Postcard #25. Ghosts

Last night I came home to find the 1980 TV Movie, Attica showing on TV so I thought I’d repost my original blog on my visit to Attica in 2012.

attica_morgan freeman

Attica Prison
New York State, March 2012

Some notes on Attica:

Foucault’s trip to Attica was the first time he set foot inside a prison. He visited Attica in early 1972, about a year after the riots in 1971. At that time, the GIP work was well underway. Yet, it is perhaps this trip that constitutes a major turning point in Foucault’s conception of power. In his 1971 lectures, Foucault still adheres to an understanding of power as essentially repressive. His expectation prior to visiting Attica was that the prison was an essentially exclusionary apparatus.

Today the prison still operates under the shadow of riots of 71 during which 39 people died – many of the prison guards were killed by state troopers storming the building. The disciplinary measures operating throughout the prison embody the idea not simply that where there is power, there is resistance but, rather, where there is resistance, there is power. Disciplinary measures emerge as a reaction to new strategies and tactics of resistance. The C.O’s are inculcated into the art of drug smuggling by the prisoners.

Attica houses some of the most dangerous prisoners in the U.S. Prisoners are sent to Attica from other prisons and were described by the C.O. showing us around as ‘bad’ and ‘incorrigible.’ Rehabilitation is not an objective it seems both in Attica and throughout the U.S. penal system. Which raises questions about the role and value of the various work and education programmes offered to the inmates. Excess bodies which must be managed.

The prison industry

There was something eerily Fordist about the whole establishment both in the work being done by the prisoners but also in the attitude of the guards. When asked what the most rewarding aspect of his job was, the C.O. told us, with no irony, that it was ‘getting to leave at 3 every afternoon’. The guards like the prisoners are caught up in the disciplinary space of the prison in which everyone has a place and everyone know it.

On arriving at Attica at 8am in the morning – the first thing that is striking is the number of cars parked outside. Visiting hours were not yet under way and the visitors parking area is relatively small compared to the huge number of SUVs and other vehicles, all of which belong to staff working in the prison. There are 2200 prisoners, 500 guards and about 300 other members of staff.

However, we were told by the C.O. that the prisoners do much of the work needed in the prison themselves. The prison was spotless, prisoners do all the gardening and cooking. There is a metal work shop which produces large metal cabinets mostly for use, I gather, in industrial and public institutions like hospitals and schools. The C.O. told us that due to union labour laws, many organisations refuse or are not allowed to buy items produced in prisons (prisoners get paid 60c a day to be in prison). To get round these laws, parts are sent out to be assembled elsewhere then sold. The C.O. was unapologetic about this – from his perspective, the prison needs to be financially viable and has been hit by the recession like all manufacturing. Yet, at the same time, how is it possible to justify what is essentially slave labour. The obvious answer would seem to be the experience and skills the prisoners are acquiring which should help them gain employment when they leave prison. But, here, we were told that rehabilitation is not the aim. Programmes in the prison whether education or work-based are seen as a means of keeping prisoners busy and situated in the complex system of privileges that can be taken away for any form of bad behaviour. Moreover, the sight of a manufacturing production line is something becoming increasingly rare throughout the U.S. so rehabilitation aside, it is unlikely that once outside, those working in the metalwork shop will find comparable employment.

The dismissal of any lasting value to the programmes offered in the prison by the C.O. also attests to a certain ideology running throughout U.S. society. Prisoners cannot be seen to be benefiting from their time in prison or using it to give themselves any sort of competitive advantage. The tax-paying public resent the idea of any form of assistance which might actually help people improve their situation because that would, in turn, threaten the privileged position of those ‘providing’ the assistance. So, while many universities offer degree programmes to prisoners, these are not something the universities promote or even mention. The fear is that the wealthy parents of their regular students, will object to paying for the children to obtain the same piece of paper as someone in prison – who gets it for free. In order to maintain these programmes they cannot be spoken even amongst faculty members which obviously prevents newer members of staff getting involved.

Knowledge is not always power

The layout of Attica is deliberately disorientating. There are no markings in the corridors between blocks and they are all decorated the same. This is so that a prisoner who somehow gets out of his block cannot easily find his way around – this is especially true in the case that chemical deterrents (probably tear gas) are released due to an incident.

The only point where one can get an overview of the prison is by ascending the watchtower immediately above Times Square (the central point in the prison and the only way to get from one block to another, everything has to go via Times Square). The view from the bridge at the top looks out onto all 4 yard areas. All the yards are marked with a series of numbers. The first indicates the cell numbers so if anything gets passed out of windows, it is easy to identify which cell they have come from. Around all the walls are stone tables with numbers on the sides and top so they can be seen from different watch towers. If anything suspicious is going down, the guards can use the table numbers as point of reference.

However, there are no surveillance cameras overlooking the yard and limited CCTV throughout the prison (if at all) – the C.O. told us that this was a good thing since CCTV footage was only ever used to incriminate guards.

He also acknowledged the different systems of knowledge circulating in Attica. When a new prisoner arrived – within hours, all the other prisoners would be aware of this and know exactly why he was there. If something kicked off in one block, prisoners in every block would know why. Yet, they are forbidden from talking in the hallways and everywhere we went was eerily quiet. The guards deliberately deny rather than try to harness such knowledge so it cannot be used as a bargaining tool. They also do not want to know why a prisoner is there – this makes dealing with all prisoners equally much easier.

The shadow of the riots

The whole system at Attica is intended to produce docile bodies. We passed numerous prisoners in the hallway who not only didn’t speak but also didn’t make any form of eye contact since they can get written up for this. There were a series of yellow lines marked in the hallways but also in communal areas like the workshop – prisoners would stop and wait behind these until instructed to do otherwise as if obeying a complex traffic system.

Today, if a prisoner kicks off it is usually a response to some immediate deprivation like no ketchup. The C.O. lamented the days when prisoners would think more strategically, even organise their resistance. In the 80s, prisoners would freak out the guards by eating in silence in the mess hall. Now, there is no organisation, no solidarity, no long-term strategy either for resistance or improved conditions. The C.O. both blamed and thanked crack for this. His job is easier but he seems to respect the prisoners (and perhaps as a consequence his role in managing them) less.

Special Housing Unit


The Special Housing Unit (SHU) is a variation on the supermax. It was the only part of the prison we weren’t shown. Apparently, there are some issues with shit slinging. The C.O. deemed this an example of the loss of all humanity – I wondered how individuals got to the point where this was the only option – the only possibility of having some sort of agency or impact on their environment. Prisoners in SHU spend about 23 hours a day locked up with no contact with anyone, bar the  absolute minimum needed to serve them meals etc. They spend about an hour a day in individual exercise pens. We were shown some of these for the less problematic prisoners who nevertheless couldnt be trusted to be in the yard with everyone else. The fences of these enclosures had been topped off with barbed wire to prevent cage fights.

John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, is also housed in SHU – not for disciplinary reasons but because this is the only place he is safe – not even the protective unit (for snitches and bitches) is deemed secure enough. Apparently, he is in charge of the law library.

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