To provide high quality, effective legal representation and assistance to indigent prisoners, help them to secure their civil and human rights and advocate for more humane prisons and for a more humane criminal justice system.

It all started with Attica . . .

The Events

1971: The Attica Uprising

The 1971 Attica uprising was the bloodiest prison confrontation in U.S. history. The uprising occurred shortly after prison administrators rejected a list of demands for better living conditions made by incarcerated people at Attica. At that time, there was no grievance mechanism for resolving complaints about inhumane conditions or about mistreatment by prison guards, nor did prisoners have access to legal counsel or the courts. Thus, their demands rejected, the prisoners had nowhere else to take their grievances. The uprising began on September 9, 1971, when tensions rose as rumors spread that the two prisoners who had been placed in isolation would be tortured. The situation escalated and the following day a group of over 1,000 prisoners took control of the prison. The State Police managed to regain control of most of the prison, but the prisoners remained in control of D Yard, along with 40 hostages. The prisoners put together a list of demands that were soon made public. Among them were demands to end slave labor, racism, brutality and segregation due to political beliefs. They also demanded that they be allowed to practice their religion, be provided legal representation at their parole board hearings, be provided better living conditions and be given full amnesty for their present actions. “If we cannot live as people, then we will at least try to die like men,” declared Charles Horatio Crowley, also known as Brother Flip, one of the inmate spokesmen. The prisoners and many of the negotiators and observers urged then-Governor Rockefeller to come to Attica and talk to the prisoners in person. Those urging the Governor to go to Attica included the late Russell George Oswald, the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) and the late New York State Senator John R. Dunne, chief negotiator for the prisoners who later came to be known as the Attica Brothers. Governor Rockefeller refused and, after four days of negotiations, on the morning of September 13, 1971, he gave the order for the takeover. State troopers and prison guards entered the prison with guns blazing. When the shooting stopped, ten hostages and twenty-nine incarcerated individuals were dead. All of the hostages and incarcerated individuals died from gunshots inflicted by state troopers and correction officers.

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

Ratio 1:450
Ratio 1:900
Ratio 1:2,100
Ratio 1:3,400

PLS Original Articles of Incorporation

The Response

1974: Albany Law School Clinic Known as Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS) Opens

In response to the McKay Commission Report, prisoners’ rights clinics sprang up at a number of law schools across New York State. One of those clinics was at Albany Law School. The Law School created the clinic at the urging of the late Justice J. Clarence Herlihy, then-Appellate Division, Third Department, Presiding Justice, who also called for the implementation of a prison grievance process and access to legal representation for prisoners to allow them to present their claims in court. In turn, in 1974, under the sponsorship of Justice Herlihy, and the supervision of Professor Daniel Moriarty, Albany Law School created its first clinic: Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS).

1974: A Proposal to Provide Civil Legal Services to Incarcerated New Yorkers

Although PLS was not incorporated as a statewide non-profit organization until 1976, the concept of a statewide legal services organization for prisoners took root soon after the Uprising. In late 1973, the Criminal Justice Section of the New York State Bar Association created, and asked the late Justice Phylis Bamberger to chair, a committee to consider civil representation of indigent prisoners. In 1974, after months of research and investigation, the Committee, chaired by Justice Bamberger, issued an in-depth Draft Proposal for the Provision of Legal Services to Indigent Inmates in New York State Correctional Facilities (Proposal). The Proposal first discussed the constitutional mandate of providing prisoners with access to the courts and then analyzed the obstacles to providing such access. It engaged in an exhaustive review of existing legal services for incarcerated New Yorkers, including a close examination of the various law clinics, legal aid and public defender programs, local bar associations, law libraries and prison law clerks. Former Justice Bamberger’s Committee found that, even with all of the existing legal services available to prisoners, “inmates in New York [were] not being given the legal assistance necessary to make their right of access to the courts a reality.” In light of this, the Committee proposed “a comprehensive systematic program . . . initiated at the state level” to provide prisoners access to the courts. The Proposal noted that there were approximately 13,100 New Yorkers incarcerated in 12 prisons across the state. The Committee concluded that, in light of the inmate population, location of the prisons, and the work-load, there should be three regional offices staffed, at a minimum, by a total of 67 staff. The Committee proposed that the staff should include a Project Director, Assistant Director, Research Attorney, three (3) Regional Directors, 20 staff attorneys, 18 paralegals, 18 support staff, three (3) investigators and one (1) bookkeeper.

1975: The Proposal to Form a Legal Services Organization for Incarcerated New Yorkers Becomes a Reality

In 1975, to help move the Committee’s proposal forward, the New York State Bar Association, under the leadership of the late Robert P. Patterson, prepared and submitted a grant application to set up the framework for a statewide legal services organization for incarcerated New Yorkers. The grant application, submitted to the New York State Office of Crime Control Planning, requested $32,192 to, among other things, incorporate a not-for-profit corporation, draft its charter and by-laws, select members for the Board of Directors, draft job descriptions, locate suitable office space for the three regional offices, and develop a blueprint for full implementation of the legal services program consistent with the findings of Justice Bamberger’s Committee. The grant was awarded and the requested funds were furnished by the Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). As a result, on March 24, 1976, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLS) was incorporated.

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

The staff of PLS has always worked tirelessly to fulfill its mission of providing high quality, effective legal representation and assistance to indigent prisoners, helping them to secure their civil and human rights and advocating for more humane prisons and a more humane criminal justice system. Keeping PLS afloat financially has not been easy. Over the years, stagnant budgets and budget cuts have forced PLS to drastically reduce staff. In 1998, Governor Pataki vetoed PLS’ funding and forced PLS to close its doors. A year later, the New York State Assembly partially restored PLS’s funding. The American Bar Association recommends a ratio of one lawyer to every 400 individuals. Today, New York’s prison population is 31,600 and PLS has 15 lawyers working on issues relating to prison conditions. Comparing PLS’ current staffing (1 attorney for every 2,106 prisoners) to the staffing proposed by Justice Bamberger’s committee forty years ago (1 casehandler for every 344 prisoners), it goes without saying that PLS is grossly understaffed and underfunded. Nonetheless, PLS has continued to provide thousands of incarcerated New Yorkers the legal help they need to adequately prepare themselves for reintegration into society including: ensuring placement in suitable vocational and educational programs; challenging unjust disciplinary hearings; obtaining critical medical and mental health treatment; advocating for family communication and visitation; and correcting jail time and sentencing errors. In 2015, PLS was able to expand its legal work to provide representation to incarcerated individuals facing immigration issues, thanks to funding from the Vera Institute of Justice. More recently, by creating a Rapid Response Unit that provides immigration representation to individuals detained or facing detention in Albany, Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Warren, Washington, Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lewis, St Lawrence County jails, PLS has further expanded its immigration work with funding from the NYS Office of New Americans. PLS also provides representation to immigrant children being held at Berkshire Farms in Canaan, New York, with funding from the federal Office of Refugee and Resettlement. PLS was created thanks to the wisdom and foresight of individuals such as Justice Bamberger, Judge Robert Paterson, Pierce Gerety, Daniel Steinbock, Judge Herlihy and Professor Daniel Moriarty, and institutions like Albany Law School and the New York State Bar Association. Rising from the Attica conflagration and nurtured through the hard work and dedication of numerous individuals over the years, PLS has always been and will always be committed to ensuring access to the courts for all incarcerated New Yorkers.
  1. Attica Revisited, A Talking History Project available at Attica Revisited (talkinghistory.org)
  2. This Day in History, “Riot at Attica Prison,” available at Riot at Attica prison – HISTORY
  3. Id.
  4. “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)
  5. 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.
  6. “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 
  7. Attica Revisited, A Talking History Project  The McKay Commission, available at: New York State Special Commission on Attica ~ Attica Revisited (talkinghistory.org)
  8. Adjusted for inflation, in today’s dollars $150,000 would be $981,025.93. The Justice Center History | Albany Law School
  9. The late Justice Phylis Skloot Bamberger was then a retired New York State Supreme Court Justice. 
  10. 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.
  11. September 2014 letter from Judge Phylis Skloot Bamberger to Karen Murtagh, Executive Director, PLS.
  12. As of June 2021, there were 31,600 New Yorkers confined in state prisons.
  13. 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.
  14. 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
  15. December 1, 2014 Letter from Daniel Steinbock to Karen Murtagh, PLS Executive Director.
  16. Daniel Steinbock is currently Dean of the College of Law and Harold A. Anderson Professor of Law and Values, University of Toledo.
  17. Steinbock letter, above, note 14.
  18. Id.
  19. 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.