The investigative article by Tom Robbins A Brutal Beating Wakes Attica’s Ghosts is a poignant piece that struck a chord with me. After graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1976, I taught a writing workshop inside Attica Prison for three years. It was and is a defining moment in my life. All of the truths—the “slow downs” the beatings, the lock-ups in “the box” are what I remember, but most of all the men--many of whom (in my class) were imprisoned for drug offenses under Rockefeller's old drug laws. Robbins’ article is an accurate depiction of the men who are imprisoned there and the men who guard them.
And as others have noted, even after all these years not much has changed there. It is difficult for me not to remember my time inside Attica without remembering the small details: the plastic wood they used to cover up the bullet holes, the stone coldness of the place—a sense of entering a huge stone cathedral with low ceilings. Unlike the breadth and depth one feels inside the old cathedrals of Italy—Attica made you feel small, dwarfed, channeled into a series of corridors and entrances. Even the entrance was chopped up, confused, disorienting. The front gate guards calling out one coming in.
This winter had the feeling of the first winter I spent there, 1976/77, when for over two months there were no programs going in because of the weather. Some of the men in my workshop had been in the riot.
Attica was a wake up for me because some of the men in my class were VietNam vets and as I was driving back home one night in the snow—I realized (naively) that the brothers who I had known in my Marine combat engineer outfit in VietNam (40% black and latino) had different homecomings than I had had. They graduated into the prison system—and unlike me had not gone to college and graduate school. Perhaps my workshop gave me that window too—my first real homecoming from the war was at Attica Prison. I felt at home inside Attica because I could tell I didn’t have to lie about anything with the men in my class. Attica’s isolation—the landscape of a snowbound, desolate American Gulag still haunts us.
Gerald McCarthy, Nyack, New York. (firstname.lastname@example.org)