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.
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.