Reaching Others University at Buffalo - The State University of New York
Skip to Content

CEPP Researcher Sheds Light on Attica and the Human Cost to Workers, Inmates in Maximum-Security Prisons

Published May 24, 2013

UB Law Professor and CEPP Affiliated Researcher, Teresa Miller's documentary, "Attica: The Bars That Bind Us," is an unprecedented look at life in Attica State Prison.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The scene looks normal -- a father kicking a soccer ball to his children, rubbing their heads in playful affection. The iconic towers and fence in the background tell the real story.

"When they first come in, I'm so excited. I'm so happy to see them, and everything," says Attica State Prison inmate Thomas Gant, who University at Buffalo Law School Professor Teresa A. Miller describes as a baby-faced 35-year-old preacher's son serving 25 years to life for a second-degree murder committed when he was 21 years old.

"And the second day, everybody is being a little nervous," he continues in the video footage of Gant's visit with his wife and four children behind Attica's walls. "I have to find out how they're doing in school, how they're doing around the house.

"The second day we usually get to talking more deep. They have to get used to the environment. Let them calm down and unwind. The second day is when we get more intimate. We have more of the talks. I get the boys together, find out what's on their minds."

Gant's use of the word "intimate" is well-chosen. The eight-minute segment of Miller's upcoming documentary "Attica: The Bars That Bind Us" featuring Gant shows an almost uncomfortably revealing look at Gant's limited attempts to be a father and husband while behind bars, as well as his family's reactions to his efforts. The segment -- ending with Gant saying goodbye to his family as they leave the prison -- represents a tiny fraction of the work Miller has been doing for the last five years.

An excerpt of Miller's in-progress documentary is available here: https://vimeo.com/44945530.

Miller's purpose: to show -- in as immediate a way as possible -- the "human costs" of living in a large men's maximum security prison through the voices of prisoners and their family members, the warden, correctional officers and others.

This video segment features Gant, one of the inmates who allowed Miller extraordinary access into their lives behind bars. But it's the equivalent of a trailer for a film trilogy, a few minutes from the more than 60 hours of footage Miller has compiled using a Canon digital video camera to show firsthand how long-term exposure in prisons like Attica affects everyone -- prison guards, administrators and staff --and not just the inmates.

When Miller distills her marathon project into one sentence, it's this: An irony of broad-scale incarceration is that correctional officers and inmates are both "doing the same time," she says. They both pay a high price for living and working behind Attica's walls.

"Ultimately, the film is about the human toll on those who have long-term exposure to Attica State Prison as inmates or staff," says Miller, whose work in prisoners' rights and advocacy has spanned the last 17 years. A constant through this research has been her attempt to be "comprehensive." Miller works with many people affiliated in various ways with Attica Prison and the larger prison system, including inmates, guards, civilians, volunteers and the families of those incarcerated.

"When I began working in prisons, I had the traditional idea that inmates and prison staff have widely varying, disparate experiences," says Miller. "However, after extensive exposure to so many different areas of Attica and so many different people, all connected by working or living in the prison, I came to realize that their experiences are two sides of the same coin.

"The negative effects of prison reach farther than just the inmates, pervading the experience of any- and everyone attached to the facility long term. The film attempts to shed light on the bleak picture incarceration paints for all who live and work in the maximum security setting."

The film, Miller explains, "is about aspects of your humanity you must deny, or boldly buck the system to maintain, in order to survive Attica.

"Rather than construct inmates or guards as heroes or villains, this film demonstrates that the nemesis is a criminal justice system that responds to problems of wealth inequality, racism and drug addiction through mass incarceration."

Miller has spent more than 100 hours behind Attica's walls over the past 17 years. The task of post-production is as much of a challenge as the filming was, she says. Besides the demands of compiling the footage into the actual film, Miller must attend to marketing and funding of the film, something she is using the increasingly popular crowd-funding platform "Kickstarter" to do.

Miller regularly takes UB law school students into Attica in order to enhance the learning experience. In doing so, she attempts to broaden the study of prisons in law, extending beyond traditional academic outlets, and delving into visual and social media. She has also partnered with New York's oldest prison reform organization, the Correctional Association of New York, to bolster public awareness of the need for prison reform. She attempts to reassess the prison system itself and the methods by which to interrogate its existence. "Attica: The Bars That Bind Us" is a prime example of this.

It's innovative and -- some may say-- pioneering work at the juncture of law school and digital videography, where teaching future, socially aware lawyers and prison reform combine. Last September, Miller organized a conference marking the 40th anniversary of the Attica riots, the deadliest prison riots in the country's history in which 39 people were killed after state troopers stormed the prison in response to inmates gaining control of the prison and taking hostages.

The three-day conference at UB -- located an hour from the prison -- attracted national attention and brought survivors of the riot -- prison guards and inmates --together for the first time since the uprising.

Miller's film, scheduled to be finished and released in commercial theaters in late 2013, introduces four major characters, then follows them, and several other minor characters, through the daily challenges of making a life in Attica. This includes the uncertainty of the superintendent's announcement of plans to retire as well as the approaching 40th anniversary of the Attica uprisings.

The four main characters, each of them what Miller calls an Attica "long-termer," are:

-- Superintendent James Conway, a second-generation prison employee who grew up in the Village of Attica, and who will retire soon, after eight years of commanding Attica State Prison, capping a 26-year career in corrections. Miller's documentary shows Conway's struggling with the responsibility of keeping Attica's correctional officers in line. At the same time, he needs to recognize the concerns of the inmate population which, if not addressed, could spark another uprising.

-- Gant, the preacher's son from the East Side of Buffalo, who tried to keep a positive attitude while struggling with his feelings of bidding his family good-bye as they left the prison. Gant struggles to parent his children from prison, and to be a positive role model.

-- Inmate Jose DiLenola, a Puerto Rican 30-something child of a deaf prostitute who is serving 24 years to life for beating a man to death. Locked up since his early, angry teenaged years, DiLenola has matured into a quiet, contemplative man, and a devout Muslim, fighting to stay centered in a prison marked by everyday random violence.

-- Officer Larry Lewis, a black officer, called by his faith in God to work with inmates in one of the toughest prisons for a black officer to survive in.

"When I first got there, that was the difficulty for me working in the visit room," says Lewis at the end of the Thomas Gant segment, "because I saw this young inmate. He had his wife and two beautiful kids, a boy and a girl. And when it was time to leave, the girl started to cry, 'But I want Daddy to come.' And I want to tell you something: That bothered me. Because first of all, I had to keep up that macho CO look. I had to keep order. But behind all that front, I was torn up. The kids are hurting. The kids are doing time, too."

With permission to film inside of Attica so rarely granted, Miller at once felt the weight of the responsibility along with the excitement of the opportunity to make a powerful statement with her film.

"I knew that I had only a limited window in which to realistically capture life and work inside a very complex institution," she says.

As she embarks upon the editing of the project into a feature length film, Miller feels the pressure to "get it right."

"I take the viewer along as we jointly explore the unexpected," she says. "Everything is not as it seems. The footage shot deep in the interior of the prison, as well as the opinions of both correctional officers and inmates, will surprise the viewer. It will cause you to question much of what you thought you knew about Attica."

Visit "Attica: The Bars That Bind Us" on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/pages/Attica-The-Bars-That-Bind-Us/251206581603804 to be updated on the production of the 2013 film. Or take part in the film's evolution through its Kickstarter campaign, to be launched in the coming weeks.