Look over that ridge. A tower peeks out. It’s oddly whimsical – a curvy turret, touches of copper. It could be Cinderella’s castle. Or a theme park.
Then you round the bend, and you see the stark, endless walls. It’s a prison.
And not just any prison. Attica Correctional Facility is known in the industry as a “supermax” prison. It is invariably ranked, along with a handful of others such as Riker’s Island and San Quentin, as one of the most notorious prisons in the nation. Seen head-on, it’s chilling. Two of us from The News pulled into the parking lot and …
“Stop!” A bullhorn voice, incredibly loud, boomed out of the watchtower, which we noticed was topped improbably with a weather vane. “Put down the camera! You are not authorized to take pictures from the property.”
“We are authorized,” we called back. “We called! We … ”
“I can’t hear you,” the tower called back.
It was an embarrassing screw-up. The State Department of Corrections, while courteous, had said to stay on the road. Long story short, do not try to take pictures from the prison’s grounds.
Instead, stay back, and take it in from a distance.
Opened in 1931, the prison was designed by a Poughkeepsie architect, William Beardsley. Beardsley also designed friendlier buildings, including the Dutchess County Courthouse and the Union Baptist Church in Baltimore. Those two creations are on the National Register of Historic Places and yes, the massive Attica prison is, too.
It might be relevant, regarding Attica, that Beardsley had been himself the victim of a crime. It happened in Buffalo, in 1908. He was asleep on a Pullman train and woke to find he had been robbed. Everything was gone – his money, his watch and all his clothes. Beardsley had to get Pullman staff to assist him so he could go into Buffalo and buy clothes.
Could that outrage have been on his mind as he designed this prison? One has to wonder.
There is a haunting contrast between beauty and misery. The countryside surrounding the prison is gorgeous, with rolling hills, historic barns and stunning Victorians. Imagine knowing you are heading not into this paradise, but to prison. Then to see those strangely picturesque towers, with their Disney peaks. It looks surreal, like a dream.
As far as what lies behind those walls, you do not have to use your imagination. A new museum across the street tells you what you want to know, and then some.
Admission is free. Bring your friend who thinks gangs are cool. Show that person the actual-sized cell, with the stainless steel toilet/sink combo, the narrow cot. The 1930s leg irons, the 1950s menus, the ingenious sculptures inmates have made out of soap – this stuff is fascinating, but it ain’t pretty.
Todd Kibler, the corrections officer who welcomed us, pointed out a tattered set of clothes worn by one of the guards in the notorious 1971 Attica uprising.
“The inmates made him strip and put these on,” he said. We learned that the guard, who survived, was Kibler’s mother-in-law’s brother. The clothes were held as evidence by the state until just two years ago, when they were passed on to the family.
With that in mind, it is moving to see, by the door, the Correction Officer’s Prayer. “Lord, grant me the courage to go where others dare not go.” What a presence the prison has been in this town. Maps and photos show that you are seeing just a tiny corner of it. Those stark walls, which have enclosed such inmates as Son of Sam David Berkowitz and Mark David Chapman, go on forever.
Had enough? With a touch of humor and pride, the museum sells caps, shirts, and mugs reading “Attica State Prison.” Who can resist? Grab one. Then go.
Take a moment to thank God that you can.