The Marshall Project

Spying

An incarcerated journalist reports on the impact of surveillance on a culture of violence.

It was January 2006, and Josef Kirk Fischl was tucked away behind a 30-foot-high gray wall in C Block, one of Attica Correctional Facility's toughest cellblocks. He had already served more than 16 years on a 25-to-life bid for a murder he committed when he was 19.

At the time, Fischl was sporting dreadlocks down his back. One day, filing out to the yard, he walked through a gauntlet of corrections officers holding wooden batons, their arms sleeved in tattoos—skulls, dragons, spider webs wrapped around elbows. He was ordered to put his hands on the wall. It hadn’t taken long for the COs to home in on the white guy with dreads.

Once the corridor was cleared of other prisoners, an officer said to Fischl, "Cut those dreads. Take it back to your cell."

The next day, a different CO stopped Fischl on the way to the mess hall and told him that only Rastafari were allowed dreads and that he had to cut his. Fischl said no, according to the officer, who gave him a misbehavior ticket for refusing a direct order. By the time of the ensuing disciplinary hearing, Fischl had already written to the chaplain and changed his religion from Jehovah's Witness to Rasta. He was found guilty of the infraction but allowed to keep his dreadlocks.

Twelve days after the hearing, Fischl’s company (a tier of cells) had a seemingly routine shakedown. But when his cell opened, he recalled, two officers wearing black leather gloves rushed in and rained down blows on him. Beaten and handcuffed, Fischl was dragged off to “the box,” also known as solitary.

To Fischl, the beatdown was no mystery: The C Block COs had been slighted when the reprimanded inmate got to keep his dreads. So they got payback.

Fischl received a misbehavior report saying he had assaulted the officers by lunging at them with a shank. At the disciplinary hearing, it was Fischl’s word against the COs’. At the time, there were no surveillance cameras in the cellblocks at Attica—Fischl had no evidence to counter the allegations against him. He was found guilty, and received nearly a year of box time plus the loss of all privileges during that period: commissary, phones, packages. (The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS, declined to comment on specific incidents described in this story.)

It’s worth pausing to note that Fischl has been on and off the caseload of the state prison system’s Office of Mental Health (OMH) and is sometimes given to psychotic episodes. So his account may not be entirely reliable.

But for those of us who have served time in Attica, one of America’s most notorious prisons, Fischl’s ordeal was business as usual. Attica’s dirtiest little secret, by Tom Robbins for The Marshall Project and The New York Times, is that for years, officers had been falsifying misbehavior

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