754 F.2d 1015 (2nd Cir. 1985), 693, Abdul Wali v. Coughlin

Docket Nº:693, Docket 84-2387.
Citation:754 F.2d 1015
Party Name:Gerald ABDUL WALI, 81-A-5803; LeMoine Arrington, 81-B-981, Kuwasi Balagoon, 83-A-6216; Abdul Beyah, 79-A-137; Theodore Churakos, 82-C-889; Carlos Cortes, 80-B-523; Charles Culhane, 667-A-0065; Frederick Curl, 77-C-687; Kasiem Dodell, 83-A-783; Mujahid Farid, 79-A-0362; Raymond Fernandez, 81-A-2686; Ronald Fox, 82-A-2445; Carlos Gonzalez, 76-A-2277;
Case Date:February 05, 1985
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

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754 F.2d 1015 (2nd Cir. 1985)

Gerald ABDUL WALI, 81-A-5803; LeMoine Arrington, 81-B-981,

Kuwasi Balagoon, 83-A-6216; Abdul Beyah, 79-A-137;

Theodore Churakos, 82-C-889; Carlos Cortes, 80-B-523;

Charles Culhane, 667-A-0065; Frederick Curl, 77-C-687;

Kasiem Dodell, 83-A-783; Mujahid Farid, 79-A-0362; Raymond

Fernandez, 81-A-2686; Ronald Fox, 82-A-2445; Carlos

Gonzalez, 76-A-2277; Charles L. Harris, 81-C-470; Kenneth

Johnson, 79-C-575; Jory Lowrence, 77-A-3323; Anthony

McBaine, 79-B-1261; Edward McCleary, 80-B-1598; Kevin

Richardson, 80-A-3080; Lamarr Rowell, 81-C-738; Sonny

Viele, 77-C-95; David Sealy, 81-A-4049; Jose Vazquez,

77-A-4295 and Albert Washington, 77-A-1528, Plaintiffs-Appellees,


Thomas A. COUGHLIN, III, Commissioner, Department of the New

York State Department of Correctional Services; and Harold

J. Smith, Superintendent of the Attica Correctional

Facility, in their official and individual capacities,


No. 693, Docket 84-2387.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

February 5, 1985

Argued Dec. 12, 1984.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Ellen M. Yacknin, Prisoners' Legal Services of New York, Buffalo, N.Y. (Joseph Kelemen, David C. Leven, Buffalo, N.Y., on the brief), for plaintiffs-appellees.

Martin A. Hotvet, Asst. Atty. Gen., New York City (Robert Abrams, Atty. Gen. of the State of New York, and Robert Hermann, Asst. Atty. Gen., New York City, of counsel), for defendants-appellants.

Before KAUFMAN, TIMBERS and ROSENN [*], Circuit Judges.

IRVING R. KAUFMAN, Circuit Judge:

The Sisyphean task of maintaining order in our nation's prisons has, in recent times, been discharged with diligence and industry. Those men and women charged with the daily control of these most volatile of institutions have done much to bring them up to the standards expected of a civilized society approaching the end of the twentieth century. It cannot be gainsaid that much remains to be done before we can rest. Neither can it be denied that many

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beneficial changes have been effected by the courts over the vigorous objections of corrections officials. By and large, however, the gains made in the safe and efficient administration of our prisons may be attributed to the anonymous professionals who daily toil at the cutting edge of our efforts to improve, while at the same time securing, our penal institutions.

As in all endeavors, prison guards and administrators develop great expertise during the course of their careers. Just as experienced physicians render diagnoses on the basis of symptoms they sense, but often cannot empiricize or articulate, so too, we are told, can those who work among prisoners develop "senses" concerning the potential for impending disobedience or unrest.

In the great majority of cases, it would be sheer folly for society to deny prison officials the discretion to act in accordance with their professional judgment. At the same time, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility as judges to assume (or, more precisely, to reassume) a "hands off" posture, requiring categorical acquiescence in such judgments. Where an inmate alleges that precious constitutional rights are being abridged, the judiciary has the power, and indeed the duty, to intervene in the internal affairs of a prison. Balancing the wisdom of judicial deference against the need for courts to involve themselves in preserving precious liberties is a task of inordinate difficulty. But face it we must if we are to discharge our arduous and delicate duty as protectors and defenders of the Constitution.

Today, we consider a claim that the State of New York impermissibly interfered with the rights of inmates to receive copies of a report detailing conditions within a prison. The abstract rights embodied in our Great Charter acquire meaning only by reference to the mundane realities of human experience. Accordingly, we find it necessary to describe the facts giving rise to this dispute in some detail. By doing so, we hope to clarify the legal discussion that follows.


Attica Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison in upstate New York. In September 1971, an uprising at the institution resulted in the deaths of forty-three persons--thirty-two inmates and eleven correctional employees. In the words of the Special Commission appointed by the Governor to investigate the incident: "[T]he State Police uprising which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War." Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica xi (Bantam Books ed. 1972) [hereinafter cited as "1972 Attica Report"].

In the aftermath of the riot, the very word "Attica" became symbolic of all that was wrong with America's maximum security prisons. Many observers expressed little surprise at the fact the riot had occurred; their only shock was at its not having happened earlier. The Report of the Special Commission set forth the conditions giving rise to the events of September 1971 in horrifying detail. We need not recount all those disturbing facts here. It is enough to say the Attica of 1971 was a squalid, degrading and dangerous place for convicts and guards alike. The prison's physical plant was vastly overtaxed. Built to house some 1700 inmates, the facility was then home to more than 2200. Emphasis was placed not on rehabilitation, but only on confinement and security. There were no meaningful educational or vocational training programs; idleness became the prisoners' principal occupation. An all-white staff of correction officers ruled an inmate population that was fifty-four per cent black and nine per cent Puerto Rican. Levels of personal hygiene and available medical care were scandalously low.

It would be comforting to believe that Attica was somehow different--that it was an exceptionally bad institution. Perhaps its archaic architecture was somehow to blame. After all, the thirty-foot-high wall and endless rows of six-foot by nine-foot by seven-foot cells were designed in another

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era. Or perhaps the tensions in Attica were the result of inner-city criminals being policed by officials familiar only with the rural life of northern New York State. The sad truth, however, was that the Attica of 1971 was little better or worse than other maximum security prisons of that time. That the riot broke out there had more to do with chance than with any idiosyncrasy of the particular institution. The words of the Special Commission made it hauntingly clear: "Attica is every prison; and every prison is Attica."

We recite these sad facts of our recent history not to suggest that the situation at Attica has remained unchanged in the thirteen years since the bloody uprising, but rather to emphasize the institution's history of tension and violence. Indeed, we are given to believe that some beneficial innovations have been effected since that time, although it appears that by 1982, much remained to be done.

The 1982 Report

On the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Report of the Special Committee on Attica, a private organization called the Correctional Association of New York issued a document titled Attica 1982: An Analysis of Current Conditions in New York State Prisons ("1982 Report"). The report, which was but one of many on the subject of that much studied institution, was highly critical of the prison's administration and the Department of Correctional Services. It began with the words: "There is a crisis in New York's prisons," and went on to describe many problems existing within the prison at that time. Comparing the situation to that prevailing a decade earlier, the report concluded:

While some improvements have occurred, in numerous areas our conclusions about inadequate, even dangerous, conditions echo those made ten years ago; there has been little improvement in the basic quality of life for prisoners and personnel, and little reduction in the underlying tension and frustrations that led to the uprising.

1982 Report at 3, reprinted in Joint Appendix ("J.A.") at 276.

Somewhat predictably, the 1982 Report angered prison officials, spawning a prompt and vigorous response. Thomas A. Coughlin III, then as now Commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS"), issued a press release in which he characterized the document as "misleading and irresponsible," and stating that its description of conditions "simply isn't true." J.A. at 309. Along with the press release, Coughlin distributed a thirty-two page "reply," taking issue with many of the Report's factual statements, as well as its conclusions.

Both the 1982 Report and Coughlin's reply were reported widely in the press, and generated a great deal of interest throughout New York State. As might be expected, among those individuals most anxious to see copies of the study so critical of conditions at Attica were inmates of that institution. Notwithstanding his displeasure at its contents, Coughlin allowed the document to be delivered to prisoners at Attica and other maximum security prisons.

The 1983 Prisoner Strike

Beginning on September 19, 1983, approximately 1700 of the 2100 prisoners then incarcerated at Attica began a sit-in strike at the facility. They refused to report to their work stations or educational programs, and published a letter listing grievances. The prison was immediately secured and the entire population was confined in their cells around the clock. In the days following, the superintendent of the institution met with representatives of various prisoner organizations with the specific goal of identifying...

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