Backtracking: In Our Times: Attica prison reaction, education made news in September 1971

FileOld Main, SUNY Oneonta’s original building, as seen in the mid-1970s, was still standing but nearly vacant around the time of the Attica prison riot in September 1971. Higher education institutions in general were under fire by a local politician for promoting ‘permissiveness.’  

A prison riot, local reactions to it and local education were prime newsmakers during September 1971.

Readers of The Oneonta Star of Sept. 13 were informed, “A two-day riot of mostly black convicts was put down by massed forces by the state at Attica prison Monday, in a furious attack behind shotguns, rifles and tear gas. Thirty-seven persons were found dead — nine white hostages and 27 prisoners.”

The region’s law enforcers were on hand to assist and witness the turmoil, including 22 policemen from the Oneonta area and 50 state police from Troop C. Among all, none were injured during the five days on remote duty.

Local reaction was mixed to the uprising. Tom Balche of Oneonta said in the Sept. 14 Star edition, “The place (Attica) is way overcrowded. They should have more prisons than what they’ve got.”

Joan Rosenberg, then a senior at SUNY Oneonta said, “Governor Rockefeller should have gone to Attica. If they had the right mediators, there wouldn’t be … men dead.”

Earl Smith of Oneonta felt, “If those guys (prisoners) would have behaved themselves, they wouldn’t be in jail.”

James Couden of Oneonta added, “This situation is not only in New York State, but in penal institutions everywhere. The conditions have been bad for as long as anyone can remember. Much more money is needed to adequately rehabilitate the prisoners. Riots have been predicted by the authorities for some time. Until the people decide to give more money for this, they have to expect things like this will happen.”

Local college professors added their comments about the riot.

The Star continued, “Dr. Negley Teeters, a professor at Hartwick College and a leading criminologist, blames the Attica prison rioting on the abnormal and frustrating life a prisoner is forced to lead.

“‘I am sympathetic with the prisoners,’ Dr. Teeters said, ‘although I think some of the demands they are making are absurd.’

“He blamed the prison riot on the ‘terrible conditions we subject people to in our prisons.’”

On Sept. 15 The Star reported, “Prison camps may not be the answer, but a man in a prison camp is treated more like a human being than he would be if he were in a prison, Dr. Howard Berkowitz, professor of psychology at SUCO, reasons.”

“As a frequent visitor of state penal institutions, prison camps, reformatories and camps for adolescent boys, Dr. Berkowitz claimed that camps were far less dehumanizing than prisons.”

One other opinion came from an area state legislator, who was less than kind in his thoughts of colleges in general, and the situation in Attica.

Star readers of Sept. 17 learned, “Edwyn Mason, assemblyman from Sullivan, Delaware and Schoharie counties, warned the Otsego County American Legion Schoolmasters Banquet last night of the increasing ‘pollution of the minds of students’ in educational institutions.

“He told some 150 guests that teachers in colleges tell students to destroy the American system and claims that there is more democracy in Russia.

“‘You cannot have education where you have anarchy,’ he said.

“‘The poison of permissiveness is spreading to the top echelon of our schools,’ Mason said, adding that local school boards in other areas are losing their authority.

“He thinks this is why Attica suffered the destructive upsurge this week — prison authority has been broken down. ‘The jailbirds are running the jails,’ Mason said.

“He also stated that courts ‘coddle and pamper’ the criminals, and added there are cases of this in our own area. Some arrested and charged with drug misuses were dismissed because of what he termed ‘revolving door justice.’

“‘If you are mugged, don’t tell the police. The mugger will be out of jail before you’ll be out of the hospital,’ Mason quipped.”

This weekend: a look back at our local life and times during September 1946. 

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area before 1950. His Wednesday columns address local history 1950 and later. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/opinion/columns/.

Ask Mark... 

Have you ever had a question about a history-making event or a prominent person in our area and didn't know where to find the answer? Well, we've got an expert who might be able to help you. Historian Mark Simonson has spent many years chronicling major local happenings, and he's ready and willing to dive into The Daily Star archives for answers, which will appear in this newspaper and online at www.thedailystar.com.

Write to him at "Ask Mark," The Daily Star, 102 Chestnut St., Oneonta, NY 13820 or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com

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