Albany Times Union

Inhumanity isn't exclusive to Attica

By Randy Credico, Commentary

Thursday, September 4, 2014

On Sept. 13, 1971, State Police opened fire on Attica Correctional Facility, shooting nonstop for two minutes, and ending a four-day inmate protest by Attica prisoners, who were pleading for better access to medical care, freedom of religious and political expression, education, living wages and parole reform. To demonstrate his "firmness," Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had ordered state troopers to stop talking and start shooting.

The protest and its aftermath eventually claimed the lives of 10 correctional officers and civilian employees and 33 inmates. The New York state Special Commission on Attica wrote, "With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War."

But what happened 43 years ago is not the only reason why Attica must be closed.

As the nonprofit Correctional Association of New York, Soffiyah Elijah, wrote in 2012, "The problems at Attica are so deeply engrained, and so troubling, that the only way to counter the pervasive brutality there is to shut the facility down entirely... (I)nhumane treatment, sexual misconduct by staff, physical brutality, harassment, racist attitudes, inadequate programming and an atmosphere of violence still shape the profile of the institution."

Sadly, this indictment applies not just to Attica, but to virtually every prison in America, as well as to the oppressive and corrupt criminal justice system that has grown even more oppressive and corrupt in the years since the Attica massacre.

As the bloody bodies lay on the ground at Attica, President Richard Nixon's "war on drugs" was just beginning. As a direct result of this misguided war, our prison population has exploded by more than 700 percent during the past 43 years — even though, ironically, crime has actually been going down. The United States leads the world in incarceration, with more than 2.2 million people behind bars. Ill-conceived drug laws and Draconian sentencing schemes have led to profoundly unequal results for people of color. Although drugs are used and sold at comparable rates across all racial and ethnic lines, a disproportionate number of those in prison are black or Latino.

But prison doesn't just incarcerate the prisoner. Countless families are, in effect, also doing time alongside their imprisoned loved ones, continuing the cycle of entrenched poverty and the devastation of communities. And as the poor get poorer, others get richer. Prisoners have become part of the economy, manufacturing and assembling products for major corporations at slave wages.

After all, prisoners make the best employees — they never go on strike, don't require unemployment insurance, vacations or medical leave, work full-time, are never late or absent because of personal problems, and if they complain about being paid 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they can be thrown into solitary confinement until they become more cooperative.

Before the final bloody massacre by the State Police, my good friend, the late great civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, was invited by the Attica prisoners as an observer to their negotiations with the state. He was right outside the prison when the assault began, and the massacre he witnessed haunted him for the rest of his life. Today, the only memorial is a small plaque bearing the names of the correctional officers who died there, and this simple message: "Man's inhumanity to man causes thousands to mourn."

But there is no tribute to the prisoners who lost their lives.

Closing Attica and turning it into a museum would be a fitting tribute to all who died there at the hands of the state, both inmates and guards.

It would be a true recognition of our past inhumanity, and a sign of our commitment to ending the immoral failed experiment that has resulted in the incarceration of millions of Americans, under brutal, inhumane and demeaning conditions that still prevail at Attica to this day.

Randy Credico is a comedian, activist and a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial line.



THE NEW YORKER



News Desk

August 19, 2015

The Man Who Screamed So Loud the Drug Laws Changed
By Jennifer Gonnerman



After early success as a comedian, Credico, pictured here in 1990, became an activist. Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL A. SMITH / THE LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION / GETTY

Before the term “mass incarceration” started appearing on the front pages of newspapers, before Obama became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison, before Democrats and Republicans began working together on criminal-justice reform, Randy Credico was screaming about the injustices of America’s incarceration policies. He wasn’t writing angry op-eds for newspapers; he was, literally, screaming. One day in 2001, I found him in front of Kings County State Supreme Court, hollering at passersby: “They’re taking black children out of your neighborhood and putting them in Attica! This is a modern-day slave-auction block!” Another day, I caught him in front of Queens State Supreme Court, heckling the employees: “You guys who are assistant D.A.s—get a real job! Quit destroying lives!”

It would have been easy to dismiss him as just another New York City crank. He certainly looked the part, with his curly hair askew, a soggy cigar stuck between his lips. But, as I learned, his animosity toward the prison system was well founded: his father spent almost a decade behind bars before he was born, and he grew up hearing horrific tales about life in prison. Born in 1954, in Monterey Park, California, Credico got an early start as a comedian and appeared on the “Tonight Show” at age thirty. On air, he compared U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to Eva Braun; he never got invited back. He later believed that his radical politics—combined with a love of cocaine—had derailed his comedy career. At forty-three, he was searching for a second act when he saw a C-SPAN debate about New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, which were then the most punitive in the country. He decided that he would make it his cause to dismantle them.

He began visiting prisons in upstate New York, and befriended inmates and their families. In the spring of 1998, he held his first protest, with a few dozen inmates’ relatives, holding up posters in the rain in front of Rockefeller Center. The protests continued for years—at Rockefeller Center, at courthouses around the city, at politicians’ fund-raisers, at the State Capitol in Albany. When then Governor George Pataki held a fund-raiser at the Yale Club, Credico was across the street with inmates’ family members, waving signs and chanting. I was a reporter for the Village Voice then, and I interviewed him many times. He seemed to spend most of his days on his cell phone: planning events, badgering reporters, fielding calls from prisoners and their relatives. He had a knack for drawing attention, and for converting an argument that had largely been made with numbers into a manifestly human drama. At one point, I calculated that he had generated more than a hundred news stories, largely by inviting reporters to his events and introducing them to the families of inmates. At the end of 2004, New York’s legislators rewrote the Rockefeller drug laws. They made more reforms in 2005 and 2009.

Once his fight was over, Credico lost his focus. He turned himself into a perpetual political candidate—running for the U.S. Senate, New York City Mayor, and New York State Governor—which brought him some attention from reporters but not enough votes to pose a threat to more mainstream candidates. Cocaine and alcohol became harder to resist, and when he got drunk he had a bad habit of shooting off nasty mass e-mails to friends, acquaintances, politicians, journalists, and activists. He called various targets “shameless,” a “clown,” and a “pile of lard.” He told the leaders of one progressive group that they were all a “bunch of non working, trust funded white people.” Every morning, he would wake up unable to remember what he had written, and open his computer to discover who was no longer talking to him.

Then, in August, 2014, he got arrested in the Bronx for “menacing” a police sergeant with an umbrella. He strongly denied the charge, but after his arrest his drinking got worse. “A bottle of tequila one day, a bottle of bourbon the next day,” he says. “I was so depressed. I hated going to sleep because I knew I had to wake up.” He started working on a book, which he titled “Suicide Note.” On January 16th, the twenty-third anniversary of his father’s death, he posted pictures on his Facebook page of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and other writers who had taken their lives.

The political satirist Barry Crimmins, a friend of almost thirty-five years, picked up the phone. “It wasn’t too hard to put two and two together, so I just called him up,” Crimmins says. “Mainly I told him I loved him, and I needed him around.” At first Credico tried to deny that he was suicidal, but eventually he admitted it, and somehow, earlier this year, he got sober.

Crimmins, who has followed Credico’s activist work over the years, has a theory about what drives him. “I think all this work he’s done has been this cry of love towards his father,” he says. “I just know he thought the world of his father and never hid or ran from his criminal background, and understood early on that things can break the wrong way. You come from the wrong economic circumstances, you get in the wrong situation at a young age, you get caught up in the system, and you’re doomed.”

Now sixty-one years old, Credico has been watching the same issues that he was shouting about in the late 1990s and early 2000s command national attention. He decided to find a way back into this fight, and came up with a new cause. Inspired by Columbia University student activists—who recently convinced Columbia to become the first university to divest from companies that run private prisons—Credico is trying to persuade the public officials overseeing New York City and New York State’s pension funds to do the same.

He zeroed in on two companies, the GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America (C.C.A.). (They operate county jails, state prisons, and immigration detention facilities.) New York State’s retirement fund and New York City’s pensions funds own millions of dollars of shares in both companies. Soon Credico was talking about these investments constantly. “There’s nothing worse than the exploitation of human beings for private profit,” he says. “You can’t invest in something that feeds into human misery.”

Credico has chosen a name for his campaign, EPIC (short for End Prison-Industrial Complex), and set up a Facebook page and a Web site for it. Many activists might focus on researching the companies they are targeting, but one of Credico’s first moves was to order black-and-white-striped prisoner costumes, which he plans to use when he holds protests outside the offices of the state and city comptrollers. “Whatever I have left in my bag of tricks is going to be used on this,” Credico says. “If New York rolls, I think other states would roll, too.” He may succeed again, or maybe his efforts will fizzle out. Politicians and the press are now more focused on criminal-justice reforms than they have been in years, which means his main challenge may be staying sober enough to lead his campaign.

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