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Surviving abuse: a story behind the 1971 Attica riots

by Katherine Fernandez - Staff Writer
Tue, Nov 5th 2019 09:00 pm
A survivor of the 1971 Attica prison riot came to The College at Brockport to tell his
personal account of what happened leading up to and during the correctional facility insurrection.
A survivor of the 1971 Attica prison riot came to The College at Brockport to tell his personal account of what happened leading up to and during the correctional facility insurrection.

In collaboration with the Cultural Council, graduate student Michelle Thomas sought to bring a piece of history to life at “Surviving Attica” on Tuesday, Oct. 29. In order to do that, she invited Billy Booker to give his personal account of the horrors he experienced during the infamous 1971 Attica Correctional Facility riots. Booker served 37 years of his initial 125 year sentence and worked hard to try to keep the peace during the four-day insurrection led by inmates who demanded improved conditions at the prison. 

Chief Diversity Officer Cephas Archie kickstarted the discussion, urging students to open their minds and value stories about life experiences that are different than their own. 

“As much as we are all distinct and unique people with having different attributes and values that make us the phenomenal people that we are, we’ve failed as a community if we don’t most importantly realize that as distinct and unique as we are, it is our ability to recognize that before we are anything else, we are first people, worthy of all of the basic privileges and liberties of life,” Archie said. “We are first people. And so, this is the meaningful attribute of what inclusion, of what equality, of what diversity and most importantly, the value of human life is about. We didn’t create the life, so how will we put a price value on it?” 

Booker’s tale of the atrocities that took place during the inmates’ uprising was incredibly graphic, opting not to shy away from detailing the shocking reality of the victims and survivors. Racial tensions ran high and Attica was openly segregated, keeping inmates in what Booker called “the color line.” The occupants of the prison followed strict rules such as not touching their pockets, no physical contact with visitors and no talking with one another. When these rules were broken, inmates faced severe physical assaults at the hands of the guards. Members of white supremacy groups infiltrated the prison as correctional officers, which was allowed so long as the officers disclosed which groups they were a member of. 

The facilities of the prison were unimaginable, with inmates often going 14 to 15 hours between meals, sometimes even days. The in-house medic was known as “The Butcher,” strapping inmates to a table and witholding painkillers before procedures. Medicine was kept in a “fishbowl,” with inmates grabbing fistfuls of random pills to try to ease the pain caused by their ailments. Anybody with previous education past the fifth grade level were told they could not further their education while incarcerated. These conditions are what led to the revolt of the prisoners. 

As a member of the Inmate Grievance Resolution Committee, Booker was used to championing for fellow inmates and working to keep the peace between them and the corrections officers. During the uprising, he witnessed egregious human rights violations. Guards took advantage of the chaos, attacking prisoners and framing them for the excessive violence. They often used napalm and opened fire indiscriminately. 

One inmate was stripped naked and made to lie on a table with a football on his chest as officers urinated on him, telling him that if the football fell they would kill him. They forced inmates to sexually assault one another, threatening their lives if they didn’t carry out the atrocities they were forced to commit. 

Booker recounted an instance during the riot when an officer forced him to run down a hallway lined with shards of glass while barefoot. 

“Not only did I run that hall, but God is my witness, I did not suffer one laceration or cut. It was as if someone had reached up and carried me over that glass,” Booker said. “I attribute all of that to God.” 

Booker is no stranger to violence, even before his time at Attica. At the young age of 8 he witnessed his father murder his grandfather. His faith and his strong relationship with his wife, who stood by him during his imprisonment, provide him with the strength to overcome the traumas he endured throughout his life and pushes him to try and keep others from experiencing the horrors of incarceration. 

Agape Towns, a local poet who was recently released after being wrongfully imprisoned for eight years, spent time in Attica himself and wrote several poems about his experiences. He performed a piece called “Open Season,” which described what it is like to go through life as a young black man being targeted and alienated by the racially biased institutions of America. 

After the conversation, Thomas was approached by several people who felt uncomfortable due to the sensitive nature of its contents. 

“It’s going to be uncomfortable because this is the population that everyone overlooks so when you talk about those types of populations it comes with the stereotypes, it comes with the judgement,” Thomas said. “It’s the idea of saying ‘this is the trauma and treatment you get because you shouldn’t have did what you did.’ They’re still people. The systematic consequence with being charged with any form of misdemeanors or felonies is being dehumanized and that’s the problem.” 

Thomas hopes students walk away from the experience with an expanded social awareness, specifically in terms of the cruel and outdated structure of the American prison system. 

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done with the ex-offender and the inmate population as far as the amount of trauma and exposure that the inmates experience just being incarcerated,” Thomas said. “Within the judicial system something needs to change. This is the only system that has stayed the same since it was created.” 

Booker recently received an associates degree in peer counseling at the University of Buffalo. He continues to travel to community events, informing at-risk and gang affiliated youth of what truly awaits them behind bars and advising them to choose a different path in life. 

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Taken by Vincent Croce:
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