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.
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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.
Additional reporting by Robin Templeton.