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The four-day revolt at the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, ends when hundreds of state police officers storm the complex in a hail of gunfire. Thirty-nine people were killed in the disastrous assault, including 29 prisoners and 10 prison guards and employees held hostage since the outset of the ordeal.
On September 9, prisoners rioted and seized control of the overcrowded state prison. One prison guard was fatally beaten. Later that day, state police retook most of the prison, but 1,281 convicts occupied an exercise field called D Yard, where they held 39 prison guards and employees hostage for four days. After negotiations stalled, New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller ordered the state police to regain control of the prison by force.
On the rainy Monday morning of September 13, an ultimatum was read to the inmates, calling on them to surrender. They responded by putting knives against the hostages’ throats. At 9:46 a.m., helicopters flew over the yard, dropping tear gas as state police and corrections officers stormed in with guns blazing. The police fired 3,000 rounds into the tear gas haze, killing 29 inmates and 10 of the hostages and wounding 89. Most were shot in the initial indiscriminate barrage of gunfire, but other prisoners were shot or killed after they surrendered.
In the aftermath of the bloody raid, authorities said that the inmates had killed the slain hostages by slitting their throats. One hostage was said to have been castrated. However, autopsies showed that these charges were false and that all 10 hostages had been shot to death by police. The attempted cover-up increased public condemnation of the raid and prompted a Congressional investigation.
The Attica riot was the worst prison riot in U.S. history. A total of 43 people were killed–prison guard William Quinn, the 39 killed in the raid, and three inmates killed by other prisoners early in the riot. In the week after its conclusion, police engaged in brutal reprisals against the prisoners, forcing them to run a gauntlet of nightsticks and crawl naked across broken glass, among other tortures. The many injured inmates received substandard medical treatment, if any.
In January 2000, New York State settled a 26-year-old class-action lawsuit filed by the Attica inmates against prison and state officials. For their suffering during the raid and the weeks following, the former and current inmates accepted $8 million.
Muhammad Ali poem on the Attica prison massacre
The world famous boxer Muhammad Ali read a poem he wrote for the the Afro-American victims of the 1971 Attica prison massacre.
World Bulletin / News Desk
The world famous boxing champion Muhammad Ali appeared in an interview which was televised in Ireland, in which he recited a poem he wrote about the 1971 Attica prison riots.
The riots which took place 42 years ago resulted in the death of 39 people, including some prison guards. It all started on September 9, 1971, when a black inmate was killed while trying to escape the prison. Over the following four days, up to 2,200 black prisoners rebelled against the prison guards, taking 42 of them hostage.
Nelson Rockerfeller, the then governor, refused to negotiate with the prisoners demands for better treatment and conditions. Soldiers raided the prison facility on September 13, dropping teargas and then shooting randomly into the smoke for two minutes non-stop. 29 prisoners were killed on the spot. 9 prison guards were also killed on that day, some with slit throats, suggesting that the prisoners had killed their hostages in retaliation for the raid. 1 hostage died of a gunshot wound later on.
After reading the poem, Muhammad Ali related the struggle of the Afro-Americans for freedom and justice to the struggle of the Irish against British imperialism. The transcript of the poem can be read as follows
Better far&mdash from all I see&mdash
To die fighting to be free
What more fitting end could be?
Better surely than in some bed
Where in broken health I'm led
Lingering until I'm dead
Better than with prayers and pleas
Or in the clutch of some disease
Wasting slowly by degrees
Better than a heart attack
or some dose of drug I lack
Let me die by being black
Better far that I should go
Standing here against the foe
Is the sweeter death to know
Better than the bloody stain
on some highway where I&rsquom lain
Torn by flying glass and pane
Better calling death to come
than to die another dumb,
muted victim in the slum
Better than of this prison rot
if there&rsquos any choice I&rsquove got
Kill me here on the spot
Better for my fight to wage
Now while my blood boils with rage
Less it cool with ancient age
Better violent for us to die
Than to Uncle Tom and try
Making peace just to live a lie
Better now that I say my sooth
I&rsquom gonna die demanding Truth
While I&rsquom still akin to youth
Better now than later on
Now that fear of death is gone
Never mind another dawn.
September 27, 1971
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CSU Archives/Everett Collection Police officers identify dead bodies at Attica prison, 1971.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the September 27, 1971, issue of The Nation.
One of the convicts in the maximum security "correctional facility" at Attica, NY, ad-dressed the ad hoc committee of observers assembled within the prison walls: "We do not want to rule we only want to live…but if any of you gentlemen own dogs, you’re treating them better than we’re treated here." On that basic fact there is general agree-ment. Only twelve days before the uprising, State Correction Commissioner Russell G. Oswald sent a taped message to the 2,000 inmates outlining the steps he was working on to make conditions more nearly bearable. "What I’m asking for is time," he told the prisoners, but time ran out on him. About half the prisoners rose in what amounted to an insurrection which, prudent foresight suggests, is a harbinger of worse to come. They had no firearms. The assault force, also numbering about 1,000, was heavily armed. When they had done their. work, thirty-nine men were dead–nine hostages out of the thirty-eight that the convicts had seized, and thirty convicts.
Could this bloody outcome have been avoided? One can only conjecture, but the consensus among enlightened observers is that it could. Mayor Kenneth A. Gibson of New-ark termed the suppression "one of the most callous and blatantly repressive acts ever carried out by a supposedly civilized society on its own people." Now Governor Rockefeller is calling for the formation of a five-member panel to investigate what happened. It is to consist of "some top people in the correctional field." In Commissioner Oswald he had a top man, who negotiated with the inmates and seems to have made a good impression on the committee of observers. But the Governor refused to come to Attica, although his mere presence in the town — no one expected him to go inside the prison walls — might have cooled things off sufficiently to enable an agreement to be reached. And, knowing nothing of the circumstances, President Nixon expressed his support of the Rockefeller hard line.
There was undoubtedly a lunatic fringe among the inmates–those who demanded their release to a "non-imperialist power"–but the great majority of those who took part in the insurrection were rational men. Some were rational in the sense that all they wanted was better living conditions and the respect due them as human beings. Others were rational in a revolutionary sense: they were ready to die rather than continue to submit to society’s treatment of them. They died, and they won. America’s image is further tarnished before the world and, as Senator Muskie said, "the Attica tragedy is more stark proof that something is terribly wrong in America." That view contrasts with Rockefeller’s statement that the uprising was brought on by "the revolutionary tactics of militants," and that the investigation would include the role that "outside forces would appear to have played." Whatever outside forces were involved could not have moved a thousand men to such desperation.
The Attica massacre, in one aspect, was a victory of the "tough" school of penologists and the reactionary elements in American society over the modernists. Oswald never had the support of the Attica staff, nor of the townspeople, most of who make their living from the prison. They favored the former commissioner, who had come up through the ranks and was noted for his toughness. It was the reactionary elements that circulated a report that the nine hostages had had their throats cut by the convicts, and that one had been castrated. This lie was nailed by Dr. John F. Edland, the county medical examiner, who made an impressive appearance on TV. He examined eight of the bodies and found that all had died from gunshot wounds. Another medical examiner came to the same conclusion with regard to the ninth victim. The insurrectionists appear to have been responsible for only one death–that of a guard who–was thrown out of a win-dow and who died before the battle in the prison began.
Canards of this virulent type usually mark unjustified action by the guardians of law and order. At Kent State sniper fire was alleged to have impelled the Guardsmen to fire on the students. The commanding general fell back on this excuse and clung to it long after it had been disproved.
Several hundred thousand Americans are inmates of American prisons. At Attica, 85 per cent were Negroes or Puerto Ricans, in the custody of guards who, as one shouted on TV, hated "niggers." Society locks them up to get rid of them–the "correctional" label is a farce. Even separated as they are by incarceration in numerous state and federal penitentiaries, they constitute, morally and even physically, a formidable force. To return to Senator Muskie’s evaluation: the rebellion shows that "we have reached the point where men would rather die than live another day in America." The only solution, he said, was "a genuine commitment of our vast resources to the human needs of all the people."
Failure to heed such words would be not only inhumane but stupid. The observers invited into the prison by the insurrectionary inmates (see Tom Wicker’s superbly evocative dispatches to The New York Times of September 14 and 15) were impressed by the tactical skill, the poise and the single-mindedness of the defiant men. These prisoners were politicalized, using the term here not primarily with respect to whatever ideological convictions they may have held, but in the sense that they were aware of themselves as a considerable group sharing common experiences and goals. The uprising at Attica very little resembles prison riots of the past, when goaded men suddenly began beating on their cell bars, hurling their food to the mess hall floor and screaming obscenities at their jailers. This was group action, not mass hysteria. It is the latest, but not in all prob-ability the last, manifestation within a penitentiary of, what for lack of a better term is called today black nationalism. But Attica was not a racist movement blacks and Puerto Ricans were predominant in the resistance, as they predominate in the prison, but many whites stood with them. It was a class action–the class of the disinherited.
When men who have nothing discover that they have one another, they combine into units that are incalculably formidable. That is why the words of sane and compassionate men must be heeded. American prisons have never been institutions they have always been receptacles. But prisoners are not garbage. It is bad enough–indeed, it is probably wicked–that we deprive them of their freedom, but from now on if we also take from them all hope of a future, we may expect Attica to become the name for a new kind of war. Commissioner Oswald knew that before the first hostage was seized Rockefeller and Nixon will no doubt fade into the recesses of history with their eyes unopened.
After the Attica Uprising
September 9, 2011
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On the morning of September 9, 1971, Attica Correctional Facility, the largest and most secure prison in New York State, went up in a flame of resistance and rage. Just over half of the men incarcerated there—more than 1,200 people—took thirty-eight prison guards hostage, in a demand for their basic human rights. By the time their rebellion was forced to an end on September 13, forty-three men, prisoners and guards alike, were dead. Thirty-nine of the dead were shot on the orders of Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
To fully understand the prisoners’ rebellion at Attica forty years ago, one must first understand the complexity of 1971, which was Dickensonian in its unfolding: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We were a nation of hope, with the possibility of revolutionary change within our grasp. Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH was born that year. Thirteen Democrats, with imaginations shaped as much by their own dreams as the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements, founded the Congressional Black Caucus. Broad swaths of the American citizenry felt empowered enough to stand up against unjust government policies 60 percent of the electorate opposed the Vietnam War. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” was more than a beautiful song. It was the soundtrack that nourished the spirit of a movement. This was the best of 1971: its unmitigated hope.
The Attica Prison Uprising: Forty Years Later
But for those who knew the worst of that year, they recall events that unfolded with the brutality of a serial killer. Horror was a persistent thing. Soon after the government turned its weapons on its own children in 1970, killing four and permanently paralyzing another student at Kent State University for the crime of peacefully protesting the US invasion of Cambodia, 1971 would give birth to what many now refer to as “Black August.”
On August 21, George Jackson, prisoner, author and field marshal for the Black Panther Party, was shot and killed at San Quentin Prison in California for allegedly trying to escape his sentence of one year to life for robbing a gas station of seventy bucks. Jackson’s seminal work, Soledad Brother, a collection of prison letters published the year before, had firmly planted him in the seat of the hearts of people the world over, but with no group more so than America’s prisoners. The official explanation for killing him—that he’d hidden a gun in his afro—was summarily rejected by many, especially black prisoners who viewed it as an execution.
The next day, at Attica, the response to Jackson’s death was a silent prayer and fast. Eight hundred men—African-American, Latino and white—arrived for the first shift at the mess hall all wearing black somewhere on their clothing and sat in silence, refusing to eat. The staff knew something was brewing. Jackson’s death had sparked uprisings in other prisons. But Attica, with its fortress-like construction, seemed to an arrogant administration to be immune to such unrest.
It shouldn’t have. A month before, a group of prisoners known as the Attica Liberation Faction had submitted a petition to the state’s correction commissioner, Russell Oswald, demanding an end to the “brutal, dehumanized” conditions at the prison. Chief among their list of twenty-seven complaints was horrible overcrowding Attica, designed for 1,600 men was over capacity by at least 600 people. Prisoners got one shower a week and only one role of toilet paper a month. At Attica, brutality and beatings were a matter of course, as was the routine use of solitary confinement—otherwise known as “the hole”—where men were locked in strip cells for twenty-four-hours a day, where they would sleep naked on a concrete floor. Toilets were a hole in the floor. This was justified as a disciplinary measure, but prisoners themselves were often the targets of race-based attacks by members of the all-white staff who oversaw a population that was more than 60 percent Black and Latino.
But racism and brutal conditions on the inside were only a part of the story. On the outside, just two months before, President Richard Nixon had declared the War on Drugs, which sent out a coded but defining message out about crime, and who is a criminal. Nixon, we now know, believed that when it came to society’s ills, “you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” If in Vietnam the enemy had been “anything that moved,” for those tasked with waging this new war, the enemy was now anyone behind the wall.
Attica Correctional Facility is a sprawling complex that includes four separate yards, lettered A through D. They converge at a point referred to as “Times Square.” On the morning of September 8, 1971, there was a minor scuffle in A Yard. Under orders of Superintendent Vincent Mancusi, the two men involved, Ray Lamorie and Leroy Dewer, were forcibly dragged out of their cells later that night to be taken to the hole.
“These guys were being beaten through the halls,” a former prisoner named Albert Victory recalls. “That’s the way it was done. Men just couldn’t take it anymore.” One outraged prisoner threw a soup can at a guard, and was relegated to his cell—“keeplock”—as punishment. The next morning, thanks to a careless mistake by a junior officer, prisoners were able to free him so that he could go to breakfast. Mancusi found out and ordered yet another punishment, but when the guards tried to carry it out, the prisoners turned on them. The rebellion began. A mob of prisoners tore down the gates that led to Times Square and opened the passages to the rest of the prison. In the process, a guard named William Quinn was gravely injured.
In Victory’s recollection, it “spread like wildfire.”
At first there was a feeling of euphoria. The prisoners came together and organized themselves into committees. Black Muslims were selected to set up a security perimeter around the hostages-their most valuable bargaining tools-to make sure they were kept safe. They drew up a list of demands. They wanted more visits with their loved ones. They wanted religious freedom and food that met their religious beliefs. They wanted access to educational opportunities that would help them when they got out.
“What the inmates said had validity,” says Michael Smith, who himself was taken hostage in D Yard. A new corrections officer, just 22 years old at the time, Smith had actually seen a similar list of demands weeks before, when members of the Attica Liberation Faction drafted them to give to Commissioner Oswald. By Smith’s description, “they were humanitarian demands for religious freedom, medical care and education.”
But at the core of everything, recalls another Attica prisoner named Arthur “Bobby” Harrison, “was that we were sick of being dehumanized. We wanted to be seen as human beings.” Harrison joined Victory and all the other men in D Yard that day. They were determined, too, to show that they could be more humane than their keepers.
“We sent the wounded out for treatment,” Victory recalls. Among them was William Quinn. “We called for outside observers to come in and hear what we were saying. We wanted our story told.”
The prison administration had little choice but to comply. Among the observers they brought to Attica at the prisoners’ request were journalists, attorneys and even Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party, who helped push for a negotiated settlement. In theory, Oswald agreed to most of their demands. But there was little to make his promises binding, especially given that previous requests had been ignored. And, more importantly, the prisoners also wanted a promise of amnesty, given all the potential charges surrounding the rebellion itself. This would prove to be a crucial sticking point: the authorities already considered this to be too much to ask, and when Quinn succumbed to his wounds on September 11, his death marked the end of negotiations. For the prisoners, the question of amnesty became even more urgent: New York, after all, was a death penalty state. But the state could not be seen as capitulating. Appeals by the observers to bring Nelson Rockefeller to Attica to avoid a use of force failed.
“It was raining the morning of September 13,” Bobby Harrison recalls over the phone on another rainy day forty years later, standing beside his mother’s graveside. “Every time it rains, I’m right back there.” Helicopters now buzzed overhead. State troopers and guards from Attica and other prisons were positioned on rooftops with all manner of firepower: machine guns, big game rifles, shotguns. In a last ditch effort to force the state to negotiate, prisoners marched eight blindfolded hostages along the catwalk above the yard, threatening to slash their throats. Michael Smith was among them and in a terrible irony, Don Noble, a prisoner who had protected him during the initial takeover, was his designated executioner. But before Noble would have to make any life-or-death choices, the helicopters dropped canisters above the yard. Tear gas permeated the air, blinding the prisoners below. Then, without warning, the shooting began, the bullets as indiscriminate as the expanding cloud of poison.
It lasted about seven minutes. “Men were being picked off,” Bobby Harrison says, his voice rising. A friend of Harrison’s named L.D. Barkley, who had been very vocal on the bullhorn the leaders used to address the crowd (and who was in Attica for a minor parole violation on a previous charge of forging a check), was shot fifteen times at point-blank range. Smith and Noble were shot multiple times but survived.
In the end, ten guards and twenty-nine prisoners died on the morning of September 13, 1971. (Another four people died under uncertain circumstances over the course of the previous days.) Early reports blamed the hostage deaths on the prisoners, saying they slashed the guards’ throats. But every autopsy would determine that to a man, all the victims were killed by gunfire ordered by the state of New York.
After the attack, prisoners were made to lie facedown in mud and feces. They crawled from D Yard to A Yard, where they were stripped naked and forced to make their way through a gauntlet of guards who beat them with anything they had. Inside the cellblocks, guards had littered the floor with broken bottles. Prisoners walked—if they could and if not, they were made to crawl—on top of the glass and were shoved into the 6 x 9 cells.
Albert Victory remembers being in a cell with ten other men. “For most of us, our gunshot wounds went initially untreated,” Victory says. “Some of us were taken to the hospital in trucks that contained the bodies of the dead. But only the most seriously injured. …I only had two gunshot wounds. We were sent to the prison hospital. When I went to the prison hospital, I was beaten the whole way there. Beaten the whole way back.”
At Attica, life had returned to normal.
From the perspective of contemporary prison administrators, the story of Attica is embarrassingly primitive, with its images of rifles, Vietnam-era tear gas and the obviously bloody hands of the state. Forty years later, America seems to have learned from the uprising, not a human rights lesson but an Orwellian one. Prisons today are replete with techniques for high-tech, fool-proof management, complimented by PR savvy to control the message. Today’s prisons are designed to ensure that the Attica brothers’ central concern to be seen, heard and treated as human beings is not so much met as effectively neutralized.
Prisoners aren’t only disappeared from the outside world their ability to communicate with one another is also routinely suppressed in order to prevent the recurrence of any future Atticas. This fact makes modern prison protests, a number of which have occurred in the past year alone, all the more remarkable.
Last December, the biggest prison strike in US history took place, across at least six Georgia penitentiaries. It started as one-day work stoppage—prisoners refused to leave their cells—but stretched into a week. Coordinated via contraband cell phones, the protest was partly over Georgia’s refusal to pay prisoners for their work. But it reached a boiling point due to the daily grind of violence, isolation, lack of education, inadequate medical care and insufficient family visits. As a 20-year-old man incarcerated at Hays State Prison in Trion, Georgia told a reporter for the New York Times, contacted by cell phone, “We locked ourselves down because…we can’t be treated as animals.”
Then, this summer, prisoners in the Secure Housing Units—solitary confinement—at California’s Pelican Bay Prison staged a protest too, using the only recourse they had: a hunger strike to protest, among myriad other human rights violations, the cruel policy of indefinite solitary confinement. From July 1 to July 20, they refused to eat or drink. They eventually resumed eating because as one of their advocates, Dorsey Nunn, executive director of legal services for prisoners with children, explained, “people were in grave danger of dying.” But there are reports they will begin another hunger strike this month.
Many of the demands today are disturbingly similar to what the men at Attica asked for. But there is a difference between Attica and these protests. Where forty years ago civil rights leaders and journalists showed up at the request of prisoners to document what happened, no flag-bearers arrived to support the hunger strikers this summer or the prisoners in Georgia. “We contacted Cornel West, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Tavis Smiley,” explains Nunn. “But the prison population has been so demonized that supporting them is now seen as a political liability.”
The uprising at Attica was the worst this nation has ever seen. The use of troops against the members of the population, outside of massacres against indigenous people, was the bloodiest since the Civil War. The committee that investigated, known as the McKay Commission, was deeply critical of Rockefeller’s management of the situation and the former governor, who would go on to be vice president, would eventually admit that he wouldn’t recommend the use of force like that again. After decades, prisoners and guards who were in Attica those days in September, were compensated by federal and state authorities.
This was not justice. Nor were the right lessons learned. To return to the numbers of people incarcerated in 1971, approximately four out of five people imprisoned today would have to be released. The demands coming out of Pelican Bay and Georgia could have been written by the Attica Liberation Faction.
But Eddie Ellis, a radio journalist, prisoner reform advocate and former Attica prisoner who was locked in one of the secured areas of the prison during the uprising, says that the bloodshed at Attica did something important. “Attica exposed what was being done to people and it also showed what men were able to do in a few short days when we work together.” That history will serve us, one way or another. The choice, as it has always been, is up to us.
asha bandele asha bandele is an award-winning author and journalist whose most recent book is Something Like Beautiful: One Single Mother's Story (Harper Collins, 2009).
Attica State Prison
With awareness growing out of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, Malcolm X, The Black Panther Party, etc., Black and Latino Prisoners of 1970 began organizing rebellions against their treatment within the prison system. As with any information passed through the “grape vine” of the black community, the rebellions spread from prison to prison until it came to a head the Thursday morning of September 9, 1971. When the door prisoners used to go to the yard was locked, a fight broke out between the prisoners and the guards. As the fight grew, more prisoners joined until they broke open a gate connecting to another part of the institution and, to make a long story short, prisoners were let loose within the institution.
The Brothers locked the prison down, kicking butt and taking names. I mean (clears throat), taking staff members as hostages and implementing their own system of order within the prison. Appointing leaders to keep order and to be sure the staff was properly cared for, they demanded from the outside world better treatment within the prison system. Better medical treatment and less slave labor. But their “freedom” would not last long. When a hostage who was hit in the head at the beginning of the fight died from his injuries, the prisoners were responsible under the felony-murder rule. The felony was the riot and the murder was the death of the guard.
Inmates of Attica State Prison (right) negotiate with Commissioner Russell Oswald (lower left) inside the jail where prisoners took control
Shortly thereafter, a National Guard helicopter flew low over the yard and blew a cloud of military-grade CS gas into the crowd of men. As told to Attorney Jefferey Haas, under the name Big Black, one of the surviving prisoners of the time recalls:
“First came the tear gas. People looked for something to cover their face. When I first heard the shots, I thought they were blanks. Then the people around me in the yard starting dropping. I realized they were real bullets, and everyone ducked and ran for cover.” (September 16, 1971, Prisoner of The Attica Correctional Facility, New York, as told to Jeffrey Haas).
The gun shots Big Black is referring to are the marksmen who came in and started shooting, hitting 189 of the 1300 men in the yard and killing 31 people—29 prisoners and ten hostages. (There’s a conflict between the numbers. Some sources say 31 prisoners died and some 39. I use 31 because that is in accordance with the news articles of the time).
After the shooting, the beatings came:
Source: Getty Images. Prisoners marching naked.
“The guards stripped us naked after the shooting. They made us crawl naked in the mud through a gauntlet where they beat us.” – Big Black
Next, Big Black (Big, dark skinned and part of the security) was tortured as an example. They burned his body with cigarettes:
“They took me out of the line. They made me lie on a table naked on my back and put a football under my chin. They put their burning cigarettes out on me. Some dropped them from the catwalk above and was laughing.”
“Afterwards, a news photographer found and recorded a pair of inscriptions, in separate hands, written with a white marker on a dark steel wall that succinctly told the story of the Attica rebellion. The top one said, “Attica fell 9-9-71 – F*&k you pig!” Just underneath that was written, “Retaken 9-13-71. 31 Dead Niggers.”
– Dennis Cummingham, Prison Legal News
Riot: Prison guard hostages and inmates gather in the exercise yard of cell block D inside Attica State Prison in New York on September 9, 1971
While seeking freedom the men had forgotten one thing: slavery is abolished except as punishment for a crime. They were given slave-like treatment because as prisoners under the law, they were still slaves.
Learning from the Slaughter in Attica
Prisons are the bad conscience of the liberal imagination, a truth that tends to be most obvious to their most interested observers. Once, I got a letter from a death-row inmate in Texas, complaining that, in writing about incarceration, I had been insufficiently attentive to the French historian and theorist Michel Foucault. My correspondent seemed intimately familiar with Foucault’s argument that prisons are where the liberal state’s claim to superior humanity is at its most vulnerable. The eighteenth century’s pretensions to Enlightenment ended at the Tyburn scaffold, where wretches were publicly hanged for stealing a purse. The twentieth century’s pretensions to humanity end in mass incarceration and solitary confinement, where men are kept alive for years and subjected to procedural niceties while the state waits for the morning when it can paralyze and poison them. No “social contract” or “natural rights”: nothing but power relations, brutally enforced. We’re told that it is the sleep of reason that begets monsters, but what if reason, wide awake, is monstrous already?
Perhaps at some uneasy, half-conscious level, this sense that our moral self-definition is at stake when we talk about prisons explains why the riot at the Attica Correctional Facility, in upstate New York, in September, 1971, remains imprinted in public memory. Having previously inspired a Morgan Freeman movie, it has now inspired a long, memorable chronicle, “Blood in the Water” (Pantheon), by Heather Ann Thompson, a historian at the University of Michigan. Her book is dense with new information: much from survivors of the assault much from assembled firsthand testimony, some of the most startling from recently released Nixon White House tapes. Though her sympathies are entirely with the prisoners, she extends humanity and individual witness to the guards, who were also, in their way, victims of the uprising and its suppression. And she extends the story past the killings: more than half the book is taken up with the exhausting but ultimately successful struggle, on the part of guards and inmates both, for compensation from the judicial system for their suffering.
As with so many academic historians, Thompson’s capacity for close observation and her honesty, which are impressive, are occasionally undermined by a desiccated political vocabulary that bears little relation to the reality of American life, then or now. Fifty years on, the glamour of sixties revolutionaries remains, while the messes they made seem forgotten. The Weather Underground, one of whose members, Sam Melville, was a leader in the Attica uprising and then died there, were not simply part of a “revolutionary organization committed to fighting racism and imperialism,” as she writes they were violent, self-infatuated fools, who, as Hendrik Hertzberg wrote when they were at their height, in 1970, offered only “a huge, unearned windfall for the forces of repression.” Nor were the Black Panthers, whose co-founder, Bobby Seale, made a brief, insipid intervention at Attica, quite the virtuous militants her account suggests. Malevolently and homicidally persecuted though they were by the F.B.I., the Panthers had become, under Huey Newton, mindlessly cruel and misogynistic gangsters, capable of acts of torture and murder that still haunt the memory of those who witnessed them.
What happened at Attica in September, 1971? A series of accidents in a creakingly worn-out prison turned a modest petition for decency into a full-fledged takeover—one as surprising to the inmates as to anyone else—that, after four days, ended in a reprisal riot by guards and state police that left thirty-nine people dead. Attica was a hellhole. The largest industry in a forsaken and impoverished upstate town, it was a place where urban blacks were locked up in bathroom-size cells to be guarded by rural whites. Although Attica was a high-security prison, predating the great incarceration crisis of the next decades, the population was the usual mixture of small-time thieves and mid-level drug dealers, mixed in with a handful of violent offenders and some imports from earlier prison riots.
It wasn’t that conditions in the Depression-era prison were, by prison standards, uniquely horrible. It was that they were systematically horrible procedures designed to instill a minimal humanity had been allowed to degrade in ways that made every day a trial. The medical care, for instance, was so bad that the civilian staff of one of the cell blocks tried to take action against the indifference of the long-term doctors, one of whom was responsible for a prisoner’s death. These employees “debated a couple of options, including picketing the doctor’s private practice,” Thompson writes. As in any prison, the conditions often depended on the individual character of the keepers. Many of the younger correctional officers were broadly sympathetic to the prisoners’ plight. The twenty-two-year-old Mike Smith, for instance, was shocked by the practice of strip-searching the convicts. “He was fairly certain that he would have considered suicide had he been forced to undergo this ritual,” Thompson tells us. In July of the fatal year, a prisoner named Don Noble led a group that, with Smith’s active approval, drew up a petition of protest, whose “demands” were, for the most part, piteously simple and human—changes like providing showers in hot weather.
Then, on the morning of September 9th, a company of prisoners, being led back to their cells, sleepless and uneasy over a rumor that a prisoner had been killed by guards the night before, found themselves locked in one of the tunnels that connected their cell block to “Times Square,” the bleak central yard. Attica’s security depended on an aging, easily overwhelmed set of mechanical locks and levers, of a kind that one sees in Alcatraz movies. Thinking they had been deliberately trapped in the crowded tunnel so that the guards—the “goon squad”—would be free to retaliate against some of their number, the prisoners quickly found that the gate keeping them out of the yard could be broken with a homemade battering ram. It was an act propelled more by panic than by premeditation. Within minutes, a chain reaction of improvised insurrections and parallel mishaps—the antiquated phones made it impossible for the overwhelmed guards to make more than one call at a time other inmates came into possession of a set of master keys to the other cell blocks—allowed about twelve hundred inmates to take possession of Times Square and the D cell block and yard. The prisoners armed themselves with knives and clubs and, within an hour, were in control of the prison in which they had been confined in fear the night before.
What’s striking about the uprising is not the collisions of intractable ideological positions but, rather, the sheer confusion, missed opportunities, personal squabbles, and absurd procedural wrangles that governed it. The saddest irony is that the New York State Commissioner of Corrections, Russell Oswald, though later treated as one of the villains of the episode, was largely responsible for extending the occupation and allowing the prisoners the media megaphone that makes their voices still heard today. Oswald is a kind of caricature of the sixties liberal who infuriated conservatives (and often other liberals), someone so determined to do good that he can’t see past his own folly. He was a committed prison reformer—shortly after accepting the job, he had written a memo to Governor Rockefeller saying that having men locked “twelve or more hours a day in their cells is unacceptable to them and me.” And yet he managed, in four days, to enrage the inmates, exasperate his colleagues, and, probably, prevent the forces of order from taking back the prison when it still could have been done in a more or less orderly way. Since any imaginable modern state in any imaginable circumstance was always going to feel duty-bound to retake a prison after a mutiny, a forcible reconquest needed to be done either quickly or not at all: had it happened the next morning, when state troopers stood ready and the prisoners hadn’t yet dug in, it might have been much less violent. Trying to placate everyone, he only exacerbated everything.
Still, Oswald emerges as a genuinely tragic figure, a man of good will and integrity overcome by events. He had, Thompson says, rejected proposals to launch an assault, committing himself instead to talks with prisoners. He arranged for members of the press to come to D Yard and record the negotiations. It is odd to think that, with all the increase in media attention, we are actually far more media resistant now than we were then: no one would let a camera crew inside a yard during a prison hostage-taking today.
The story of the Attica riot that changed American prison conditions
Attica reinforced the notion that inmates needed to be more aggressively contained. (John Shearer/LIFE/Getty)
“W e’re saying that as prisoners it’s a new day,” said Greg Curry, an inmate at Ohio State Penitentiary, in told The Nation. “We’re not going to accept this anymore. We’re fighting for our basic human rights.”
Curry was referring to a nationwide prison labor strike planned for this week, but he sounded straight out of Attica. And in fact, the action is slated to begin on Friday, September 9th — the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising. In particular, the prisoners are calling for an end to forced labor, which was a major demand of Attica rebellion.
This week’s action is meant to be nonviolent, but Attica was very different. Though born of long-standing frustrations, it was a spontaneous combustion — and a bloody one. Its legacy is complicated: On the one hand, it gave birth to the modern prisoners’ rights movement, emboldening generations of incarcerated people to assert their civil rights. On the other, if Attica had been successful, there would be little need for such a movement today.
In the years leading up to the riot, recalled former prisoner Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, “Attica was a stark place. You only had an hour a day of recreation and the rest of the time, it was something out of the 1870s.” Poor medical care, overcrowding, forced hard labor, brutality from guards and deplorable living conditions were among the prisoner complaints.
Among the prisoners, Hayden explained, were radicals who represented groups agitating for social change during a moment of intense national unrest, including the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. “We began to come together,” said Hayden. “When I got there [in 1969], political education classes were being conducted in the yards.”
In summer of 1971, a small group called the Attica Liberation Faction put together a list of demands called the July Manifesto, and sent it to the state prison chief Russell Oswald. Oswald responded only with a videotaped message. By early September, writes Heather Ann Thompson in her new history Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, “Most men at Attica were now at a breaking point. Just about anything might cause this place to explode.”
On September 9th, a group of prisoners found themselves trapped in a tunnel leading to the recreation yard known as Times Square. The day before had been dramatic — one prisoner had been isolated, and another was feared dead. Believing that the trap was intentional and that an attack by guards was imminent, the inmates broke down the door. The chaos sparked a takeover of Times Square, and then the whole prison.
“It was a spontaneous event,” Hayden says. “It came, and all the people in there who were politically conscious and awake and aware of the circumstances they were in, they took control.” Thompson echoes this assessment, saying in an interview with Jacobin, “It is a riot, I think, in the truest sense of the word, in those first few moments. But… this is where the political organization comes in, because this is the moment that it does become a rebellion.”
Though unplanned, Attica was from nearly the beginning an explicitly politicized conflict. The language spoken by prisoners was the language of revolution. They set to work voting on and adapting their list of demands, which read in part, “We do not know how the present system of brutality and dehumanization and injustice has been allowed to be perpetrated in this day of enlightenment, but we are the living proof of its existence and we cannot allow it to continue.”
The prisoners assembled a core group, which included Black Panthers, Nation of Islam members, a white Weather Underground member, and a member of the politicized Latino group Young Lords. They held prison employees hostage, including guards who were well-liked and sympathetic to the prisoners’ cause. They designated typists, organized security forces, and drafted a list of outside people they wanted to appoint as observers — non-incarcerated notables who they felt might be able to keep them safe by bearing witness.
At first, officials appeared willing to negotiate. But President Nixon and the FBI considered the state authorities’ patience with the prisoners a sign of weakness — a concession to radicalism — and pressured New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to end the riot without negotiation. On September 13th, New York State Police troopers stormed the prison and killed dozens of people, including hostages and inmates who were not resisting. All told, 43 people died in the Attica prison uprising — ten prison guards and employees, and 33 inmates. 39 were killed by troopers, including nine out of the ten hostages.
T he riot was a watershed moment for prisoners’ rights, sparking a national conversation about the treatment of incarcerated people and the need for reform. It was the most media attention any prisoner struggle had ever received, and it brought the demands of the rioters, as well as details about prison conditions, into living rooms across the nation.
But it also sparked a terrible backlash, which perhaps eclipsed the positive effects of the uprising.
Officials tended only to harden their stance. Wardens’ and correctional officers’ associations banded together to demand harsher penalties for prisoners who challenged authority. Prison leaders across the country announced support for the forceful retaking of Attica. In a New York Times op-ed, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew compared prisoners to Nazi troopers.
The uprising reinforced the notion that inmates needed to be more aggressively contained — by ever-evolving means ranging from isolating architecture to riot gear. “The fear that Attica generated among prison administrators and the American public,” writes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, “pointed the way to the supermax and permanent solitary, emboldening the most reactionary forces in the government to begin the program of mass incarceration that remains the moral scandal of our country.”
M any prisoners want the same things today that the men at Attica demanded: better access to lawyers, fairer parole hearings, protection from brutality by guards, the application of legal workplace standards, adequate living conditions, improved medical care, an end to punitive segregation, and so on.
But as the prison population has grown, so too have strategies for pressuring prison administrators, from coordinated work stoppages to hunger strikes. That’s why this Friday, 45 years after Attica, America’s prisoners won’t be taking anyone hostage. They’re simply putting the tools down and refusing to cooperate.
The question for the prisoners’ rights movement now is how to apply the right amount of pressure — to make headlines and force change without sparking an overpowering backlash, and without getting anyone killed.
The story of The Fortune Society begins with a play. In 1966, Fortune founder David Rothenberg read the script for Fortune and Men’s Eyes by playwright John Herbert. Deeply moved by the author’s depiction of his own traumatic prison experience, David endeavored to take the play Off-Broadway, where it premiered the following year. After each show, the cast held a talkback session to engage the audience in the real-world issues reflected on stage. David realized, however, that one play wouldn’t be enough to remedy just how little the public knew about the criminal justice system. There had to be a platform for people who had experienced incarceration firsthand. There had to be a movement, with the voices and perspectives of these individuals at the center. Thus, in 1967, The Fortune Society was born.
David, along with individuals impacted by the criminal justice system, soon began giving talks around the country regarding lived experiences with incarceration. Through educating others, they also advocated for the basic human rights of people impacted by the justice system. The group’s breakthrough moment came when they landed an interview on the David Susskind Show in 1968. After the episode aired, David’s Broadway office received over 200 pleas by individuals with justice involvement seeking help. Fortune’s visibility had grown overnight.
Spurred by this newfound exposure, Fortune quickly expanded its reach beyond public education. Within a few years, the organization began providing direct-services for people with justice involvement, while continuing its advocacy work through the publication of The Fortune News, a monthly newsletter containing articles written primarily by authors with justice histories. The Fortune News became so popular among New York’s incarcerated community that prisons tried banning it. They failed, however: A groundbreaking verdict, Fortune v. McGuinness, ruled that prisons could not deny reading literature to individuals who were incarcerated. To this day, The Fortune News continues to be a valuable resource for individuals with justice involvement and continues to circulate through prisons around the country.
In 1971, the Attica Prison uprising, and the state-led massacre that followed awakened the public and led to an influx of interest in Fortune. During the uprising, David was among 30 observers summoned by the protestors with justice involvement at Attica to help facilitate their negotiations with the State of New York. Though the state was ultimately resolute in using lethal force, David returned home from the tragedy to dozens of newly invigorated volunteers—with more individuals joining. The tragedy at Attica, which resulted in the bloodiest prison massacre in U.S history, sparked a movement that Fortune was primed to play a key part in.
As the criminal justice reform movement gained visibility, the number of people affected by the system substantially increased. In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, punitive drug laws swelled the United States’ prison population to a staggering two million individuals, making demand for Fortune’s services higher than ever. Responding to the resulting need, Fortune expanded its service programs to serve as a core resource for people coming home from incarceration. These programs include Employment Services, Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI), and the Substance Use Treatment program.
In recent years, Fortune has continued to increase its array of services and programming. In 2002, The Fortune Academy, also known as “The Castle,” opened in West Harlem to provide transitional housing and onsite services to participants facing housing insecurity. Castle Gardens, a permanent housing facility, followed in 2011. Since their openings, Fortune’s two residences have helped hundreds of people readjust to life after incarceration. In 2007, the opening of The David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy provided additional resources to further Fortune’s criminal justice reform efforts.
Now, with 50 years of experience under its belt, The Fortune Society has become one of the nation’s leading reentry service organizations, serving nearly 7,000 individuals annually. It is also a leading advocate in the fight for criminal justice reform and alternatives to incarceration. Fortune’s program models are recognized both nationally and internationally for their quality and innovation, and continues to inspire and transform a multitude of lives.
Fortune grew from an advocacy group to an organization that would also respond directly to the needs of those reentering society.
Our vision is to foster a world where all who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated will thrive as positive, contributing members of society.
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On the morning of September 13, 1971, officials called on the prisoners occupying the yard to surrender they refused, holding knives to their hostages' throats, at which point, according to History, "helicopters flew over the yard, dropping tear gas as state police and correction officers stormed in with guns blazing. The police fired 3,000 rounds into the tear gas haze, killing 29 inmates and 10 of the hostages and wounding 89." Authorities reported that the prisoners had killed their hostages, but "autopsies showed that these charges were false and that all 10 hostages had been shot to death by police. The attempted cover-up increased public condemnation of the raid and prompted a Congressional investigation." In all, 43 people were killed during the uprising, making it the worst prison riot in United States history.
Per Teen Vogue, "no state troopers involved in the massacre were ever indicted, much less convicted of any crimes" while "eight inmates were convicted of crimes related to the riot by the New York state commission." Seven of those inmates were later pardoned by Hugh L. Cary, New York Governor from 1975-1982, and the eighth inmate's sentence was commuted. The New York Times notes that "today, there are Muslim chaplains in most of the state's prisons, inmates can take their high school equivalency tests in Spanish, and access to law libraries is guaranteed. They are also entitled to more regular showers." Despite some improvements, "many of the changes that were promised were never made or have been rolled back."
Massacre at Attica Prison - HISTORY
Workers Vanguard No. 1065
Attica: The Nightmare That Never Ends
On 9 August 2011 George Williams, an inmate at New York&rsquos notorious Attica prison, was beaten so badly by a mob of huge white prison officers that he required surgical implantation of a plate and six pins in one of his broken legs. A shoulder, eye socket and ribs were also broken. The officers&rsquo shirts were so soaked with Williams&rsquo blood they made an inmate burn them, and they got another to mop the dayroom floor and walls that bore testimony to the brutality. The beating was carried out where other prisoners could see, and Williams&rsquo pleas for his life could be heard on other floors. Given the extent of his injuries, the prison infirmary nurse insisted that Williams be taken to an outside hospital, which likely saved his life. Although now released and living back in New Jersey, he is in constant pain and still suffers trauma from the attack.
On March 1, the eve of the scheduled trial of three of the sadistic prison officers, the New York Times published an in-depth exposé by The Marshall Project under the front-page headline, &ldquoA Brutal Beating Wakes Attica&rsquos Ghosts.&rdquo This article shone a bright light on the institutional brutality and racist oppression at Attica. The next morning, the local District Attorney accepted a plea deal of misdemeanor misconduct. The felony charges of gang assault, conspiracy and evidence tampering evaporated. The thugs walked away with their pensions, case closed.
Announcing the plea deal, the D.A. said: &ldquoLet me be clear: This has never been about jail for these officers.&rdquo Ain&rsquot that the truth! Until this case, no New York State prison guard has ever been charged, let alone convicted, of a non-sexual attack on an inmate. The Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association hired some of western New York&rsquos top criminal defense lawyers and was confident a jury from the area near the prison would not find against the thugs. The Times article quoted an inmate who had done over 20 years in Attica saying: &ldquoWhat they did? How they jumped that guy? That was normal. It happens all the time.&rdquo For prison officers&mdasha part of the repressive apparatus of the state that keeps the capitalist class in power&mdashracist brutality is not a crime it is their job .
Attica is infamous for the 1971 massacre by state troopers and prison officers who retook the prison from insurgent inmates at the end of a four-day standoff. While the overcrowded prisons and brutal treatment the inmates were protesting sound very similar to the hellish conditions at Attica today, the social context was dramatically different. In 1971, there were intense social and political struggles taking place throughout society, from the &ldquoblack power&rdquo movement to radical protests against U.S. imperialism&rsquos war in Vietnam. The rebellion in Attica reflected these struggles inside the prison walls. Attica inmates were heavily black and Hispanic, and many identified with the Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican Young Lords. Others were members of the Nation of Islam.
In the early morning of September 9, the prisoners erupted, seizing most of the institution and taking 39 hostages. They proclaimed: &ldquoWE are MEN! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. We have set forth demands that will bring closer to reality the demise of these prison institutions that serve no useful purpose to the People of America, but to those who would enslave and exploit the people of America.&rdquo The prisoners went on to demand the minimum wage for their labor, and an end to censorship and restrictions on political activity. They wanted a healthy diet, medical care and an end to segregation and punishment&mdashi.e., some approximation of the minimum standards of life.
For the capitalist ruling class, the Attica rebellion had to be crushed with particular vengeance because the rebels had begun to see their struggle in political terms, including aspirations toward revolution. The inmates demanded amnesty and transfer to a &ldquonon-imperialistic country&rdquo instead they got a death sentence.
Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal Republican governor, prepared the bloodbath. At 9:43 a.m. on September 13, a helicopter dropped CS gas over the yard, and 1,000 troopers and guards moved in for the kill. Prisoners were mowed down as they held their hands over their heads. Twenty-nine inmates and ten hostages were killed and many more injured, but the savagery of Rockefeller&rsquos goons was only just starting. Hundreds of black prisoners were made to strip, lie face down and crawl in the mud. They were lined up and forced to run a gauntlet of crazed, sadistic guards. Such brutality was no surprise. In Uprising: Understanding Attica, Revolution, and the Incarceration State (2011), Clarence Jones wrote that it was known at the time that &ldquoa substantial number of Attica prison guards were also members of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan or its equivalent.&rdquo As editor of the black newspaper Amsterdam News , Jones served at the request of the Attica inmates as one of the observers during the rebellion.
In the aftermath, 62 of the Attica Brothers were charged with a total of 1,300 crimes. Many charges were dropped after setbacks to the prosecution in the courts. Even an official report recognized that the police assault was &ldquothe bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War&rdquo except for the massacres of Native Americans in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, the real criminals of Attica&mdashthe racist authorities whose hands dripped with blood&mdashwere never even given a slap on the wrist. Rockefeller went on to serve a brief term as U.S. vice president.
We honor the heroic martyrs of Attica for their courageous stand against overwhelming odds. It is for their fight for justice and against oppression that we want the world&rsquos working people to remember them. Their demands for education and job training stood in stark contrast to the standard procedures of capitalist so-called justice: vindictive punishment designed to reduce the prisoner to a subhuman condition. The prisoners themselves refused to degrade the prison officer hostages as they themselves had been degraded.
Prisons and Racist U.S. Capitalism
We observed at the time of the Attica rebellion that the &ldquodespicable racist guards are despised even by the ruling class that cynically uses them. The governor not only served notice on the prisoners that rebellion does not pay , and rebellion linked with revolutionary ideas means certain death , but he had a message for the guards too: Keep the upper hand or else!&rdquo (&ldquoMassacre at Attica,&rdquo WV No. 1, October 1971). The spectre of the rebellion continues to haunt the prison authorities, who use it to impress upon all new guards that their job is to keep the inmates in line, using all available means.
Joseph Jazz Hayden, a former inmate who was transferred out of Attica seven days before the rebellion, wrote a letter that is posted on The Marshall Project&rsquos website commenting on its recent exposé. He stated: &ldquoIt is apparent to me that nothing has changed. [the guards] are little more than &lsquoOverseers&rsquo on a slave plantation.&rdquo He continued, &ldquoWould things be different if the &lsquoOverseers&rsquo were black? Nope!&rdquo Indeed, at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, the majority of the corrections officers are not white, but that does not change in the slightest their role as vicious overseers for the ruling class, delighting in the brutalization and humiliation of convicts and those awaiting trial (see &ldquoRikers Island: Racist House of Horrors,&rdquo WV No. 1048, 13 June 2014).
Today, the incarcerated population in the U.S. has mushroomed to some 2.4 million, seven times the number in 1971, not least as a result of the racist &ldquowar on drugs.&rdquo The prison population grew massively in the 1970s and 1980s in direct proportion to the sharp decline in unionized manufacturing jobs, a measure of how the bourgeoisie has deemed whole layers of the ghetto and barrio masses &ldquosurplus.&rdquo Prisons and jails represent, in concentrated form, the brutality of this racist capitalist society, with severe dehumanization and oppressive conditions directed against an already marginalized and demoralized population.
As Marxists, we support ameliorating the hideous conditions in the prisons, as seen in our defense of the California prisoners who went on hunger strike in 2013 to demand an end to the Security Housing Unit system of solitary confinement. At the same time, we understand that the capitalist state&rsquos prisons cannot be reformed into humane institutions. To lay the basis for abolishing the whole wretched system of crime and punishment requires a workers revolution to sweep away the bourgeois state and expropriate the class in whose interest the state is administered.