Attica Quaker Worship Group: With, Not For
by Karen Reixach
At a distance of 40 years, with all my papers on Attica sent to Friends Historical Society, and with most of the outsiders involved in Attica in the late 1970s and early 80s having died, this account may have things out of order and things omitted. But here are some of my memories.
Our first worship was held in the school on a Friday evening from 6-9 in 1978 or 1979. To get to the school, we passed through 14 locked gates—clang, clang. The hallway to the school had a wire fence from floor to ceiling at each end. To get out from the school that night, the guards had all the incarcerated men collect in that fenced space and the volunteers walk through the crowd in what seemed to me to be an invitation to hostage-taking. (Remember this was less than 10 years after the Attica uprising in 1971.) I went home that night and considered rather melodramatically what I was willing to die for and decided that the odds were low of actually being taken hostage and once I knew the insiders who attended the meeting, they would likely watch out for us.
This worship culminated a careful discernment process because the request for a Quaker worship group at Attica came from Winston Moseley, who wrote to Janet Lugo of the Quaker Information Center (located at Syracuse Meeting in the late 70s). Winston had raped and murdered Kitty Genovese, a notorious crime, and had escaped from prison and raped another woman. But I don’t remember anyone saying no simply on the basis of who requested the worship group.
Farmington-Scipio Region was already supporting the Auburn Prison worship group, so there was some experience both in discernment and how such a worship group might go.
My recollection is that a group from Farmington-Scipio Region met at a chapel at UB Amherst to consider this opening. Newton Garver from Buffalo Meeting who had served time in Danbury Prison for draft resistance in the early 50s; Mike Farrell of the Amherst worship group who had attended the Auburn Prison worship group, as had I; Ann and Franklin Mesler, an older couple from Hartland Meeting, and perhaps a few others were there. Mike and I offered to go to Attica and meet with Winston Moseley as soon as that could be arranged.
So called “contact” visits, in which the visitor and the person in prison can sit at a table together, had not yet made it to Attica. So Mike and I sat on a bench with a heavy screen between us and Winston. Over the time together, we got acquainted and discovered a man who knew that he would likely die in prison and was looking for ways to help himself and others to grow. And he was probably taking our measure to see whether we were up to sustaining a worship group in the harsh conditions of Attica.
We recommended that the Region proceed with the worship group, and the next step was to get the prison to provide time and space. The superintendent summoned some of us to meet with him, which required driving through a heavy snowstorm to have a few cordial words with him (and for him to assess us, I suspected.) Soon afterward we began holding worship every other Friday because that was what we could sustain. Sometimes in the early days, only one insider would show up, the others having been refused release from their cell. But we persisted.
Recruiting Roland Warren, Clarence Klingensmith, and eventually Suzanne Blackburn from Alfred, as well as other faithful outside attenders from Rochester—especially Fred and Judy Halley—eventually enabled a weekly time of check-ins, worship, program on Quaker topics, and a period for relaxed conversation.
The Region established an Oversight Committee, which met monthly for a number of years at a bar/restaurant in town prior to going in to the prison. The Committee was an essential element in sustaining our presence and a source of deep connection among the outsiders from urban and rural, pastoral and unprogrammed meetings.
Attica remains a harsh place, and the “one religion” policy, instituted by Albany in the 90s requiring prisoners to register with a single religion and barring them from attending other services, has kept numbers low in the worship group at Attica. But the worship can go deep, and those from the outside are not there for the men behind the walls but rather with them, united in Spirit.