BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Teresa Miller, a professor in the University at
Buffalo Law School specializing in criminal punishment, knows all
too well the stereotypes of law students visiting prisons. People
naturally assume the students are the unselfish ones, and the
inmates -- who have little to lose and time to waste -- get all of
"Encountering Attica," a documentary film that chronicles a year
of meetings between a group of first-year UB law students and
inmates from the Attica Correctional Facility, stands that
stereotype on its head.
The students are the ones with the most to gain, Miller says.
They're seeing how the effects of the laws they're studying in
class play out in the lives of real people with real stories. In
this case, the men are serving long sentences, many of them for
murder. Legal studies for these students become flesh and
And the inmates, who most people assume would welcome the chance
to occupy their ample time explaining their plight with eager young
law students, are the ones willing to help, at their own peril.
"One of the things we're trying to do in this documentary is to
show that the law students are learning a great deal from the
encounter, and for the inmates, it's risky for them to
participate," says Miller. "Other inmates hear they're
participating in something like this, and they assume they're doing
something with the administration, assume they're snitches or
moles, and that is a dangerous label to carry in prison."
And word travels fast in the highly routinized world of Attica,
Miller says. So if one inmate wants to send a harsh or violent
message to another for something like participating in a prison
documentary, the attacker often can get to his victim.
"Easily," says Miller. "It turns out the inmates are not the
That's the dramatic setting of "Encountering Attica," which
shows how inmates convicted of the same crime often are treated
differently and receive different sentences. The documentary is
part of the
ongoing effort of the law school's Projecting Law Project to
demonstrate how new media can be used in the study of legal
"It's easy to make a judgment when you're reading about a case
in a textbook or a news story," says Siana McLean, a first-year law
student from Toronto and one of three UB Law students actually
going behind the bars into Attica. "When you actually hear a person
telling his story, it can change your perspective.
"This is not to take away blame," says McLean, "but to actually
see the effects of circumstances like growing up in poverty and
preconceived notions that go along with race. As a person of color,
I look at it as more of a reason to be in law school."
Spreading the word has always been a big part of Miller's work,
and "Encountering Attica" is a prime example. She hopes to obtain
permission for another digital video project next year that would
look behind the walls of Albion Correctional Facility, a prison in
Orleans County that houses only women.
The crew making "Encountering Attica" showed early takes to
other Law School students last semester. And Miller took part in an
assembly last fall at Bennett High School during which she showed
parts of the documentary-in-progress to students in the Law Magnet
"The students asked very practical questions," Miller says.
"They were not completely unfamiliar with the prison system."
Which, for Miller, is exactly the point of doing the
"The more people are put away for long, long periods of time
with no thought to what they are going to be like when they get
out, the more we harm the society they're released to," says
"One of the reasons it's so important to do this project and
study what is going on in prison is because prisons have an
increasingly profound effect on every layer of society as we rely
more heavily on them; we put so many people away.
"So when people come out after having lived 15 or 20 or 30 years
behind bars, or just having a whole population of young men that do
short terms, but keep cycling in and out of jail, those
institutions are forming the society we will have in the near
future, the world my kids are going to grow up in."
Tim Gera, a UB graduate student in media studies and the
videographer for the project, notes: "The only time we think of
inmates in a positive light is in the movies when it's Tim Robbins
and Morgan Freeman. The big surprise is to go in there and connect
with them so easily. There wasn't as much difference between us and
them as you would have believed."
Miller expects to have the final version of the documentary
completed by this summer. The latest work-in-progress version will
be screened at 4 p.m. May 1 in O'Brian Hall on UB's North (Amherst)
Excerpts of the documentary are available online: an
"orientation" segment at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsV8yWdvuEs
and an interview with an inmate at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwWegWyhrv0.
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