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  • The Sing Sing RevoltThe Incarceration Crisis and Criminal Justice Liberalism in the 1980s
  • Lee Bernstein (bio)

As 1983 began, New York's prisons reached a chokepoint: in the past decade the inmate population went from 12,444 to 27,943. Mario Cuomo, who would become the nation's most prominent liberal politician after delivering the keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, prepared to take the oath of office to become the state's fifty-second governor.1 Corrections officials scrambled to find beds for four hundred new people each week in crumbling facilities and repurposed public buildings. This overcrowding occurred, to different degrees, throughout the system—city and county jails, juvenile facilities, and in state-run facilities variously classified minimum, medium, and maximum security. Multiple factors converged to create this overcrowding, including the war on drugs, the victims' rights movement, and new "truth in sentencing" laws.2 In addition, declining tax revenues and the economic struggles of the state's voters limited the state's ability to fund new prison construction and to accommodate the educational, therapeutic, and social needs of its burgeoning prison population. Access to basic needs like warm clothing, blankets, and mail became constrained. The Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) was characterized by laughably inadequate grievance procedures, insufficiently staffed facilities, anemic responses to ongoing labor-management disputes, rifts between uniformed and civilian employees, and failure to address racist and sexist barriers to fair treatment for employees and the incarcerated population.

Recent memory generated a foreboding sense of where all this would lead. In 1971, increasing frustration with inhumane treatment led directly to the Attica Correctional [End Page 1] Facility rebellion. Governor Nelson Rockefeller's decision to replace peaceful negotiations with the murderous retaking of the facility led to ghastly results: 128 men shot, 10 hostages dead, 29 prisoners killed. In the years that followed, the state failed to prosecute a single state official or employee, instead charging 63 prisoners with over 1,200 separate crimes.3 The state implemented some reforms following Attica, but more notable was the state's spearheading a national shift toward the use of lengthy prison terms with the 1973 passage of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which set then-unheard-of sentences of fifteen years to life for selling or possessing narcotics.4 By the time the state's prisons began to buckle under the pressure of new entrants, Rockefeller decamped Albany to serve as Gerald Ford's post-Watergate vice president. Malcolm Wilson, his lieutenant governor and successor, lost the 1974 race to Hugh Carey, a Democrat who would face the exploding prison population amid fiscal struggles that impeded the state's ability to borrow funds necessary for new prison construction.5 Under Carey, mid-1970s cost-cutting led to further erosion of the state's prison reform tradition, which led to yet another uprising. In 1977, forty people incarcerated at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, a medium-security facility near Albany founded as a New Deal–Era vocational reformatory, took three hostages in protest of increasing violence by correctional officers and a reduction in the facility's unusually expansive vocational training and programming. This incident ended quickly and peacefully but failed to have a meaningful impact on the Department of Correctional Services; nor did it impede the legislative push for continued use of long-term incarceration for a wide range of offenses. Instead, as historian Joseph Spillane notes, the incident served as a fitting coda to the reformatory era.6

In 1983 the uprising would take place at Sing Sing, one of the oldest and most infamous prisons in the world. After many months of using peaceful means to change inhumane practices and conditions—including the state's own grievance procedures and nonviolent protest—failed to create change, inmates in Sing Sing's B Block took control of the block and held nineteen employees hostage for three days. Thirty years later, Lawrence Kurlander, who served as the state's director of criminal justice during the revolt, noted, "nobody remembers that prison riot, because we handled it very differently from the Attica prison riot."7 Attica cast a long shadow throughout the Sing Sing ordeal. People [End Page 2] incarcerated in...


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