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A Beautiful Soul

Story ID:10796
Written by:Suzana Margaret Megles (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Musings, Essays and Such
Location:various New York usa
Person:Elizabeth Fink
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I do not cry as easily as my sister Anna, but today I cried when I read the story of
Elizabeth Fink – one of 10 people profiled on the New York Times in the article –“The
Lives They Lived.” This may not sound much like something in keeping with the joys
of Christmas but I think it is. If you have not read her story yet, I think you will agree
because to me she personified love and caring. And isn’t that what Christmas really
is about – to share the love of God who became incarnate on the first Christmas
day so long ago in Bethlehem?

I felt sorry looking at her picture though because she really looked more like a man to
me than a woman, but certainly my pity was misguided. Beneath those simple trappings
beat the heart of a loving and caring woman. Her heart was quite simply made of gold.

She began her career in law in 1974. I knew she had spunk when I read that she had
driven 400 miles from Brooklyn to Buffalo to begin her new job at Attica Brothers Legal
Defense. Driving for me has always been challenging but at 29 to go so far alone made
me realize this lady had spunk. The job offered room and board but no pay. She realized
that she could only give it two weeks because obviously she would later need a salary.

I think everybody who was an adult in 1974 had heard about the prison revolt in the Attica
prison. In September of 1971 the frustration of poor prison conditions forced nearly one
thousand prisoners to revolt. They took several dozen staff members and civilian contractors
and held them hostage. Their demands seemed reasonable – better medical care, less
solitary confinement, and more fresh fruit were on the list.

Sadly, the reprisal ordered by then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller produced 4 days of horror. Tear
gas from helicopters spewed the prisoners. The National Guard opened fire on the unarmed
prisoners and in less than six minutes 33 inmates and 10 hostages were dead. The word
“bloodbath” aptly describes the situation. Could a meeting with the leaders of the revolt
have produced a kinder, better outcome? I would think so.

Sadly “Big Black” (Frank Smith) who was now the director of the Attica Brothers Legal Defense
had been one of the prisoners who would be beaten and tortured for his part in the prisoner
revolt. Retribution by prison officials was swift and cruel. He was beaten and tortured for 6
hours. It was hard to read what prison officials did to him. “He was forced to lie naked on
a table while vengeful law-enforcement officers insulted him with racial slurs, hit his genitals
and burned him with cigarettes. They put a football beneath his chin and told him that if he
let it drop, he would be killed.” For years afterward he would cry remembering that torture
and realizing how disappointed he was in the world and in people.

God bless Elizabeth Fink. When she heard Big Frank’s story and the story of other inmates
experiencing similar torments her plan for a two week stay was abandoned and she then would
spend 26 years of her life trying to bring some sort of justice for the inmates who had suffered
so terribly at Atticus. She became lead counsel for a $2.8 billion civil suit filed in 1974 against
the State of New York on behalf of more than 1200 victims of Attica. I believe the amount to
be too large, and after all- it was the prisoners who had been guilty of initiating what turned
out to be a very bloody revolt.

I don’t know if she won that case. In reality, I covered what was most important to me – the
great concern she had for the prisoners who were so ill treated after the uprising. Should they
have been punished? Of course, but certainly not the way they were. Do I justify the rebellion?
This is also hard to answer, but it seems to me that if they had made known by peaceful means
what they felt were justly due them and these concerns were not addressed- I wonder what would
you and I have done in a similar situation? I think things would have been different had their been
a meeting of the prisoners and the warden re their “demands.” And then perhaps they should
have realized that as prisoners why would they expect these “rights?” The issue is complicated.
Though you and I may well be torn, obviously Elizabeth Fink wasn’t. I admire her for dedicating
26 years of her life in an effort to address the whole Atticus uprising business.

She died in September of this year. She was 70 years old. God bless her for her compassionate heart.
I believe that today prisoners do get less solitary confinement, more fresh fruit, and better medical
care. It is sad that a horrific prison rebellion may have led to these common sense reforms.