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“Inside Kingston Penitentiary – Ten Years After Canada’s Most Infamous Prison Riot,” Saturday Night. September 1981. Pages 34 & 35.

Part onePart two.

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TERRY Decker, Thirty-Six, Was Attacked and Taken Hostage During The 1971 riot. ‘First they moved us into an air duct. They kept us there for a couple of hours. Then they started locking us away, three to a cell. They made us take off our uniforms and put on inmate clothing. They figured there wouldn’t be any trouble if the people outside didn’t know who was an inmate and who wasn’t. They moved us every couple of hours from one range to another. I don’t know if they did it to confuse our guys, or the inmates who might have wanted to get at us.’

The hostages were treated with an unpredictable mixture of violence and consideration. ‘I was punched pretty good,’ says Decker. ‘They flattened a disc in my back and burst a blood vessel in my eyeball.’ At the same time, he and the other hostages were given double rations. ‘If the inmates got one sandwich, we got two. And tobacco – we had more than we could ever have smoked. I have no complaints there.’ Decker was released as a show of good faith during the negotiations. He’d been held for forty hours. ‘As I was coming out, one lifer said to me, ‘It pays not to be a dog, eh?’

Four months after the incident, he returned to work. He required extensive physiotherapy and cortisone shots in the spine, but since 1973 his health has been sound. Of the six guards held hostage, Decker is the only one who still works in security – he’s now at Collins Bay penitentiary. Two of the hostages have died; one quit; one took a medical pension; one works as a groundskeeper at Millhaven. Only a portion of the prison has been restored. Several ranges have never been reopened, and the top two tiers of the functioning ranges remain sealed off. Prior to posing for this photograph, Decker had not set foot in the part of the prison where he was held hostage since the riot ten years ago. ‘I was in fear for my life all the time.’

‘THERE’S No Call For This Trade Outside,’ Says The Instructor In the Mail bag repair shop, where these inmates were photographed during a coffee break, ‘but it helps the guys do their time and provides a few dollars for upkeep.’ Last year inmates in the shop repaired five thousand bags a week. The penitentiary earns a dollar for each mailbag it repairs, but eighty four cents goes to materials. Work programmes at Kingston – like hobby and recreational activities – are curtailed by outdated facilities. The only work of rehabilitative value is data processing. Inmates are coding the records of the National Museum of Science and Technology into computer banks. ‘We’re going to get a lot more terminals,’ says Andrew Graham, the warden. ‘It’s a popular programme, and it’s a skill that’s very much in demand on the street.’

Inmates used to be paid a pittance. Last May, however, the federal pay scale was revised to coincide with civilian minimum wage rates, less the eighty-five percent of income that Statisticcs Canada calculates a single man would spend on food, lodging, and clothes. Depending on the nature of his work, a prisoner in a federal institution came between $3.15 and $5.90 a day in maximum security, $3.70 and $6.45 in medium, and $4.80 and $7.55 in minimum. Twenty-five per cent of his pay is withheld as compulsory savings. An inmate serving a lengthy sentence now has the opportunity of returning to civilian life with a few thousand dollars, rather than a few hundred.

There are good reasons for the graduate pay scale. The first is the cost of incarceration. To keep an inmate in maximum security costs $35,800 a year, versus $22,600 for medium security and $18,400 for minimum. (In a community correctional centre – where inmates work at civilian jobs and return to custody each night – the cost is $11,500. The cost of parole is $1,600 a year.) The graduated pay scale also encourages inmates to behave well in order to qualify for an institution with a lower security rating – and a higher pay scale.

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“Inside Kingston Penitentiary – Ten Years After Canada’s Most Infamous Prison Riot,” Saturday Night. September 1981. Pages 32 & 33.


Part one. Part three.
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‘THE Cells Are Opened at 7 In the Morning,’ Says An Inmate Sentenced To life. ‘Breakfast is at 7.30. You go the kitchen by ranges, then back to your cell with your tray. You’re locked in with your food until 8 while the medication trolley comes around. From 8 to 11 you work. Back to your cell at 11, lunch and maybe a sleep until 1, then back to work until 3:30. Supper, until 6. After supper, you can be out on the range, playing cards or watching TV. Or you can go to the exercise yard in summer, the gym in winter. Lockup is 11 o’clock. Day after day. Month after month. Year after year.’

Routine, repetition, numbing boredom. The inmate’s lot is grim; but less so than it once was. One of the major reforms of the past decade is a programme of family visits. At present these are restricted to maximum-security institutions (whose inmates are ineligible for the termporary absences available to medium- and minimum-security inmates), although they may soon be extended to medium-security prisons. The programme was introduced last year at Millhaven, where a white mobile home stands inside the security fences. There is a small fenced yard for children, with swings and a teeter-totter. The authorities provide food and other necessities. The purpose of the programme, an official explains, is ‘to keep the family together, to maintain some continuity so the inmate’s got something to go back to. It’s not to dangle a carrot for good behaviour. It’s not even to cut down on homosexuality in the institution – those are side effects.’ A similar programme was started in Attica in New York State three years ago. ‘It’s early to make any sweeping statements,’ says the official, ‘but the people there the recividism among the men who got visits is way, way down.’

At Kingston, there is no programme of conjugal visits. Inmate’s contact with family and friends consists of letters and supervised visits. The inmate above asked to be photographed so that his girlfriend could have his picture.

WITH Waxed Moustached, Medal Ribbons, and Military Bearing, Tom Rathwell, the supervising keeper (or head guard) at Kingston, appears as anachronistic as the penitentiary itself. In fact, he is respected – even liked – by virtually all the inmates. ‘I don’t know who they’ll get when he goes on retirement,’ says a bank robber. ‘I mean, he’s a man you can trust. I remember one time we had a sit-down strike in the gym. The guys wanted to kill the warden – they had iron bars and they were ugly. Then, after a day-and-a-half, the door opened – boom! – and in walked Tom Rathwell, right in among us. He went around to all the ringleaders and wagged a finger under their noses – ‘This is your doing, don’t think I don’t know that.’ He made them feel like kids. After that, we all caved in.’

A veteran of the Second World War, Rathwell, sixty-one, joined the penitentiary service in 1947. Except for a few months at Millhaven, he has spent his entire career at Kingston. ‘Things were much tougher before ‘71,’ he says. ‘Everything was very military. Men marched everywhere in lines, they weren’t allowed to dress sloppily, they had to be very polite with the guards. If they called you by your first name, you were supposed to charge them. It didn’t help. You can’t treat people like that. I try to be straight with them. If they ask about their parole, or what their chances are of a move, and I don’t think they have a hope, I tell them. If you say, ‘That’s up to the classification officers,’ it just makes them mad.’

A Kingston inmate handed a note to the photographer and asked that it be given to the writer. The note reads, ‘While speaking with Mr. Rathwell the other day he made a comment which I thought worth passing on to you. He seldom uses bad language, but this is what he said: ‘They told me when I started here thirty-four years ago to treat all prisoners alike. It was bullshit then and it’s bullshit now.’

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Expanding the Carceral State
While the federal government was no more willing to step into state prisons on behalf of Muslim prisoners than it was in Albany, Georgia, on behalf of nonviolent protestors, the activism of the Muslim Brotherhood continued to receive attention from the state capital in Albany, New York. The writ-writing campaigns of prisoners had helped prompt a national response and the attention of the courts, but it also caused an arm of the state to reach deep into incarcerated communities. Wardens and state corrections officers authorized prison surveillance and, in some cases, even dedicated a staff member to internal supervision of the Nation of Islam. This surveillance was meant not only to absorb and report but also to disrupt and subvert. It also provided the raw material for state knowledge production that could quell prison activism. Prison officials soon emerged as arbiters of religious orthodoxy, determining who and what constituted legitimate Muslim practice.

As they looked to Muslim religious practices such as eating, prayer, and use of Arabic for markers of identity and political agitation, prisoners turned to informal strategies of daily resistance to combat state intrusions. Through its intervention, the state also assigned political meaning to religious practice, further politicizing incarceration and the practice of Islam within prison walls. State surveillance began with prison officers, who had the most daily contact with prisoners. One institution devoted an officer to keeping a list of all active members, searching their cells, and confiscating any literature relating to the Nation of Islam. Seizing materials slowed the spread of conversions and were a source for state intelligence. An area of concern was prisoners’ use of Arabic. The language not only served a cultural and religious function but also flummoxed prison security. For example, Bratcher gave specific instructions in his letter to Malcolm X: his mother would write him of the minister’s reply in red

ink with “three lines of Al-Fatihab” (referring to Al-Fatiha, the first surah in the Qur’an). One state report noted that it “would seem doubtful if the majority of the prisoners can rea[d] and write Arabic but if notes are picked up that seem to contain no meaning maybe they would bear investigating.” Several months later, six pages of Arabic to English and English to Arabic translation were confiscated. 

Another surveillance strategy that relied heavily on prison officers was the scrutiny of Muslim eating habits. The refusal to eat pork in prisons recalls Malcolm X’s own imprisonment in the late 1940s when he and other prisoners protested its prevalence in prison diets. At Attica Prison, Bratcher wrote to Warden Walter Wilkins asking for permission to carry food from the mess hall to his cell so he and other Muslim prisoners could eat after sundown during Ramadan. One prisoner was even charged with wasting state food for throwing away his bacon and refusing to eat it. Daily political acts such as throwing away bacon even escalated to more formal strikes. In Milan, Michigan, where Elijah Muhammad had once been incarcerated for draft resistance, prisoners took part in a three day hunger strike against pork, which eventually resulted in Muslim-prepared food and a separate dining section. 

These actions were challenged by prison officials who quickly seized on dietary restrictions as a way to monitor and challenge the legitimacy of a prisoner’s religious beliefs. “In order to check the authenticity of the Muslims,” Woodward’s memo noted, “each officer has been required to submit to the principal keeper’s office a report on whether or not the particular prisoner in question is eating pork. The members who are eating pork will be … included in next month’s report.” Another institution itemized prisoners’ eating when pork was served in the mess hall: “Of the above total [of 70], 30 prisoners either refused their ration or gave it to another prisoner, and additional 16 prisoners took their ration to their cells and only two were actually observed fasting.” By monitoring prisoners’ eating, writings, and literature, prison officers acted as foot soldiers in the state’s surveillance of the Nation of Islam. 

From this narrow base of day-to-day surveillance, reports on Muslims in prison also radiated outward to the state and federal levels. The success of the NOI’s organized prison litigation continued to trouble prison officials. The first to present on the NOI at the ACA’s annual conference was the noted penologist Donald Clemmer, who authored his foundational study The Prison Community in 1940. By 1963, topics such as “The Black Muslims and Religious Freedom in Prison” and “The Black Muslim in Prison: A Personality Study” surfaced at the conference. The academic communities of penology and criminology emerged as part of the state’s developing knowledge production about the NOI. 

The 1960s also marked a shift from rehabilitative strategies to psychological warfare and new technologies of violence, and Muslim prisoners were often the first subjected to these new experimental practices. As Alan Gómez notes, bibliotherapy was replaced with isolation, sensory deprivation, and brainwashing; Muslim prison litigation helped “propel this shift.” Edgar Schein, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented a paper in 1961 to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons entitled “Man against Man: Brainwashing.” Bertra S. Brown of the National Institute of Mental Health responded by contacting prison administrators and suggesting that they “do things perhaps on your own—undertake a little experiment of what you can do with Muslims.” As Gómez persuasively argues, the ascension of Control Units, Special Housing Units, and Adjustment Centers, were all outgrowths of the experimental use of excessive solitary confinement by prison officials during the late 1950s and early 1960s. These punishments and techniques, he concluded, were “initially experimented with on Muslim inmates [but] later used en masse on political activists [and] became the model for the entire prison regime.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 90-93.

Photos are from Ann Arbor Times, September 6, 1966.

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“‘Super Max’ – It’s a solitary life of misery for convicts in special unit,” Globe and Mail. September 12, 1980. Page 05.

By VICTOR MALAREK

One at a time a few extremely dangerous convicts trudge out of their cells to exercise by themselves for an hour.

They are being punished, and for about a month their life will be sheer misery in a prison within a prison because they have no physical contact with other prisoners or with their keepers.

But their woes will not end after those 30-odds days of strict solitary confinement. Then they start a long stretch of living under intense security, segregated from the rest of the prisoners.

Their world will revolve around a tiny cell constructed completely of steel, cramped recreation areas that are monitored by cameras and close contact with prisoners, who like themselves, are some of the most violent criminals in the country.

Their world is known as the special handling unit or ‘special max.’ There are only two in Canada – one at Millhaven penitentiary in Bath, Ont., and the other at the correctional development centre in Laval, Que.

According to Millhaven’s warden, John Ryan, the units are used to protect prison society from those convicts who are bent on using violence on both the guards and fellow prisoners.

Rehabilitative value is nonexistent
Until a few weeks ago, the total population at the two units was about 50. That figure got a sudden spurt of new blood as nine inmates, who took part in the hostage-taking incident at Laval penitentiary in Quebec, were transferred to the unit at the Laval centre.

Criminologists, psychologists and prisoners alike maintain that the units have no rehabilitative value.

Pierre Landreville, a professor of criminology at the University of Montreal, said the way the units are run ‘right now, they are inhuman. I think I would have to say their only function is to break the spirit.’

But he added that he thought the units are necessary because ‘some of these people are quite dangerous.’

Fred Sweet, chairman of the prisoners’ committee at Millhaven, said in a recent interview at the penitentiary that the units should be eliminated.

‘Some of the guys they (the administrations) put into SHU are potentially dangerous convicts, but once they’re put in, you remove the potential and then they are dangerous,’ Mr. Sweet said, pounding his clenched fist – the letters F, R, E, and D tattooed on his knuckles – on a bare wooden table.

Bryan Reynolds, a 29-year-old convict serving life for murder at Millhaven, described the unit as ‘a breeding ground for violent animals.’

‘Think of living in a room the size of a toilet (bathroom) day after day after day for months on end, only the cell is worse than a…doghouse. You’d get charged by the humane society for treating dogs the way convicts are treated in SHU,’ Mr. Reynolds said angrily. He has spent nine months in the unit.

Mr. Sweet maintained that if the prisoners were treated with ‘human dignity in the first place, SHU would not be necessary.’

Dragan Cernetic, former warden of the British Columbia penitentiary, who now works in operations at Correctional Service of Canada headquarters in Ottawa, hotly defended the units in a recent interview.

‘There are only two ways you can deal with violent inmates. You can impose stringent security on, the whole prison population or you can segregate three or four of the trouble-makers in a place where they can…rot as far as I’m concerned.’

Mr. Cernetic said the kind of convict he would recommend for incarceration in a special handling unit ‘is a man who I could not take home for dinner and feel safe with him.’

On a recent tour of the unit at Millhaven rarely given to outsiders, David Page, the officer in charge of the unit, tersely described the living conditions.

‘All the cells have been completely converted to steel. A steel desk, steel walls, steels sinks, and steel toilets. All the steel is painted. The beds are bolted to the walls.’

During the visit, the convicts were locked in their cells behind massive steel doors. Lunch was being passed to them through a hole in the middle of the door. Intense security was ever present through a maze of electronically controlled steel portals.

Every movement outside the cells is closely monitored either visually or by television cameras. Guards patrol the cell block about every 45 minutes when the men are locked in their cells and peep through a tiny glass opening in the doors to ensure nothing is amiss.

Red panic buttons, in case of trouble, prominently protrude from the walls in every cubicle in the ranges.

One hour a day to exercise alone
On the Phase I block, the tightest security area, a convict’s wiry hand jutted out of a hole in the door where meals are passed. Another prisoner yelled for a guard. ‘Can you come here for a mine. It’s important. I want to discuss my welfare.’

In Phase I, Mr. Page said, inmates get out of their cells one at a time for only an hour a day to exercise.

Conditions improve as the prisoners graduate to Phase 2 and 3, where periods outside the cells and contact with inmates is increased to a little more than six and eight hours a day respectively.

It’s in those latter phases, ‘other than the fact that their movement is contained, the prisoners are a lot better off in some cases than the other inmates. The other inmates don’t have television in their cells,’ Mr. Page said.

A couple of cells have been converted into recreation rooms and mini-gyms where inmates can either play guitars, listen to music or pound out their frustrations on a heavy punching bag.

Inmates can also go outside occassionally to a yard aptly referred to by the guards and prisoners as a ‘cloister.’ They get movies twice a week.

James Hayes, a psychologist at Millhaven, said that sicne the program was started at the penitentiary ‘we’ve had no returnees. The recidivism rate is nil.

Mr. Hayes said that ‘the inmates knows very clearly what he has to do to get his release back to the normal prison population.’

The operative word is co-operation. Inmates must not be mouthy to the guards and must show they can get along with their fellow inmates in the unit.

No limit is placed on the number of visits by family members to inmates in the unit, but the convict and visitor are separated by a cage, glass and screens.

‘The visits are inhuman,’ said Mr. Sweet. ‘The prisoner sits in a cage while he visits with his family. It’s degrading.’

Of his stay in the unit, Mr. Reynolds said the intense security ‘bothers you at first but you get used to it…We’re human beings. What they’re doing in SHU is illegal…(It) is morally illegal because it is cruel and unusual punishment.’

Frank Steel, a member of the three-man board at the Correctional Service of Canada in Ottawa that decides who goes into units, said inmates who take hostages during an escape attempt are almost automatically sent there.

Other infractions leading to an incarceration are murder or or assault on a prison guard or another convict.

‘SHU candidates are those who are determined to be dangerous…inmates perceived to be particularly violent while under sentence,’ Mr. Steel said.

Confinement in the units is relatively free of bureaucratic red tape. A warden holds an in-penitentiary review of the cases and makes a recommendation that goes to regional headquarters and then to the special handling unit in Ottawa.

The board is made up of the deputy comminisioner of security, the head of offender programs and the director-general of medical services.

‘Once we recommend SHU, the case is reviewed monthly at the institution and every six months at national headquarters. Every six months we go to the SHUs and interview those inmates who wish to be interviewed. Usually they all want to be interviewed,’ Mr. Steel said.

Cases reviewed every month
‘We talk about thee progress he’s been making and sometimes give him an indication of when he can expect to be released to the normal population. Our biggest complaint (from the inmates) is the perceived capriciousness of the system and the uncertainty of when an inmate can expect to be released.’

The average stay in the unit is between 18 months and two years, Mr. Steel said.

One convict, who was involved the hostage-taking incident at the B.C. Penitentiary in June, 1975, in which Mary Steinhauser, a classification officer, was killed by prison guards, was released last June from the Millhaven unit.

Paul Caouette, executive secretary of the Union of Solicitor-General Employees, vehemently defended the use of the units, ‘especially when it involves the safety of the guards.’

Mr. Caouette warned that if politicians ever fell to the demands of prisoners’ rights groups of convicts to ban the units, they would see a rapid dwindling in the number of guards.

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“Over the last year, I have been conducting a piece of research in Close Supervision Centres – the units within high security prisons that hold prisoners too dangerous or difficult to manage to be held elsewhere in the prison system. In the course of this project, I have spent a lot of time during long lunch hours sitting in staff rooms, writing up notes and eating sandwiches while officers take their break. I have watched quite a lot of episodes of Storage Hunters and Bargain Hunt, and taken part in some long discussions about holidays, Brexit, Donald Trump and the best kind of domestic vacuum cleaner. Officers have sometimes asked me about my life, but rarely about my research. Sometimes they have asked me very little, preferring to sleep, zone out in front of the television or discuss the internal politics of the prison. This is their back-stage, and I feel quite conflicted about whether it is a legitimate source of data.

In these ambiguous research zones, officers have also talked about prisoners, sometimes sympathising with their situations and showing insight into their lives, but more often sounding off, using language that is sometimes very distasteful. Prisoners have been routinely described as ‘dickheads’, ‘shitbags’ and ‘fruitloops’. In these situations, officers have been at pains to emphasise to me that this kind of venting is not to be taken at face value, and is the same kind of ‘gallows humour’ that is found among almost all frontline occupational groups. This is something that I can understand and appreciate, particularly in this very extreme and intense part of the prison system, while at the same time it strikes me that the things that we say but don’t quite mean still mean something. The hard part is knowing exactly what that something is, and whether it needs the kind of direct confirmation that, as researchers, we often seek out.

The most illuminating lunchtime discussions have been about matters such as care, trust and authenticity. One day, sitting on institutional chairs on the wing, I started a conversation with one officer, Graham, about whether he cared about the prisoners on the unit. He was slightly ‘old-school’, someone for whom the language of care did not come very naturally, but who prisoners regarded as ‘a do-er’, someone who – to draw on Sarah Tait’s (2011) work in this area – delivered ‘care on the side’ through his reliability and professional commitment. What he cared about, he explained, was his colleagues and the running of the unit. He cared – he said – in the sense that he gave prisoners what they were entitled to, and tried to reduce their complaints. Described in this way, care was somewhat limited and instrumental.

Graham’s comments seemed inconsistent with his behaviour, which, to me, looked – at the very least – like a form of practical care, and often more than this: a recognition of prisoners’ humanity through a commitment to meeting their needs. But Graham did not provide me with the kind of direct expression of this position that a literalist might have wanted.

Over lunch, in the company of several of his colleagues, he took the discussion further. ‘There must be things you want to ask us’, he said. ‘What about the stuff you asked me about earlier?’ And so began a kind of informal focus group about care and compassion. Staff said little initially that I had not heard many times before in discussions of this kind: ‘you develop relationships, but you have to detach a bit’; ‘you can’t let compassion affect your work’, and similar statements. And then one officer revealed that: ‘you do sometimes want to hug prisoners’; that the reason you don’t is that you’ll be the subject of security information reports, or because of what the prisoner will then think. But once she had hugged a prisoner who was dying: ‘I thought “sod the rules”’, she said; ‘it was human to human’. This was a unit in which officers often challenged each other, and reflected on their and others’ decisions. On this occasion, no-one questioned her sentiments, but nor did they support her. The silence felt like reluctant recognition that care was there, somewhere, and it was okay.

In the fieldnotes that I completed later that day, I wrote the following:

‘The fact that it was initiated by Graham was not coincidental, I think. I wonder if it had played on his mind after I talked to him about it on the wing. The conversation was held without bluster … I think the staff were genuinely thinking through their own behaviour. It is taboo, to some degree, to say you care for prisoners, but they were describing care and I’ve seen them display it in their behaviour too’.

My encounters with ‘trust’ were similar. Uniformed staff reinforced to me that while CSC prisoners could – to quote – be ‘superficially charming …. they’d ‘slash your throat in an instant if they needed to’ … ‘that’s why you can never trust them’. But they clearly trusted prisoners enough to play pool with them, to sit with them drinking tea, to be alone with them in an art workshop, to let me wander about around them; and in all kinds of minor ways, they trusted them sufficiently to do what they said they were going to do. When one prisoner’s laundry needed to be moved to another room, another prisoner – the most litigious and challenging man on the unit – assured the officer that he would inform his friend what had happened. ‘I’ll make sure he’s not suspicious’, he said, and the officer thanked him. This was a rather limited form of trust, but it was trust nonetheless.

At lunchtime, I asked officers if they trusted this particular prisoner more because he had a legalistic mindset, and was therefore a stickler for people doing what they said they would do. Did they see him as a ‘man of his word?’ ‘No’, they said. ‘the golden rule is that you never trust them’. But, in certain ways, it was clear that they did.”

– Ben Crewe, “Asking and Observing in Prison Research.” Border Criminologies blog, Oxford University Faculty of Law, May 4, 2018.

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THE CORRECTIONAL STAFF

 ‘I would say that the system cries out for a program of staff development, and
this can only occur over three, six, nine, twelve years. However, the program of
staff development should be laid down so that an officer who comes in, shall
we say, as a Correctional Officer I and who is prepared to apply himself can
look forward to a career in the Penitentiary Service and perhaps ultimately go
to the very top, one day be the Commissioner of Penitentiaries.“ 

– Allen J.
MacLeod, Former Commissioner of Penitentiaries (25:32). 

‘I have worked in medium, minimum and maximum, and after 10 years of
that you get a little angry and very suspicious at almost anybody." 

– A witness
from the PSAC, Springhill Institution (9:6) 

"One thing that I have against some of the officers, a lot of them, is that they
have disregarded a code of ethics, and I think a code of ethics is something that
should be more strongly proposed in their training program…. We do not get
help from the guards. If there happens to be a guard in this institution who
wants to be a part of some of the programs inside and give a little bit extra of
his own time, then he is ostracized by the rest of the guards." 

– Gwen Cameron,
Spokesperson, Citizen Advisory Committee, Springhill. 

Staff Attitudes

215. The evidence we heard on the position of the custodial staff convinced us
they too are prisoners of the system and bound into the brutal ethic that dominates
bad prisons. Some manage to rise above it; others epitomize it; but the majority are
simply ordinary decent men and women who take the course of least resistance,
living with an oppressive system with little opportunity to do otherwise. In other
words, they behave very much as most people do in unfortunate conditions. 

216. The worst prisons in Canada’s federal system in terms of reprehensible
behaviour by staff are the Millhaven Institution, the British Columbia Penitentiary,
the Correctional Development Centre and the Laval Institution. In these prisons
there have been a series of incidents involving intentional interference with management
responsibilities in an atmosphere of deliberate harassment and brutalization of
inmates. In Millhaven hoodlum staff go further, threatening and assaulting other officers. The offending guards, although a minority at these penitentiaries, are major
contributors to the atmosphere of confrontation which the Sub-Committee found to
exist in them. 

217. Both the Ontario Regional Director and a former Director of Millhaven
Institution indicated their belief that a small group of guards at Millhaven are: 

—harassing inmates; 
—attempting to subvert the authority of the Director by threatening the
withdrawal of services;

—intimidating staff who would not normally be party to either of the two types
of actions mentioned. (38:15)

218. One P.S.A.C. official in the Ontario Region admitted that he personally
had had a problem. He received harassing telephone calls and there was a "rockthrowing
incident”. As a result he had to move his family (21:74). The Sub-Committee
received other confidential information concerning incidents of employee harassment
by fellow employees. 

219. A similar situation exists at the C.D.C. (13:89). 

220. The Sub-Committee even heard evidence concerning guards who have
given known slashers razor blades and taunted them to slash themselves. On occasion
the inmates have done as they were told. At B.C. Penitentiary at least nine inmates
in one range slashed themselves on Christmas Eve 1976 after a guard left two razor
blades in a cell and told them to “have a Merry Christmas and a slashing New
Year”. 

221. To the inmates, the correctional officers are the visible instruments of the
system that keeps them locked into a life, as well as a place, of directionless and
frustrating idleness. These officers are regarded by some prisoners as “fair game” for
continuing insults, abuse, minor physical annoyances and all the other manifestations
of anger in a system with no constructive outlet and few other targets. In the absence
of the stability and self-assurance that come from good training and a sense of
professionalism, this behaviour has become reciprocal, with the staff and inmates
locked into what amounts to an endless and mutually-destructive low-level verbal
and psychological warfare. This often sparks into violence, as happened recently at
the Millhaven, Laval and British Columbia Penitentiaries. It continues over the
months and years, as each side seeks the empty triumph of goading the other into
reprisals. This imposes an almost unendurable strain on everyone in a penitentiary,
whether employed or imprisoned there. More than any other single factor, it diverts
the energies of all concerned away from any goals essential to the self-esteem of both
sides. 

222. Pressure and tension are constant on staff; the fear of making a mistake
which could result in an escape, a hostage-taking situation, or some other form of
violence, is always present. Threats are regularly received by staff—sometimes from
friends of inmates or former inmates sometimes from fellow staff members. Many of
them keep weapons at home and have unlisted telephone numbers. Reported
incidents are rare but those that have occurred were serious. 

223. Shiftwork, overtime and the fear resulting from the presence of ex-inmates
and of inmates’ families in the community affect the social and family life of
penitentiary staff. Boredom, which destroys inmates has its effect on guards, and
may manifest itself in the destruction of equipment or the harassment of inmates.  

224. Staff perceive themselves as having fewer rights than inmates. They
resent the erosion of their power over the inmates. Increased access by outside
groups to the institutions, open visits, Inmate Committees, new programs, the
presence of contraband and generally the lack of discipline and increased freedom of
inmates are seen by correctional officers as causing a deterioration in security. 

225. The self-image of correctional officers is poor. They do not see themselves
as important contributors to penal justice but only as watchmen who contain
men and ensure that they do not escape or do harm. The job provides little
intellectual challenge or sense of achievement. They blame their poor community
image on the media. They resent the perceived lack of management support. They
admit they are ashamed of their jobs. The result is bitterness, low morale, disloyalty,
loss of confidence and loss of pride both in their work and in the Service, which in
turn accelerate the “burning out” of staff.

226. The ultimate weapon of the custodial officers is “security”, and it can
be—and has been—used quite effectively by the staff to demonstrate, not only to the
inmates but also to themselves, that they are the final masters, in physical terms. We
find when matters have gone beyond the unprofessionally narrow limits of tolerance
of the custodial staff, that their response tends to be an insistence on tighter and
more rigid security. When this happens, not only do the work and socialization
programs begin to suffer, but also the prison atmosphere becomes more than usually
oppressive and potentially explosive. The suggestion given by Dragan Cernetic,
former Director of the British Columbia Penitentiary, put an important point
succintly: “security comes first, but inmate programs are more important” (30:158).
It is essential that this perspective prevail in the penitentiary system, although at
present it unfortunately does not. 

227. Custodial officers’ inclination towards solving inmate-staff problems
through increased security measures is often based on a not-unfounded apprehension
for their own safety. They become trapped in a purposeless confrontation with men,
many of whom have demonstrated an inability to control their potential for violence,
and some of whom, like those imprisoned under the new 25-year-no-parole sentences,
may feel they have nothing to lose. In addition, however, to their own safety and
reasonable considerations of control of movement and function, we find that much of
the insistence on increased security stems from other factors; they all have a
cumulative corrosive effect on the penitentiary system. 

228. Security assumes many forms. Sometimes “security considerations”
become the reason why clean laundry is not available to inmates for weeks at a time.
The sudden necessity to count and re-count, while the inmates wait in frustration
and suppressed rage over what appears to be—and often is—intentional harassment,
is another expression of tighter security. Inmates are sometimes awakened every
hour by a custodial officer’s keys or a boot banging on their cell doors on the pretext
of a check that the inmates are present there and alive. There is an extraordinary
disproportion between any realistic evaluation of the probability of escape and the
zeal with which it is guarded against, and the practice is unknown in U.S. federal
institutions. Inmates are also sometimes awakened at night by a staff member
playing with the lights. We also heard evidence of staff at several institutions
delaying meals and occasionally contaminating the food before it was delivered to
inmates. (Inmates have sometimes also contaminated the food of staff members in
the most gross ways when they have had the opportunity.) 

229. We recognize that discretionary power must be conferred on staff to meet
the legitimate security requirements of a penitentiary. Most staff members are
mature and dedicated enough to use their authority for the intended purposes. Some,
however, clearly abuse it. When this happens, there is almost no way the penitentiary
management has been able to obtain reliable information about such abuse and no
effective disciplinary measures exist to correct the situation. There is evidence,
moreover, that management has not always made the necessary effort to investigate
human lawlessness and subversion of the good order of the institutions. This could
reflect their fear of blackmail in some instances, their collusion in others. 

230. On a larger scale, various work and socialization programs are interfered
with for security reasons—or an excuse of security—or are not allowed to be
undertaken as a result of security pressures from the staff union—the Public Service
Alliance of Canada, Solicitor General’s Component. Such programs were stopped in
the fall of 1976, for example, after the disturbances at the Millhaven and British
Columbia Penitentiaries, and were only beginning to be re-instituted four or five
months later, stimulated by the Sub-Committee’s inspections of those institutions.
We should also note that “security problems” arising out of internal tensions
following a major disturbance were cited to us as the justification—which we were
assured was not punitive—for only feeding inmates twice a day. This is
unacceptable. 

231. The inmates of the Correctional Development Centre, mostly drawn from
the suspected rioters at Laval, have been confined to their cells for 23 hours a day or
more, and denied the usual privileges. Such practices are unacceptable. 

232. The variations on these themes are endless. Increased security may
indeed be required at times, but we find that much of what occurs is flavoured with a
heavy dose of self-righteousness on the part of the custodial staff, in almost the same
way as the inmates, on the other side of a deep gulf of mistrust and non-communication,
tend to assume the self-serving posture of innocent victims in a situation for
which they refuse to acknowledge any responsibility. These collateral uses of security
for purposes not reasonably connected with legitimate requirements have about them
all the elements of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once the zone of legitimacy has been
left behind, the demand for escalating security is the surest guarantee that more will
be needed.

 233. Morale is generally low among custodial staff. We attribute this primarily
to a lack of discipline. By “discipline” we do not mean polished buttons and
military creases in the trousers. Rather we refer to the interlocking trust that every
correctional officer must be able to repose in each of the others, reflecting a
confidence that each person, whether peer or superior, will do his duty. True
discipline is a result of professionalism. 

234. The “guards’ code” appears to be just as strong, and just as destructive,
as the “inmates’ code”. Every custodial officer realizes that his safety, his satisfaction
with his work and his success in the conditions in which he finds himself all
depend not only on his own behaviour but also on that of each of his associates. Yet
officers in more than one of our institutions are genuinely apprehensive about
misconduct, troublemaking or ordinary stupidity by their fellow officers—which, in a
prison setting, can be potentially disastrous. Despite this they are under intolerable
pressure not to break the rule of silence that the custodial staff, in their insecure and
embattled insolation have imposed on and tolerate among themselves. If they report
such breaches of discipline, they are likely to find little support from their colleagues,
46
given that all are familiar with the stories of slashed tires, scraped automobile
fenders and doors, telephoned threats and other forms of reprisals against those who
dare place duty above silence. 

235. We find that the impetus for enforcement of, as opposed to acquiescence
in, this “code” resides in a small number of staff at any given institution. This can be
expected in a service in which discipline and morale are so poor that nominal
authority, both with respect to the inmates and among themselves, has been
displaced by the rule of superior physical force.

236. The raison d’être of the Penitentiary Service, which ought to be primarily
defined in terms of the successful re-integration into society of the inmates, is easily
lost sight of by men whose energies must be mainly devoted to self-protection and
survival in what can sometimes only be accurately described as a nerve-racking
jungle. For a custodial officer to try faithfully to adhere to the official policies of the
Canadian Penitentiary Service which, for all their shortcomings, are an attempt to
ensure correctional success, often places him in an intolerable conflict between the
demands of his peers and the needs of the inmates. In this “them or us” situation, the
choice, according to the familiar operations of ordinary human nature, is generally
dictated by immediate self-interest rather than by any long-term or theoretical
concern for the inmates’ eventual return to the community or for the problems that
Canadian society, however imperfectly, is attempting to deal with through its
penitentiary system. 

237. All this can be summarized by saying that a correctional officer, in the
argot of the prison sub-culture, is under extraordinary peer-group pressure to
demonstrate that he is not a “con lover”. In terms of the psychological reality of the
penitentiary, as opposed to the official picture presented by the Penitentiary Service
for public consumption, a correctional officer can only maintain his personal
integrity, self-respect and the respect of his associates by conforming to the group
attitude of militant and belligerent solidarity. 

238. Given that this is almost on the fundamental level of a personal survival
need, the perceived threats to the custodial officers come not only from the inmates
but also from the administrative staff responsible for directing and managing the
penitentiary system and the institution. There are many directives issued from above
that attempt to implement modern penological techniques and approaches aimed at
fostering rehabilitation of inmates. From the point of view of the staff officer in
contact with prisoners, these often are inconsistent with his experience, and are seen
as requiring him to behave in a way that contradicts his own perception of what he
must do in order to function successfully in the bizarre and twisted world in which he
works. Management is therefore no less of an enemy to the correctional staff than
the inmates. 

239. In coping with this problem in particular, the union has become the
primary refuge of the correctional staff. The Solicitor General’s Component of the
Public Service Alliance of Canada is pervaded by a “garrison mentality” that, as we
have tried to show, it would be simplistic to attribute to selfish obstructionism or to
dismiss as something that is intrinsic to trade unionism per se. Like everything else
about the penitentiary system, there are genuine abuses in the Public Service
Alliance, among them questionable voting procedure in some areas, and failure to
perceive and act intelligently on problems that are capable of resolution even under
the present difficult circumstances. Generally speaking, however, the union presents
the only avenue, albeit an inappropriate one in many cases, for some sort of
resolution of the host of problems facing the staff. Union-management struggles,
ranging from threats of strikes and withdrawal of overtime to bellicose resistance to
necessary disciplinary measures, are consequently endemic in Canadian penitentiaries.
As more than one witness told us, the prisoners are the least problem of all—
although the inevitable result of everything that goes on is that they wind up
suffering the most. 

240. Canadian penitentiaries began to be “opened up” several decades ago
with the gradual abandonment of corporal punishment and the rules requiring
silence and extended time in the cells. These reforms also saw the introduction of
programs of work and socialization that were novel, at least in Canada. Superimposing
these new patches on what remained essentially a monolithic old system did not,
unfortunately, succeed in accomplishing the bright hopes of their innovators—men
and women, who, in retrospect, must be regarded as courageous public servants and
political officials. Instead the changes served primarily to require staff and inmates
alike to behave in some ways that were inconsistent with the overwhelming thrust of
our traditional system, without breaking down the core of repression upon which that
system is built. 

241. The results of our first tentative attempts at correctional reform have
therefore fallen between two stools with a consequent untoward impact on correctional
staff. Their role has become confused, and many staff members—particularly
more senior ones—tend to look back at the way things were before the time of
change as some sort of golden age of regimentation in which everyone knew his place
and what was expected of him. We are convinced, however, that the essence of the
present problem is not that we have gone too far, but rather that we attempted to go
as far as we did without giving up the security, such as it was, of a system that
placed almost exclusive reliance on external coercion and superior physical, as
opposed to moral, force. Much of the current union effort is devoted to throwing off
the present stifling web of frustrating ambiguity by reinstituting, both on a person-to-person
and on an institutional level, practices that have been officially abandoned
or condemned by the Canadian Penitentiary Service for a decade. By and large, this
effort has succeeded, and our correctional efforts, as opposed to our custodial
practices, are consequently paralysed in the middle of this union-management
deadlock. 

242. We heard much evidence, tinged with more than a bit of unobjective
nostalgia, about the experience of custodial staff in the pre-reform years when
corporal punishment, “closed” institutions, and the rest of the old ways and the old
certainties existed. As one witness from this era testified, however, the result of such
policies was not only absolute order but also an absolute and settled expectation of
“100 per cent recidivism” (32:5). It is obvious that whatever may have been the
situation in the past, to attempt to deal with the problems facing custodial staff
today by acceding to pressure to turn back the clock would deny any hopes in this
country to achieve a humane and effective correctional system. 

Principle 5 

Ways must be found to enlist the commitment, the reservoir of correctional
expertise, the basic humanity and the capacity of the custodial staff to act as
successful role-models for inmates in a cooperative effort to accomplish the
great tasks that lie ahead for the Canadian Penitentiary Service. 

243. We do not suggest that the custodial staff is the only aspect of the system
that must change. The problem is in fact three-sided, involving staff, management
and prisoners, each of which is separated from the others by entrenched attitudes of
confrontation, mistrust and deep suspicion. These mutual antagonisms stem from
factual causes that can and must be corrected by a significant reform effort involving
all levels of the penitentiary system. Penitentiaries have been subjected to a great
deal of tinkering, which has done more to unsettle matters than to improve them. At
this point, success will only be achieved through a determined, far-reaching and
courageous commitment to fundamental reform. 

244. With respect to inmates, we have already proposed a re-defining of the
purposes for which individuals ought to be imprisoned. This, coupled with an
examination of the criminal justice system as a whole, and in particular, its
sentencing practices, along with further remedial measures we recommend later in
this Report, should do much to remedy problems centred on the attitudes and
behaviour of inmates. Management—the second of the three main elements or
interests in the penitentiary system—is made the subject of appropriate recommendations
in the next chapter of this Report. It is in this context of the need for
constructive response by all concerned that the following proposals with respect to
custodial staff should be understood. 

– Mark MacGuigan, Chairman, Report to Parliament of The Sub-Committee on the Penitentiary System in Canada & Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs. Second Session of the Thirtieth Parliament, 1976-77. pp. 43-49.

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“Among many New York State prisoners, Attica has long been considered the worst maximum security joint to serve time in. Near Buffalo, about 350 miles northwest of New York City, which is home for most prisoners, it’s a haul for families to visit. Seventy-six percent of the 2,026 prisoners are black or Hispanic; the approximately 600 COs are mostly white. The wall, the skies, the mood—they’re all gray, seemingly every day. Stories about setups and beatdown crews have long reverberated throughout the prison system. Over the years, the Correctional Association of New York has documented harrowing tales of harassment, pervasive racism, retaliation against prisoners filing grievances, excessive box time in disciplinary hearings, and more.

But that was before video surveillance came to Attica. By April 2015, cameras were being installed throughout the prison—as of January 2018, there were 1,875 cameras and 915 microphones, according to DOCCS. “The cameras are a valuable tool in the ongoing battle against drugs and contraband in the State’s prisons, as well as an asset in investigations into incidents involving both inmates and staff,” a DOCCS official said, adding that plans were underway for the installation of additional cameras at other state prison facilities.

Cameras at Attica have provided an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability for corrections officers. And they’ve been followed closely by a remarkable occurence: Official reports of assaults on staff have dropped drastically. In 2014, the last year without surveillance, there were 64 assault on staff reports, according to a DOCCS report. The 10-year annual average was 50, and in no year during the period before cameras did the number drop below 30.

From May 2016 to May 2017, as cameras came close to being fully installed, incidents dropped nearly 80 percent from the last year without cameras, to 13. In about this same period, staff reported 40 percent fewer injuries than the previous year.

According to DOCCS, the decline of assaults on staff can be attributed in part to the cameras but also to several other recent initiatives, including additional training for security staff, de-escalation tactics, and a pepper spray program. These changes were introduced around the same time the cameras were being installed.

But I have a different interpretation of this data: Under today’s watchful eyes, Attica COs are less inclined to falsify misbehavior reports and make bogus allegations of assaults by prisoners than they used to be. They are also less likely to file false injury claims, which can result in months of paid leave at the taxpayers’ expense.

After reporting this story for two years as a prison journalist, gleaning data from official corrections reports, interviewing prisoners, COs, and the former superintendent, I can also say that cameras and microphones seem to have accomplished what once seemed impossible at Attica. They have begun to tame a violent us-against-them culture that formed decades earlier in the prison’s most defining moment.

The only question is, will the relative peace continue?

WHEN PEOPLE THINK OF BADASS AMERICAN PRISONS, they better think of Attica and the 1971 riot. Ever since, the prison has been romanticized—in Hollywood (Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon”), in music (the other John Lennon’s “Attica State” or Nas rapping “I’d open every cell in Attica, send ’em to Africa”), in those iconic photos of prisoners in the yard, fists up (Power to the people!). The Attica uprising has also been demonized—lies told about the event, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Heather Ann Thompson, helped fuel mass incarceration. A state commission wrote in 1972 that the police assault that ended the uprising was, with the exception of late-19th century Native American massacres, “the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”

I landed at Attica in 2007. Six years earlier, while caught up in the drug-dealer lifestyle, I shot and killed a man on a Brooklyn street. Soon after, I was caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to an aggregate term of 28 years to life—25 for the murder and three more for drug sales. Of my more than 16 years incarcerated in jails on Rikers Island and in maximum security prisons in upstate New York, I spent nine in Attica.

I was fortunate to get involved with programs at the prison that helped me change my life. In a 12-step meeting hosted by civilian community members in recovery, I got sober. In a privately-funded college program, I earned an associate’s degree. In a creative-writing workshop taught by an English professor, I learned how to write. I took to journalism and soon saw Attica as a never-ending story.

John J. Lennon, a journalist and prisoner at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y. Lennon, who is serving a sentence of 28 years to life, has been published in a number of major media outlets.

Still, it was a nasty joint. I’d served time in other max prisons, but only in Attica did I see COs make their own rules. Only in Attica were men subjected to random frisks entailing the infamous “credit card swipe,” in which a CO would run his hand up the crack of a prisoner’s ass. Only in Attica did they restrict prisoners to once-a-week law library access. Only in Attica was I limited to two showers per week (in other joints, it’s three.) Only in Attica did shirts, sweatshirts, even sweaters have to be fully tucked. (It looked ridiculous.) Only in Attica did COs constantly carry their batons strapped to their wrists, tumbling them in and out of their hands like yo-yos. It was unsettling to be walking the corridors with a CO right behind you, baton in hand.

Turn around and you got, "Eyes forward!”

Wrapped in more than a mile of wall are piles of brick that make up Attica’s five cellblocks—A, B, C, D, and E. At one time or another, I lived in every one of them. The action—between prisoners, between COs and prisoners—went down in the corridors, in the cellblocks (A and C were the worst), the foyers, the companies, and the yard. Until recently, none of these areas had cameras.

For the most part, discipline in Attica followed this drill: Head down, clipboard and pen in hand, a CO would speed-walk the tier, taking the mess hall and yard list. Prisoners who weren’t on their bars would miss the list and starve and go stir crazy. No mess hall. No yard. If a prisoner yelled a heads up that the officer was coming, or if there was loud singing, maybe a freestyle rap battle, the COs would cut off the electricity on the entire company.

Sometimes the officer would make it more personal, taking to the catwalk in the back of the cells and yanking out the electrical wires or pulling the fuse for a cell of a particular prisoner. The prisoner singled out for special attention usually got an “asshole” tag on the cell electrical panel in the COs’ station, meaning his cell likely wouldn’t open for mess hall or yard runs. If the guy was lucky, some passing friend would toss him a few ramen noodles from commissary so he wouldn’t go hungry. It’s called being “on the burn.” It sucks.

On rare occasions, a prisoner would lash out in response. This is what I believe happened when Shondell Paul stabbed two A Block COs in 2004. Back then, I was in Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora with his brother, Tajuan Paul. Tajuan, or “TP,” was my poker buddy, and we worked as porters. Together, the Paul brothers were serving more than 200 years for robbing and killing people at street craps games in Syracuse. What we heard was that Attica COs had been harassing and burning Shondell. He got tired of it. When his cell finally opened for a mess hall run, he had a 7-and-a-half-inch shank taped to his wrist. He casually walked into the foyer, slid the shank into his palm, and unleashed fury.

But calculated attacks like that were rare. When they happened, prisoners were happy to spread the news, as if they were celebrating a winning battle in the us-them war.

Most incidents were frustratingly reported by the prison rumor mill, and sounded a lot like this: Kenneth Harris, whose nickname is Justice, was nearly four years in on an 11-to-20 year sentence for robbery. After a disagreement with a favored prisoner, Harris said, it didn’t take long for C Block COs to red-flag him, especially since his pedigree indicated he was a Blood. On March 19, 2014, Harris’s cell opened, he thought, so he could help cut hair in the C Block barbershop, as he’d done a few times before. When he entered the cellblock lobby, he told me, COs told him to grab the wall. It was the so-called beatdown crew. They latched the foyer doors and posted officers at both ends of the corridor.

Then it went down—blows to the back of his head. Harris hit the deck, curled up and covered up. Then they put the boots to him, chipping one of his front teeth and loosening another.

I was in C Block when this happened. Beatdowns were so common and calculated, we’d hear them but never see them. I’d be in my cell, hear batons tap on the floor—clack clack clack—and then two bells like fire alarms. Then the boom of the boots, keys jangling, COs running to the scene.

“Stop resisting!”

“I’m not resisting!”

Then screams. Then silence.

Harris’s incident sounded like so many before and after. I’d become numb to them. Apathy provided a psychological safe space in Attica; it’s better to appear stoic and indifferent than shocked and empathetic. At first it’s an act. Then it’s not.

A lumped and bruised Harris was taken to the prison hospital, where he told a nurse about his teeth. Then it was off to the box. Two days later, he said, he was called out to the dentist, who bonded the chipped tooth and performed a root canal on the loose one. When Harris received the misbehavior ticket—assault on staff, weapon, and more—it said that while he was being frisked on the wall, a shank fell out of his waistband and as an officer bent to grab it, Harris kneed him in the head. Then, a report detailing the use of force claimed, three COs used strikes, mechanical restraints, and body holds to get a combative Harris under control. According to the report, the only injury Harris suffered during the incident was an abrasion on his left clavicle.

At the disciplinary hearing, Harris pleaded not guilty and tried to explain that he’d never seen the shank before and that the incident didn’t go down as described in the ticket. Nonetheless, he was found guilty and received 160 days box time, 200 days loss of privileges, and three months recommended loss of good time on his sentence.”

– John J. Lennon, “Spying On Attica.” The Marshall Project, April 9, 2018.

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