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UB Law School Conference to Explore Legacy of the Attica Uprising

By Ilene Fleischmann

Release Date: August 15, 2011

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A conference organized by UB law professor Teresa Miller will mark the 40th anniversary of the Attica Uprising, the deadliest prison rebellion in U.S. history.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Forty years ago, the deadliest prisoner rebellion in U.S. history occurred. Next month, a major conference will bring together prisoner advocates, legislators, policymakers, corrections professionals, activists and people who were on the front lines of the conflict, on both sides.

The conference, called "40 Years After the Attica Uprising: Looking Back, Moving Forward," is sponsored by the University at Buffalo Law School and its Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy. Admission is free (with pre-registration) and open to the public, with free parking in university lots.

The two-day event marks the anniversary of the uprising at Attica State Prison, about 40 miles east of Buffalo, that brought the world's attention to long-festering problems in the U.S. prison system. The Attica Uprising began on Sept. 9, 1971, and ended four days later when then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered state troopers to storm and retake the prison from the inmates who had taken control. Twenty-nine prisoners and 11 security and civilian staff died.

To open the conference, the documentary "Ghosts of Attica" will be shown at the Burchfield Penny Art Center (Buffalo State College) on Sunday, Sept. 11. Over the next two days, Sept. 12-13, conference events will be held on UB's North and South campuses and at a downtown Buffalo church. The schedule of events is posted on the conference website: http://www.law.buffalo.edu/baldycenter/attica40/.

"It's about healing, in part," says UB Law Professor Teresa A. Miller, conference organizer. "This is the last decade in which these people are going to be able to sit down together and reflect upon Attica's turbulent past. This conference is unique in that it creates a dialog between stakeholders with diverse ideological perspectives on the Attica Uprising. For the Buffalo community, this is one of the last opportunities to hear firsthand from people who were there."

In addition to looking back at the uprising, the conference will feature several influential policymakers, including New York State Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubrey, chair of the Committee on Corrections and a vocal advocate for prison reform. Miller says it comes at a time when the corrections industry, an entrenched part of the state's and the nation's economy, is undergoing reconsideration.

"We run a very expensive prison system. New York is leading the country in looking at the wisdom of that and evaluating alternatives," Miller says. "We're at a point at which we need to reform, and consider downsizing, a system that has just grown too large. As a parent, you spank your child as a last resort, after nothing else has changed their behavior. That needs to be the way we approach corrections as well, with incarceration as a last resort. Growing the prison system and locking people up as a job creation strategy is morally wrong, economically inefficient, and counterproductive."

The conference is an occasion to re-examine the work of corrections officers as well; according to Miller, they suffer stress-related illnesses at rates far greater than that of the general population, as well as disproportionate rates of drug abuse, domestic violence and other social maladies. And they die young -- at age 58, on average, she says. "Day after day, it's all negative," she says of the job. "It takes a toll."

Keynote speakers for the conference include Brian Fischer, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. In addition to academic researchers, presenters also include:

-- Malcolm Bell, a former special assistant attorney general who helped lead the investigation into the uprising and the state response.

-- Arthur O. Eve, a negotiator and observer in 1971 and a former New York State assemblyman.

-- Herman Schwartz, also an observer, and a UB Law professor in 1971.

-- Michael Smith, a correctional officer who was held hostage and wounded during the retaking of the prison.

-- Jim Conway, who recently retired as the prison's superintendent.

Since its founding in 1887, the University at Buffalo Law School -- the State University of New York system's only law school -- has established an excellent reputation and is widely regarded as a leader in legal education. Its cutting-edge curriculum provides both a strong theoretical foundation and the practical tools graduates need to succeed in a competitive marketplace, wherever they choose to practice. A special emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, public service and opportunities for hands-on clinical education makes UB Law unique among the nation's premier public law schools.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.