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The Attica Riot 50 Years Ago Was Caused Not By Repression, But By LOOSENING Prison Discipline
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There’s another anniversary this September besides the 20th anniversary of 9/11: Fifty years ago this weekend, and also encompassing a weekend, September 9th to 13th, there occurred the Attica prison riot in western upstate New York. The final death toll for those five days was 43: thirty-three inmates of the prison and ten guards and other civilians.

The September issue of Chronicles magazine has a very fine article by Nicholas Jackson commemorating the anniversary. It makes the key point that the riot was not caused by a tightening of prison discipline, but on the contrary by a loosening.

Political scientists have often noted that authoritarian governments are most in danger of being overthrown when they try to liberalize. People get used to repression and learn to cope with it; but loosening up signals a lack of confidence among the rulers, and that gets people thinking, and rebelling.

Michael Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika—”opening” and “restructuring” make the point: just as they were getting to be household words, the U.S.S.R. fell apart. The careers of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang in China, leading up to the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere, would have made the same point if Deng Xiaoping hadn’t sent in the tanks.

So it was with the Attica riot. New York State’s governor at the time was Nelson Rockefeller, who was as liberal as a Republican can be without falling off the edge of the Earth. His Corrections Commissioner, Russell Oswald, was of the same stamp.

Quote from Nicholas Jackson in Chronicles:

The riot and hostage siege occurred because violent felons had been fortified and encouraged by progressive and liberal concessions in the previous decade—while, by the same concessions, wardens and guards were fettered, shackled, enfeebled, and incapacitated.

Massacre of the Guards—The Attica Prison Riot, 50 Years Later, September, 2021

So social reformers of the 1960s had been showing the same kind indulgence towards prison inmates as we are showing today towards criminals and rioters; and the same stern harshness towards corrections officers, as we today are showing towards police. If you want to know where current trends are leading, Attica offers a clue.

In his fine 1942 essay on Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell wrote the following thing

He [that is, Kipling] sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.

Rudyard Kipling, Horizon, February 1942.

That is a key insight into human affairs; but unfortunately it is one we have become deeply reluctant to contemplate. As part of our current flight from reality, we would much, much rather not think about the fact that an essential part of the maintenance of any civilized society is, that some people must be treated harshly: deprived of their liberty, made to sleep on hard beds in bare cells, put under strict rules of discipline with penalties of extra harshness if they break that discipline, sometimes physically manhandled.

I have mentioned before a friend I had back in England forty years ago who had been a probation officer. He’d spent considerable time in prisons dealing with the inmates. He was a decent man: good company, well-mannered and well-read, a man of broad sympathies. Very few of those sympathies extended to the prison inmates, though. For the most part, he detested them. He summarized them as: “The sad, the bad, and the mad.”

The sad were not much in evidence in the Attica riot, to judge from Nicholas Jackson’s account. This was the Bad and the Mad on one side, on the other the prison guards, concerning whom Jackson tells us, quote:

Their only sin was doing their low-status, low-wage, yet highly hazardous, more-dangerous-than-thankless job. Indeed, salaries of guards at Attica were so low that many of them also held part-time jobs in the small town to make ends meet.

From the pictures in Jackson’s article it seems that the great majority of the rioting inmates were black.

I’d guess that most of the corrections officers, if not all, were white. Certainly all the dead guards listed on the Officer Down Memorial Page were white:

That means that the story of the riot can be twisted to fit the narrative that white liberal Americans never tire of hearing told: the evergreen American narrative of brutish low-class whites being mean to harmless, innocent, soulful blacks.

According to Jackson, the story has been thus twisted by left-wing lawyer Elizabeth Fink and left-wing author Heather Ann Thompson [Tweet her] who wrote Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. The efforts of these two women, and undoubtedly others, brought millions of dollars in payouts to convicts who’d rioted[ Elizabeth Fink, lawyer who helped Attica inmates win settlement, dies at 70, Washington Post, September 25, 2015]. Readers familiar with the Central Park Five travesty will recognize the terrain here.

But liberals never learn anything. The main jail here in New York City is Rikers Island, a huge facility for 10,000 inmates—most on pre-trial or preventive detention, the rest convicts serving short sentences.

Rikers has been getting a really bad press recently: inmates having drug and booze parties accompanied by rap music, savage fights, mass resignations of officers.

What, as liberals ask about crime, what is the root cause?

Benny Boscio, who is President of the Correction Officer’s Benevolent Association, blamed New York City’s communist mayor Bill de Blasio. Mr. Boscio told the New York Post:

Maintaining safety and security in New York City’s jails begins with maintaining proper staffing levels … the number of Correction Officers has dwindled down to less than 7,600, including the nearly 1,300 Correction Officers who have resigned since 2019 because of the horrific conditions Mayor de Blasio’s negligence has created.

Staffing shortage on Rikers spawning violent beatdowns, wild parties and fatal ODs, By Gabrielle Fonrouge, September 9, 2021

Could Rikers Island be the next Attica? Nobody would be much surprised. In jailhouse riots, New York leads the way!

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him.) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He has had two books published by com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT II: ESSAYS 2013.

(Republished from VDare by permission of author or representative)
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  1. There’s discipline & then there’s brutality, usually for its own sake. I’m all for discipline, not so much the brutality.
    Incidentally, John how does NY do on the old “exploitation” front? You know, a day’s work for $1.20 or exorbitant fees to use a phone, buy tooth paste etc. Prison labour is like immigration — it intentionally suppresses wages & creates unemployment & makes the ruthless rich even richer.

    • Agree: Chris Mallory, Biff
    • Disagree: Jett Rucker
    • Troll: AceDeuce
  2. dearieme says:

    My wife has two cousins who were Prison Officers in England. They retired early – their prison had become too violent. In what ways did the prisoners they supervised in their mid-fifties differ from those they supervised earlier in life? I suspect that this is not an admissible question.

    Anyway, the world would be a better place if people paid more attention to Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  3. Exile says:

    Good piece. Given law enforcement’s New Woke Priorities it’s impossible (and unwise) for dissident Whites in 2021 to trust them – they’re there to run interference for Antifa and the Rainbow Army and jail White resistance.

    But America’s criminal problems are still massive because of its Black and Brown population. As usual Whites get the worst a situation has to offer – cops diverted from policing criminals into policing Whites and feral coloreds-of-person weaponized and unchained.

  4. Svevlad says:

    It’s a “give them an inch, they take a mile”

    The chinese were smart – putting the beat down the instant the plebs started to behave like ingrates

    The best way for nearly everything however is to force people into a circular firing squad. From prisons, to governments – arrange the system in such a way that every element is threatened by someone’s misbehavior or corruption – effectively making the system perpetuate itself forever.

  5. Anonymous[146] • Disclaimer says:

    My wife has two cousins who were Prison Officers in England. They retired early – their prison had become too violent. In what ways did the prisoners they supervised in their mid-fifties differ from those they supervised earlier in life? I suspect that this is not an admissible question

    As one Unz commenter put it, “evolution left behinds”.

  6. SMK says: • Website

    The less and “looser” that blacks, especially the most brutal, vicious, and sadistic, are controlled and “disciplined,” the more freedoms and rights they enjoy in our hellish racially-integrated prisons and jails, the more freedom they have to terrorize, brutalize, assault, rape, gang-rape, and murder whites, including many and ever more whites who don’t belong in prison or jail but are enslaved for political and ideological reasons -many of whom are also the victims of black guards, e.g. the Jan-6 “terrorists” and “insurrectionists.”

    Forced racial integration in prisons and jails is “cruel and unusual punishment,” for whites, not only in the sense of being cruel but also totally unnecessary -and preventable by segregation. The persecution and brutalization of whites in jails and prisons will become increasingly hellish in the future as only the most brutal and violent blacks and “browns” are incarcerated and increasing numbers of whites who don’t belong in prisons and jails will be incarcerated for politiccal and ideological reasons. And they’ll also be more and more “at the mercy” of black and “brown” guards who hate whites.

    • Agree: Rich, Polistra
    • Replies: @KenH
  7. Yet again Derbyshire shows the failure of open borders. Rootless, wandering, cosmopolitan Englishmen with Yellow Fever should stay in Asia.

    Try reading this:

    So social reformers of the 1960s had been showing the same kind indulgence towards prison inmates as we are showing today towards criminals and rioters; and the same stern harshness towards corrections officers, as we today are showing towards police.

    Kind indulgence, you mean like letting them get mail in a timely manner? That was a major complaint of the prisoners. You mean like feeding them meals that actually met the Federal Minimum Nutrition guidelines?

    Stern harshness towards police? You mean like actually holding them accountable for their actions?
    Requiring that they use de-escalation instead of demanding unthinking obedience to their smallest whim? Reminding them that they are the servants of the citizens, not our masters?

    Maybe China would be the best place for you Derb, you have no clue what it means to be an American.

    • Replies: @James J O'Meara
    , @Rich
  8. @Chris Mallory

    Agreed. But then, there are Americans like the Founders, and then there are “Americans” like the current crop of NPC’s and Derbs.

    Somewhere along the line I heard two things about prison, maybe from the same guy, who I don’t remember anyway, but the wisdom of these two things has stuck with me, and made the “lock ’em up and let ’em rape each other” attitude of “conservatives” abhorrent to me.

    First, in a democracy, the people, through our representatives, are supposed to determine the punishment for each crime via legislation. Even apart from anything in the Constitution about “cruel and unusual”, you will note that no crime in the US carries a penalty such as “to be raped daily for the next 20 years” or “to be starved” or “to work for $1 a day” etc.

    Second, if you think “being locked up in nice comfy cell” isn’t punishment enough, go home, unlock your door, go inside, close it, lock it, and then imagine not being allow to unlock it again for 20 years.

    Of course, the Derb readers are getting a good dose of that now, aren’t they? Maybe Covid is karmic retribution for all those decades of laughing about “pound ’em in the ass prison”.

  9. The New Mexico prison riot in 1980 was probably worse than Attica, in terms of sheer savagery. Inmates hunted down protective custody “snitches” and castrated them or applied blow torches to their eyes; I don’t recall anything comparable at Attica, where most of the casualties came from police bullets. The NM riot was led by Chicanos btw, not blacks.

    Then there are Brazilian prison riots, which are on yet another order of magnitude.

    And yet, the truth is prisons are pretty safe. Whenever I read stories about how dangerous our prisons are, I remind myself that pudgy autist Mark David Chapman is still alive in a New York prison, and has been for 40 years. How dangerous can they be?

    • Agree: JimDandy
  10. songbird says:

    Doubtlessly, it would make sense to offer to “buy out” young black men in prison and send them to Africa.

  11. @James J O'Meara

    Even apart from anything in the Constitution about “cruel and unusual”, you will note that no crime in the US carries a penalty such as […] “to work for $1 a day” etc.

    How about for $0 a day? That’s direct from the supposed US constitution.

  12. R.C. says:

    Get rid of prosecuting malum prohibitum ‘crimes’ (which is of course mostly the drug war) and over 80% of these ‘events’ would never happen.

    • Replies: @Franz
  13. Catdompa says:
    @James J O'Meara

    13th Amendment allows for slavery for a convicted criminal.

  14. SMK says: • Website
    @James J O'Meara

    You write as if most or nearly all inmates of all races were raped and gang-raped in prisons and the housing units of jails, as if rapes and gang-rapes of inmates had little or nothing to do with race. The sadism aand brutality and degradation of rape and gang-rape in many if not most prisons and housing units of jails is largely that of white inmates being raped and gang-raped by white-hating blacks. And, in some prisons and jails, such as those in Texas and California, white inmates also being gang-raped by Mestizos and pure Amerindians, overwhelmingly legal and illegal aliens from Mesixo and Central America.

    This “problem” could be solved, this horror and terror could and should be eradicated, by racial segregation. But that would be “racist” and “discrimnatory,” a return to “Jim Crow.” even if it only applied to prisons and jails.

    The sacred ideal of racial “equality”- not so miuh an equality of rights,” since blacks have superior rights and benefit from “affirmative action” and systemic discrinmation against whites, but an equality of results and conditions, including forced racial integration in prisons and jails- supercedes the need to protect white inmates from being harassed, reviled, assaulted, brutalized, terrorized, raped and gang-raped, and murdered by white-hating black criminals.

    • Agree: Tony massey
    • Thanks: HammerJack
  15. Yes, it doesn’t pay to get all happy-clappy about civilization. Civilization is NOT the (((entertainment industry))) or (((multi-culti))) or (((globoHomo))) which is all made up of immoral, deviant parasites feeding off the deep river of production and wealth-creation. ALL civilizations are based on organized force. As much as is necessary to preserve the people and their civilization. Whites have forgotten this fundamental fact. They are about to remember it good and hard.

  16. The most peaceful prisons are those where the prisoners are working constantly at hard labor, simply because they’re too hard at the end of the day to do anything but go to bed. Constant breaking of rocks, digging holes and filling them in, transferring piles of sand from one area of another suit the weak African brain. Most white men can be put to doing useful things, such as engaging in animal husbandry, farming and making things by hand. It comes down to the saying, The devil finds work for idle hands. Effeminate liberals got rid of labor in prisons and the results were prison riots and many deaths.

    • Agree: Rich
  17. Rich says:
    @Chris Mallory

    You are officially out of your mind. You actually swallow the propaganda that the Attica riots were over mail? You’ve got to be kidding me. Criminals are violent and malicious by nature. They will rob, assault, murder at will unless treated with an iron fist. You liberals are the main cause of America’s problems. Prisoners must be treated harshly to discourage them from ever committing crime again. But I guess you’re okay with rapists, child diddlers and murderers “getting their mail on time”. Sickening.

  18. @Joe Paluka

    The state of Kentucky uses prisoners to maintain the Kentucky Horse Park just outside of Lexington. They do all the mowing, trash collection and maintenance like mending fences and fixing barns. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with some of them and they all acutally enjoyed the work, saying it was a chance to get out into the fresh air and actually do something during the day. It also gave them reason to be on good behavior, because it allowed them to be on work release.

    I have also worked alongside convict fire crews on wildfires in Oregon and California, most of them said the same thing. They were able to get outside, earn some money (I think they were getting $1.20 an hour), and took the work seriously, it was a big deal for them to be allowed out to work a on a fire. They weren’t shackled in a chain gang and usually only had 2 guards watching over a crew of 20 convicts.

  19. Rich says:
    @James J O'Meara

    I don’t mind a child rapist, or any rapist suffering in prison. If you think murderers, rapists, muggers, child molesters, etc. shouldn’t suffer in prison, your as bad as Dukakis and his Willie Horton release. Cucks like you who want criminals to live comfortably are more sickening than those who kneel at the altar of “social justice”. How horrible, to be locked in your room. How soft are you?

  20. JLK says:

    I’m for humane conditions in any prison, but glorifying what those inmates did is a sign of people who are blind to the fact that there are really bad people in the world, and some of them end up there.

    • Agree: Rich
  21. the death penalty would certainly purge the ranks of the most violent.

  22. My uncle was a NY State maximum security prison guard and couldn’t wait to retire after the usual suspects – liberals – saw to it that the guards were shackled and the prisoners were allowed to run the joint.

    He told me that when the guards enforced order there were no drugs in the prisons, and inmate-on-inmate crime was almost unheard of, but after the prisoners were granted a wide variety of concessions and the guards were no longer allowed to carry nightsticks or to enforce order, drugs flooded the prison and inmate-on-inmate crime spiralled rapidly out of control.

    He also said that a guard who trusted inmates never lasted for long on the job, because inmates are ruthlessly cunning at co-opting guards. The watchword, he said, was never to trust an inmate.

    Bear in mind that there is an assortment of prisons. Some are minimum security, some are medium security, and some are maximum security, and inmates are usually incarcerated in those various institutions based chiefly on their criminal records (and on their prior prison records), with the most sociopathic and violent being locked up in maximum security prisons.

  23. Franz says:

    Get rid of prosecuting malum prohibitum ‘crimes’ (which is of course mostly the drug war) and over 80% of these ‘events’ would never happen.

    This is very correct. Besides which the drug laws in particular have always been political crimes in the States. Reading Chasing the Scream and finding out precisely what machinations led to the Harrison Act of 1914 is highly rewarding. The drug war is essentially a plunder party by design.

    Once that huge percentage of inmates are pardoned and freed, an idea once floated by Thomas Sowell deserves a look: He said we had a lot of land in the Pacific Trust Islands we ain’t using, right? Boat the dangerous criminals there and… forget about them. They fend for themselves on a diet of coconuts, or try to get back through shark-infested waters. A few navy gunboats could keep option two from getting out of hand. Sounds good to me.

    • Replies: @gcochran
  24. KenH says:

    And they’ll also be more and more “at the mercy” of black and “brown” guards who hate whites.

    Exactly right. Just like how some of the white 1/6 protesters were racially taunted and physically abused by negro guards in the D.C. jail.

  25. @Joe Paluka

    I agree with your sentiments about work being valuable for prisoners both because work is inherently good, gives them time outdoors and because it gives them some sense of being part of the larger community, but feel compelled to add that what killed work in the prisons was not just liberals, but Labor Unions, who were intolerant of low-wage competition and lobbied hard for its elimination.

  26. gcochran says:

    Not many are in state pens for dug offenses.

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