It all started with Attica . . .

The 1971 Attica uprising was the bloodiest prison confrontation in U.S. history.[1] It happened because prisoners had no way to air their grievances and no access to legal counsel. ​​September 13, 1971 was the day when then-Governor Rockefeller ordered state law enforcement agents to forcibly retake control of the Attica prison. Beginning on September 9, 1971, with a scuffle between two prisoners,  tensions rose when​ 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 1000 prisoners took control of the prison. When the state police arrived, they managed to regain control of a portion of the prison but the prisoners remained in control of cellblock D holding 40 hostages.[2] Their demands were soon made public.[3] 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 and 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 one of the inmate spokesmen.​

The prisoners, and many of the negotiators and observers, including Russell George Oswald, the State’s Commissioner of Correctional Services, urged then-Gov. Rockefeller to come to Attica and talk to the prisoners in person. Gov. Rockefeller refused and, after four days of 
negotiations, on the morning of September 13, 1971, Gov. Rockefeller gave the order for the takeover. In the end, ten hostages and twenty-nine inmates died. All of the hostages died from gunshots inflicted by state troopers and guards.

The McKay Commission Report

As a result of the uprising, a special state Commission was created to investigate and repot on the incident. Robert B. McKay, Dean of New York’s University Law School from 1967-1975, was chosen to Chair the Committee.[4] In September 1972, after dozens of hearings, the Commission issued its report: Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica.[5] In what has come to be commonly referred to as “The McKay Commission Report,” the Commission chastised New York State prison authorities for their poor planning and their quick embrace of lethal methods to subdue rebelling prisoners; it criticized Gov. Rockefeller for his failure to visit the prison before ordering an armed assault of the facility and it found that inmates needed a safety valve – a mechanism to air grievances – a window to the outside – a voice.

Prior to the Attica riot, there was “no meaningful program of education” and “idleness” was the “principal occupation.” Prisoners were paid between 30 cents to 50 cents a day to work in the metal shops which produced a state annual profit of $150,000.00. 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 were allowed.

The Response
In response, a number of law school prisoners’ rights clinics sprang up across New York State. One of those clinics was at Albany Law School. That clinic began at the urging of then-Appellate Division 3rd Department Presiding Justice J. Clarence Herlihy who 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.[6] 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).

The Creation of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York

Although not incorporated as a statewide non-profit until 1976, the concept of a statewide PLS began to take root even before the openings of the various law school prisoners’ rights clinics. In late 1973, the New York State Bar Criminal Justice Section created, and asked now retired Judge Phylis Skloot Bamberger to chair, a new committee to consider, among other things, civil representation of indigent prisoners.[7] In 1974, after months of research and investigation, Phylis Bamberger’s committee issued an in-depth Draft Proposal for the Provision of Legal Services to Indigent Inmates in New York State Correctional Facilities.[8]

The proposal first discussed the constitutional mandate of providing prisoners with access to the courts and then analyzed the difficulty in providing such access. It engaged in an exhaustive review of the existing legal services including an in-depth description of the various law clinics, legal aid and public defender programs, local bar associations, law libraries and prison law clerks available to prisoners at the time. Ms. 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 facilities across the state. The committee concluded that, in light of the inmate population, location of the institutions, 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, 3 Regional Directors, 20 staff attorneys, 18 paralegals, 18 support staff, 3 investigators and 1 bookkeeper.

To help move this proposal forward, in 1975, the New York State Bar Association, under the leadership of Robert P. Patterson,[9] prepared and submitted a grant application to set up the framework for this new statewide organization. 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 Ms. Bamberger’s committee’s findings. 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.

See PLS’ Original March 24, 1976 Certificate of Incorporation.

In 1976, additional funding of over $1 million from the LEAA made possible the hiring of staff and the officail beginning of PLS’ statewide operations. Robert P. Patterson became the first Chairman of the Board of PLS and Pierce Gerety[10] its first Executive Director. Both Judge Paterson and Pierce Gerety, who had spent several years conceiving of and creating the organization, devoted countless hours to the creation and implementation of PLS.[11] 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.[12]Pierce Gerety’s plan envisioned a statewide program, based in New York City, with six offices.[13] Soon after, “the Albany Law School clinic, supervised by Lanny Walters and Lewis Oliver, became the Albany Office of the larger statewide program.”[14]

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)  holding 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 that holding had on the funding of  Prisoners’ Legal Services, if any, but, in 1978, Governor Hugh Carey and the Legislature included $1,000,000 for the funding of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York in the final budget and PLS began operating as a state-funded organization providing critical civil legal services to incarcerated New Yorkers.

Since that time PLS has 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 for a more humane criminal justice system, but it hasn’t 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. In 1999, the New York State Assembly came to PLS’ aid and restored funding to PLS.

The American Bar Association recommends a ratio of one lawyer to every 400 individuals. Today, New York’s prison population is 54,000 and PLS has a staff of 23 – 15 of whom are lawyers. Comparing PLS’ current staffing (1 casehandler for every 3,600 prisoners) to the staffing proposed by Judge Bamberger’s committee forty years ago (1 casehandler for every 344 prisoners), it goes without saying that PLS is drastically understaffed and underfunded.

And yet, through it all, 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.

PLS was created thanks to the wisdom and foresight of individuals such as Judge Bamberger, Judge Robert Paterson, Pierce Gerety, Daniel Steinbock, Judge Herlihy, Professor Daniel Moriarty, and institutions like Albany Law School and the New York State Bar Association. Born in response to the Attica uprising 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.

History of Attorney/Client Ratios since 1976

Year:   1976                 1978              1990's               2017                                             
Ratio:  1 to 450         1 to 900       1 to 2100           1 to 3400                        

Benefits of PLS
By assisting incarcerated New Yorkers with legal problems, PLS ensures equal access to our system of justice. Most importantly, helping incarcerated New Yorkers resolve their problems reduces the tension and anxiety inevitably associated with imprisonment and also fosters a sense of fairness. In fact, various studies have concluded that Prisoners’ Legal Services programs make significant positive changes in prisoners’ attitudes and behavior.  Thus, the availability of PLS is important as a matter of sound correctional policy. Possibly the greatest value of the program is that it may help to avoid the development of the kind of conditions which led to the Attica riot in 1971.

PLS also engages in significant client educational efforts including the publication of a bi-monthly newsletter, Pro Se, which is distributed free to New York State prisoners. Pro Se advises prisoners of changes in the law, provides practice pieces to assist them in complying with statutory and regulatory requirements, and explains technical aspects of various laws affecting prisoners. PLS also periodically publishes a magazine focused on incarcerated women’s issues entitled: Essentials of Life to read our most recent issues click:  Vol.1, Issue 1

Assisting inmates also benefits the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). On behalf of its clients, PLS acts as a catalyst for constructive policy and programmatic changes. The courts, too, are benefitted. By discouraging the initiation of unnecessary litigation, the time of the courts can be conserved (as well as that of DOCCS personnel and the Attorney General’s office which represents DOCCS). PLS represents inmates on claims that merit the courts’ attention and articulates complex factual and legal issues involved, thereby promoting the courts’ understanding of prisoners’ complaints and increasing the likelihood of a just result.

Types of Cases Handled

PLS handles issues associated with disciplinary hearings resulting in solitary confinement and/or loss of good time, medical and mental health care, guard brutality, conditions of confinement and sentence and jail time computations. Most cases are resolved through administrative advocacy. Litigation, including impact and class action litigation, is commenced when appropriate.


[7]Judge Phylis Skloot Bamberger is a retired New York State Supreme Court judge who graduated from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, B.A. in 1963.
[8]September 2014 letter from Judge Phylis Skloot Bamberger to Karen Murtagh, Executive Director, PLS
[9]Judge Robert Paterson is currently a federal judge on senior status with 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.
[10]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.
[11]December 1, 2014 Letter from Daniel Steinbock to Karen Murtagh, PLS Executive Director.
[12]Daniel Steinbock is currently Dean of the College of Law and Harold A. Anderson Professor of Law and Values, University of Toledo.
[13] Steinbock letter supra note 3.

[14] Id.