Forty-five years ago, I was a member of the Attica Observers Committee during the historic uprisings at Attica State Prison. These riots were organized by incarcerated people who demanded basic rights and more humane prison conditions. I was called to help them peacefully negotiate with prison officials, but it soon became violent when the state responded with tear gas and guns.
I remember walking into the Attica Prison yard with two formerly incarcerated men from The Fortune Society and sensing the danger of the situation. We felt anger in the air as we saw state troopers with rifles and witnessed guards yelling racial insults at the rioters. I feared that we wouldn’t survive the weekend.
In the end, 43 people died. With the large number of unidentified bodies and wounded people, Fortune set up a phone bank and called the families of people who had been injured or killed. We also organized a procession and burial for men whose bodies were unclaimed.
Last week, I shared these experiences at Attica: Then and Now, which Fortune hosted to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the riots. At this event, I joined four other panelists in discussing the significance of the Attica riots today. Two of these panelists were at Attica during the riots—one of them had been shot twice. They kept the legacy of Attica alive for the audience through their inspiring stories.
When I spoke about the riots, I wanted people to see the importance of staying out of prison and avoiding situations that might lead to criminal justice system involvement. As the Attica riots showed, this is a system that does not treat people with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Attica: Then and Now also symbolized the important role that Fortune has played in the history of fixing a broken criminal justice system. For almost 50 years, we have provided clients with the resources to rebuild their lives, preventing them from experiencing the same inhumane prison conditions that caused the Attica uprisings.
Our Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) program has allowed hundreds of people to avoid serving long prison sentences. Through services ranging from housing to employment, we have also helped thousands of other clients rebuild their lives instead of continuously experiencing the abuses that occur within America’s jails and prisons every day. The David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy has advocated for policies that would increase the rights of all incarcerated people and improve their living conditions.
Fortune’s work shows that the lessons of Attica continue to affect us today. These lessons are especially important during an age when there are still over 2.2 million people incarcerated in America’s jails and prisons. Many of these individuals live in the same conditions that sparked the uprisings 45 years ago. While the Attica riots created public awareness about prison abuses and paved the way for reform, there is still much more that needs to be done.
In light of the 45th anniversary of the Attica riots, we must reflect on the milestones they set as well as the challenges that lay ahead of us. It is crucial that we keep the legacy of Attica alive by fighting for the dignity and rights of all incarcerated people. Through our advocacy and services, Fortune will build on the foundations set by the Attica riots and continue to play a crucial role in the creation of a fair, humane, and rehabilitative correctional system.