by Karima Amin
Every year in September, the monthly meeting of Prisoners Are People Too, Inc. is devoted to commemorating the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971, the deadliest prison uprising in US history. Although this event is frequently referred to as a “riot,” it was no “riot.” It was a “rebellion,” an uprising that left 29 prisoners and 10 hostages dead, massacred by NY State Troopers, deployed by then governor Nelson Rockefeller. The prisoners had tried to make their frustrations known, hoping to have them addressed through proper “official” channels but letters and grievance forms were ignored. Their demands listed the need for improved medical care, better food and clothing, and opportunities for education. The prison was extremely overcrowded and prisoners were denied certain basic sanitation needs, being relegated to one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper per month. Conditions were inhumane and blatantly racist, with a prison population that was 60 % Black and Brown living under the thumb of an all-white cadre of prison guards.
History books tell many different stories about the rebellion. Our past programs have featured films and guest speakers that have helped us to understand what happened at Attica forty-three years ago. At our next monthly meeting, guest speaker, Tina Saunders, will tell us about a program that she has been conducting for more than 10 years, taking children into Attica State Prison to listen to prisoners talk about life at Attica and what brought them there. They also talk to the children about staying in school and striving to be good citizens in their communities. Ms. Saunders is the director of “No More Tears,” a Youth Intervention Project of Back–to-Basics Outreach Ministries. Once or twice per month, Tina brings young people, ages 13 and older, face-to-face with prisoners who are on Honor Block. Their words resonate with youth who are dealing with crime generative factors everyday, poverty, racism, mis-education, drugs, and more. The youth listen to men who understand what they are dealing with because they have experienced the same. They also learn that prison is no place to aspire to. Attica, a maximum-security supermax, is little better than it was forty-three years ago. According to the NYS Correctional Association, Attica is defined, in part, by “…alarming rates of physical and sexual abuse, coupled with a deeply entrenched atmosphere of hostility, and a blatant disregard for human dignity….”
Several of our past programs have highlighted the “school to prison pipeline.” Tina Saunders understand how real the pipeline is and she is doing her part to dismantle it by giving children an eye-opening opportunity to talk to incarcerated men who might be in a better place if they had made better choices.
On September 9, 2014, a dedicated contingent of community partners convinced Erie County Jail Management of the need and value of implementing restorative justice practices, through peace circles and restorative justice conferencing at the Erie County Correctional Facility and the Erie County Holding Center. The community was represented by BaBa Eng (Program Director of Prisoners Are People Too, Inc.), Pastor James Giles (Executive Director of Back to Basics Outreach Ministries, Inc.), Pastor Dan Schifeling (retired Pastor of the Church of the Nativity-UCC), and Michael Okinczyc (Lead Community Organizer of VOICE-Buffalo). Superintendent Thomas Diina and Chief John Rodriguez represented Erie County Jail Management. After two requests for a meeting to discuss the possibilities of using restorative practices to effectively reduce violence, conflict, and tensions in our Erie County jails, and much work with all of our partners in the “Open Buffalo” initiative, Jail Management agreed to allow for the implementation of restorative justice practices at the Erie County Correctional Facility beginning with our youth, starting October 1. Eventually, such practices will extend to the holding center and those confined will begin to use their time in positive, productive, and meaningful ways, to help themselves, their families, and their communities. Restorative Justice practices will also aid staff and management in improving conditions at our county jails.
As Buffalo moves forward with its “Open Buffalo” initiative this agreement is historic. BaBa Eng has just been given the title of Restorative Justice Developer. He says, “I am honored to work with partners who have never wavered in their strong, consistent, collaborative efforts to make Restorative Justice in the jails and our community a reality.”
Our next meeting will be on Monday, September 29, 2014 at 7:00-9:00pm at the Pratt-Willert Community Center, 422 Pratt Street in Buffalo. The Circle of Supporters for Reformed Offenders and Friends of BaBa Eng are the sponsors of this program. For further information, contact Karima Amin or BaBa Eng at 716-834-8438 or firstname.lastname@example.org or BaBa at email@example.com.
“God has not called us to see through each other, but to see each other through.” (Anonymous)