,” he said. “I told myself, I couldn’t do that again.”
DiLenola converted to Islam in 2004, one of about 200 Muslim inmates at Attica, and he now lives in the prison’s Honor Block because of his good behavior. He has his own cell and lives on the block with fellow lifers who have learned the difference between hard time and easy time.
Larry J. Lewis, 49, known as Big Lew, has been a corrections officer for 19 years at Attica. One of the prison’s few black guards, he grew up on the East Side of Buffalo. But he stayed on the straight and narrow because of the strict lifestyle laid down by his parents and his strong church influence.
“I was 30 when I started here. One of the things that helped me is I tried to look at things through their eyes,” Lewis said of the mostly black Attica population. “After awhile, you realize not all the inmates are the same.”
He said becoming a good keeper of prisoners is an art.
“After awhile, you learn the mechanics of the job,” he said, “and after a long time, you learn the art.”
“When you walk down the hall, this is what hurts, ‘Here comes the house n----r, here comes the white team,’” he tells Miller. But after a time, he said, those taunts stopped once the older inmates took the younger ones aside and told them Lewis was all right.
Rehab rubbed out
Miller has been involved with Attica since attending a 25th anniversary forum at the UB Law School as a young professor in 1996. When the 40th anniversary came up last year, she organized the forum. She saw it as a last chance to get many of the original participants together and see what had been learned since then.
The lessons are bleak. Prison populations, mostly because of the drug laws, are at all-time highs. States, including New York, have pretty much given up on rehabilitation programs that began after the Attica rebellion.
Inmates no longer sit in their cells for most of the day with nothing to do, as they did before the uprising, but any knowledge they gain is mostly on their own. Or they spend hours a day watching television.
Robert Gangi came to the Correctional Association of New York in 1982, a decade after the bloody retaking of Attica, a time when the prison industry realized that rehabilitation programs, including college classes for inmates, helped calm down a prison. He was also there when many of those programs were taken away. (Attica continues to offer some classses through Genesee Community College.)
Prison populations were exploding during the 1990s, as more and more people were locked up for drug offenses, and the costs of adding new prisons made cutting back on rehabilitation easy for governors like New York’s George Pataki.
Gangi, who spent 29 years leading the Correctional Association’s prison reforms, calls the decision short-sighted. In prison after prison the group visited, he said, the one thing wardens said they would like to see restored were college programs. They were all afraid to say so publicly.
“My view is that when Pataki eliminated these programs, it was political,” Gangi said. “This was an appeal to the working class.”
Why should prisoners get free educations, the argument went, when those who obey the law have to take out college loans?
“You can make a very good case that (college) not only helps the inmates but the staff in the prison,” said Gangi, who now leads the Police Reform Organizing Project at the Urban Justice Center. The educated inmates become leaders in prison, they have lower recidivism rates once they’re released, and there is less violence in the prison.
“It pays off for everyone,” Gangi said. “But it looks like you’re coddling the prisoners.”
Lessons from a lifer
“The system doesn’t rehabilitate them,” Miller said. “The grants are gone. So, unless it’s on a voluntary basis, there are very limited college programs. They have to take them as correspondence courses.”
That’s why, she said, she is so inspired by the lifers at Attica.
“I’ve never seen a group of people with so few resources be so busy, be so positive and so driven and ambitious. It’s really exciting,” she said.
Miller was asked how she squares her enthusiasm with the fact that these are men who have committed horrendous crimes.
“What I tell people is yes, absolutely, indeed, these guys have done horrible things,” she said. “A lot of them are doing second-degree murder terms, 25 years to life. It’s because they got themselves in a situation where they were left with an option that was to kill someone. And that is not a good situation to be in, it’s not a good option to exercise.
“But the person they were 8, 12, 15 or some of them 37 years ago, is not the person they are today. And when you give up on people, when you freeze them – imagine any one of us, take us at our worst moment, and freeze us and judge us by that moment for the rest of our lives – we would never do that.
“So a lot of these guys, because they got life, decided ‘OK, here I am,’ ” she said. “ ‘Is it just going to be a progression of dragging myself off of the cell floor every morning and dragging myself through the day? No, there’s more to life than that. I’m going to develop myself.’ And these guys get mentored by other lifers. They’re like, ‘You’ve got to get an education, you’ve got to learn something about the world, you’ve got to improve yourself.’
“These lifers really hold themselves out as a breed apart from the guys who are doing what they call ‘zip bits,’ the guys who are in and out,” Miller said. “[Short-timers] are not really focused on doing anything different. They’re going to go back out in the streets and do exactly what they did before. They’re just chilling out, they’re cooling while they’re in prison.”
Matthew Lemon is one of the lifers Miller interviews.
Lemon is a living law school lesson on the crime of felony murder. In New York, a person who commits a felony in which someone dies is deemed as guilty as if he killed the person. Miller’s law students who visit Lemon in Attica see firsthand what the law means in real life.
Lemon is serving 75 years to life. He’s 50 years old and has been in custody since he was first arrested in December 1979 when he was 20. He’s unlikely to be paroled until he’s a very old man, if then.
Lemon was convicted along with two brothers in the murder and robbery of Paul and Sidney Fink at their People’s Clothing Store in Buffalo. One of his co-defendants told police that Lemon brought the knife used to killed the Fink brothers and stab two others. If Lemon’s account is true, his is the worst case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He told Miller he went to the store that day to tell the owners that he had lost his job, and that was why he was not current on his account at the store.
“I remember waking up that morning, and I told my wife I was going to the store,” Lemon recounts in the interview with Miller. “I told her I’d be right back. I never made it back home.”
“I walked into a situation that was very volatile,” he said. “It was a robbery went bad.”
Police found his account book at the front counter, he was arrested and one of his co-defendants confessed and told police that Lemon “was the mastermind of the entire incident.”
Were you involved?, Miller asked him.
“No, not at all.”
Lemon is a member of the Lifers Group at Attica and recounts how things have changed in his 30 years behind bars. Ten years after the uprising, Lemon got a degree from Genesee Community College. He was 15 credits shy of a bachelor’s degree when New York shut down the continuation of the college program.
Now, he said, there seems to be no attempt at rehabilitation.
“This place has a gloominess to it,” he said of Attica. “Knowing that 43 people died in this facility [in 1971], and not knowing if it will ever happen again.” Especially, he said, “with the mentality of these young men coming in now, (with) no sense, no morals, no education. They’re quick to disrespect another man for any reason.”
Lemon lives in the honor block and speaks to visiting groups of young people who seem headed toward a life of crime to help straighten them out. His wife, three daughters and six granddaughters come to stay with him regularly as part of Attica’s family reunion program.
The filming was the easy part of Miller’s job. Now she must edit, market and find funding for her documentary, so an audience can see how society treats those behind bars – prisoners and guards alike.
“It’s an attempt,” she said of her film, “to put a human face on the entire system.”