The Prisoner Rights Movement and Latino Prisoners in New York State

by RON JACOBS

A Review of Gender, Ethnicity and the State: Latina and Latino Prison Politics, by Juanita Diaz-Cotto, Albany; SUNY Press; 1996

Gender, Ethnicity and the State opens with a summary of the months of prisoner rebellions in Long Island prisons in 1970. These rebellions were a reaction to several years of mistreatment at the hands of prison staff and the penal system itself, and were followed soon afterwards by one of the Sixties most momentous rebellions–the rebellion at Attica State Prison in September 1971. Diaz-Cotto contends that these actions by prisoners resulted in a move to reform the New York prison system. It is also her contention that these reforms were resisted by prison staff and administrators from the governor’s office down to the prison tier and only became reality after intense and concerted organizing efforts by prisoners and their outside allies.

The latter two-thirds of the book describes differences in organizational strategies in a men’s prison (Green Haven) and a woman’s prison (Bedford Hills) and the variation in results and responses by those in the New York penal administration. Like the title suggests, Diaz-Cotto focuses most of her study on the experiences of Latina(o) prisoners in the system and the specific problems these groups faced due to cultural/language differences and consequent discrimination against them.

Interesting to note is that until the 1980s Spanish speaking prisoners and staff were not allowed to speak their first language in most of the prison. In addition, none of the prison regulations or procedures were available in Spanish, nor were translators available. While this was something of a problem early in Diaz-Cotto’s study, it became a greater one as the national makeup of Latina/o prisoners changed from being primarily bilingual Puerto Ricans and Dominicans raised in New York to a population that included Colombians and other Latin Americans who only spoke Spanish. The lack of translators and the inability of the prisoners to speak their native language indicates not only the substrata that prisoners inhabit in the eyes of the state, it also illuminates the even lesser status of those considered non-citizens.

Many of the problems faced by Latino men in the New York prison system were also replicated in the women’s prisons in the system. Besides the obvious problems around language, there were also issues of education, legal support, and parole. Because there were no educational programs conducted either bilingually or in Spanish, most Latina/o inmates were unable to participate in these programs. Consequently, they were also unable to gain "points" toward parole. In addition, those inmates who were monolingual (Spanish-speaking) had no means of presenting themselves effectively at their parole hearings, especially since the parole boards traditionally did not include Spanish-speaking individuals.

The response by prisoners to this institutional discrimination in the wake of Attica was to organize. For the most part, writes Diaz-Cotto, both Latinas and Latinos did this on similar lines: through officially recognized groups specific to their Hispanic identity and via multiethnic/multiracial underground organizations. Although both methods varied in their effectiveness, eventually a method evolved whereby the provocations from the underground groupings informed the official organizations; a strategy that forced prison officials to respond, sometimes positively but just as often with repression that was often violent. Both forms of organization relied on support groups on the outside: women’s organizations, lawyers, and prisoner support organizations.

According to Diaz-Cotto, when differences in prisoners’ demands occurred between prisons, they were usually gender specific. As in other female prison populations, the children of the women in Bedford Hills were the focus of their most important demands-more than on the men’s side of the system. This meant that much of their organizing efforts revolved around getting more access to their children. Usually this meant working with the prison bureaucracy to organize family days, and eventually for some prisoners, weekend visits with family. Also, as in other prisons, the women’s involvement with their families was manipulated by prison officials as a method of control, thereby limiting the extent of those women affected in any political movements for fear they might lose the "privilege" of seeing their children. Of course, prison staff used other forms of intimidation in the men’s side of the system.

Diaz-Cotto concludes her study with the observation that although the Attica rebellion did change the dynamics of imprisonment by forcing administrators to open the prisons to outside community members and establishing more programs and services for inmates, these reforms were tempered by constant harassment of prisoners (especially those who were politically active) through physical intimidation by guards, and by administrative movement of prisoners and arbitrary changes in procedures and programs. In short, for every two steps forward the prisoners took, they were pushed back one. Indeed, "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back" is the title of her concluding chapter.

The time period of this study was from 1970 through 1987. Since then, prisons have become even more crowded thanks to the "wars" on drugs and terrorism, even while they continue to be built at a greater pace than ever before in U.S. history. In addition, more and more prisoners are women (usually in on drug related charges) and more are of various Latino heritage. While translators are now usually available and bilingual staff populate the prison system more than before, the outside assistance Diaz-Cotto considered so important to the reform movement she writes about has diminished due to lack of funding and just plain governmental meanness. In New York, the Prisoner’s Legal Services of New York barely survives because its public funding is constantly being turned on and off, thereby making it difficult to maintain a service level compatible with the demand. Additionally, educational resources and other programs for prisoners, already in too limited supply at the time of Diaz-Cotto’s study, are even further stretched as the prison population grows and these programs’ funding shrinks.

This book is an informative study of how revolutionary and radical-minded prisoners can effect change. It is also a report on the limits of said groups and the problems these groups face from the prison system and their own members’ varying agendas. Most telling of all is that without the Attica rebellion and the sacrifices of the men involved (both in terms of lives and freedom lost), the movement that followed would not only have been less effective, but probably would not have coalesced. While there is not much hope expressed here (for good reason), Diaz-Cotto does convey an underlying conviction in the power of the people.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.

He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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