It all started with Attica . . .
1971: The Attica Uprising
September 1972: The McKay Commission Report
On November 15, 1971, Governor Rockefeller signed an executive order authorizing a citizens’ committee, officially named the New York State Special Commission on Attica, “to conduct a full and impartial investigation and complete report of the facts and circumstances leading up to, during, and following the events that occurred at the Attica Correctional Facility between on or about September 9, 1971 and September 13, 1971.” The late Robert B. McKay, Dean of New York’s University Law School from 1967-1975, was chosen to chair the commission. In September 1972, after dozens of hearings, what was known as the McKay Commission issued its report: Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica (Report). The Report chastised New York State prison authorities for their poor planning and their quick embrace of the use of lethal methods to subdue rebelling prisoners; it criticized Governor Rockefeller for his failure to visit the prison before ordering an armed assault of the facility and found that incarcerated individuals needed a safety valve and a window to the outside, that is, a mechanism to air their grievances and a voice.
Prior to the Attica riot, there was “no meaningful program of education” in New York’s state prisons, and “idleness” was the “principal occupation.” Prisoners were paid between 30 cents and 50 cents a day to work in the metal shops which produced a state annual profit of $150,000.00 for the State of New York. Prisoners were only allowed to shower once a week and were limited to one roll of toilet paper every five weeks. Prisoners were forced to march in silence to their work and to the mess hall and no contacts visits – visits during which incarcerated individuals and their visitors are not separated by wire mesh or plastic barriers – were allowed.
History of Attorney/Client Ratios since 1976
PLS Original Articles of Incorporation
1974: Albany Law School Clinic Known as Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS) Opens
1974: A Proposal to Provide Civil Legal Services to Incarcerated New Yorkers
1975: The Proposal to Form a Legal Services Organization for Incarcerated New Yorkers Becomes a Reality
1976: Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York Opens for Business
In 1976, additional funding of over $1 million from the LEAA made possible the hiring of staff and the official beginning of PLS’ statewide operations. Robert P. Patterson became the first Chairman of the Board of PLS and the late Pierce Gerety its first Executive Director. Both Judge Paterson and Mr. Gerety, who had spent several years conceiving of and creating the organization, devoted countless hours to the creation of PLS. Daniel Steinbock joined Pierce Gerety as the second PLS employee that year and served in the position of Associate Director from June 1976 – 1977 and Executive Director from 1978 – 1979. Pierce Gerety’s plan envisioned a statewide program, based in New York City, with six offices. Soon after, “the Albany Law School clinic, supervised by attorneys Lanny Walters and Lewis Oliver, became the Albany Office of the larger statewide program.”
In 1976, with an operating budget of just over $1 million, PLS employed 35 attorneys and 10 legal assistants to serve a prison population of slightly more than 16,000. This worked out to a ratio of one lawyer to every 450 prisoners. PLS’ funding was increased to approximately 1. 5 million in 1977.
Also in 1977, the United States Supreme Court decided Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977). In Bounds, the Court held that states have an affirmative obligation to ensure that convicted felons have adequate, effective and meaningful access to courts. It is unclear exactly what impact, if any, that holding had on the funding of Prisoners’ Legal Services, but, in 1978, Governor Hugh Carey and the New York State Legislature included $1,000,000 in the state budget for the funding of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York and PLS began operating as a state-funded organization providing critical civil legal services to incarcerated New Yorkers.
1978 Through Today: PLS Provides Civil Legal Services to Incarcerated New Yorkers
- Attica Revisited, A Talking History Project available at Attica Revisited (talkinghistory.org)
- This Day in History, “Riot at Attica Prison,” available at Riot at Attica prison – HISTORY
- “New Collections Spotlight: The Attica Prison Uprising: “If we cannot live as people, then we at least try to die like men,” John Gartrell, March 22, 2021, available at: https://blogs.library.duke.edu/rubenstein/2021/03/22/new-collections-spotlight-the-attica-prison-uprising-if-we-cannot-live-as-people-then-we-will-at-least-try-to-die-like-men/ See also: “Attica’s Shame Endures,” Albany Times Union, September 18, 2011, David Levin and John Dunne, available at Attica’s shame endures (timesunion.com)
- John Dunne later became a member of the Prisoners’ Legal Services Board of Directors where he assisted in the operation of the legal services program until his death in 2020.
- “The Law: A Year Ago at Attica,” Time Magazine, September 25, 1972, available at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,903593-1,00.html
- Attica Revisited, A Talking History Project The McKay Commission, available at: New York State Special Commission on Attica ~ Attica Revisited (talkinghistory.org)
- Adjusted for inflation, in today’s dollars $150,000 would be $981,025.93. The Justice Center History | Albany Law School
- The late Justice Phylis Skloot Bamberger was then a retired New York State Supreme Court Justice.
- Justice Bamberger graduated from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, B.A. in 1960 and received her law degree from New York University Law School in 1963.
- September 2014 letter from Judge Phylis Skloot Bamberger to Karen Murtagh, Executive Director, PLS.
- As of June 2021, there were 31,600 New Yorkers confined in state prisons.
- The late Judge Robert Paterson was a United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. He joined the court in 1988 after being nominated by President Ronald Reagan.
- Pierce Gerety, a Harvard-educated lawyer, who briefly considered the priesthood but instead devoted his life to helping refugees trapped in the maelstroms of war and disaster around the world, died on September 2, 1998 in the crash of the Swissair jetliner off Nova Scotia, see, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/04/us/pierce-gerety-56-official-who-helped-african-refugees.html
- December 1, 2014 Letter from Daniel Steinbock to Karen Murtagh, PLS Executive Director.
- Daniel Steinbock is currently Dean of the College of Law and Harold A. Anderson Professor of Law and Values, University of Toledo.
- Steinbock letter, above, note 14.
- In addition to lawyers who work on prison conditions issues, PLS also has a separately funded Immigration Unit that provides representation to incarcerated New Yorkers who are facing deportation, unaccompanied immigrant children who are being held at Berkshire Farms in Canaan, NY and people detained and facing deportation in the Capital District and the North Country. As of May 2021, the Immigration Unit is staffed by 15 lawyers, one accredited representative, two paralegals and one paralegal/administrative assistant.