Forty years ago this month, The Nation published an editorial, “Slaughter at Attica,” in the wake of the bloodiest prison massacre the country had ever seen. The bloodiest, not for the actions of the more than 1,200 incarcerated men who seized a prison yard and took thirty-eight guards hostage in a spontaneous revolt at New York’s notorious maximum-security penitentiary. But for the official response five days later, on September 13, 1971, when state troopers, with the blessing of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, unleashed a lethal aerial assault, dropping tear gas from helicopters and shooting hundreds of rounds of gunfire into that yard, leaving twenty-nine prisoners and ten hostages dead.
The editors quoted Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson, who called the suppression “one of the most callous and blatantly repressive acts ever carried out by a supposedly civilized society on its own people.” His statement is striking today for its language: that prisoners—staging an insurrection, no less—would be referred to not just as “people” but as people elected leaders would publicly claim as their “own” runs counter to all modern political tendencies. Consider Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initial response, upon being asked whether prisoners on Rikers Island, many of them juveniles awaiting trial, might be included in the city’s unprecedented emergency protocols in the face of a threatening Hurricane Irene. “We are not evacuating Rikers Island,” he said with an air of annoyance, as if the question was absurd on its face. (Later the mayor would clarify that the jail was “perfectly safe,” but as the New York Times would point out, “no hypothetical evacuation plan for the roughly 12,000 inmates that the facility may house on a given day even exists.”)
The basic fact that prisoners, too, are human is one that society has yet to accept. “WE are MEN!” the Attica inmates wrote in a manifesto addressed to “the people of America.” “We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.” At the top of a list of “demands” was the basic request that officials “provide adequate food, water, and shelter for all inmates.” Others included “adequate medical treatment,” “realistic, effective rehabilitation programs,” “true religious freedom,” an end to “censorship of newspapers, magazines [and] letters” and, tellingly, “a program for the recruitment and employment of a significant number of black and Spanish-speaking officers.”
This last point spoke to an open secret about Attica. “The prison was a hotbed of racism,” The Nation declared in a disgusted editorial a year later, following the official report by the New York State Special Commission on Attica. “The prisoners were almost all black or Puerto Rican; the guards were all white—and drawn from the particular caste of whites whose chief delight is persecution of those of another race.”
Indeed, as the civil rights struggle fought to defend its victories outside prison walls—and as prisoners organized and educated themselves politically—at Attica, segregation ruled. “The white inmates who are sympathetic to the blacks are treated by the officers on a very low scale,” an African-American prisoner named Robert Matthews told members of the commission in 1972. “When they see a white prisoner fraternizing or getting chummy with a black inmate…they try to crush it.” At Attica, a white prisoner, William Jackson, testified, “being white is an asset, you know…. The worst thing is to be black and militant.” But the uprising at Attica crossed racial boundaries. Prisoners found unity in the sense that they were all being treated as less than human. Jackson, imprisoned for selling marijuana, explained that he refused to have his children come to see him, “because if they want to see an animal, they could go to a zoo.”
Dehumanization was at the heart of the uprising at Attica. And it was at the heart of the brutal response, the consequences of which officials tried to hide by claiming the prisoners had slashed the throats of the guards killed in the attack—a lie that would be quickly disproven by autopsies. “Unable to conceive of the inmates as anything but ruthless animals, officials assumed that the hostages would be murdered at the first moment of the onslaught,” Columbia University professor David Rothman wrote in The Nation in 1973. “And this mentality, in a final touch of madness, led to the death of ten hostages, not at the hands of the inmates but at the hands of the state.”
Attica, Rothman argued, “must serve as a point for turning away from reliance upon custodial institutions,” adding optimistically, “The task is not as far-fetched or utopian as some might think.” He noted the high cost of incarceration, calling for the decriminalization of victimless drug crimes, “a drastic reduction in sentence length” and “a great increase in the use of probation, with a willingness to tolerate many more failures than we do now.” Countertrends to such efforts, such as the unrepentant Governor Rockefeller’s “call for life sentences for drug sellers”—known today as the Rockefeller Drug Laws—“ought not to inhibit or discourage a very different kind of thinking.”
That we are making these same arguments forty years later can be cause to despair. Although the crisis at Attica inspired countrywide reforms along the lines its prisoners had requested—educational programs central among them—most would be rolled back in the decades that followed. The prisoner population has exploded, from 200,000 to nearly 2.4 million people, many locked up on nonviolent drug crimes and parole violations. Sentences have gotten longer. Prisons are still overcrowded. Inmates still fight for healthcare. Authorities still exploit race to divide and conquer. And as the cruel and pervasive practice of long-term solitary confinement shows, dehumanization remains a “correctional” tool.
And yet victories are possible. In New York State, after years of struggle, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were mostly repealed. In part because of the budget crisis, prison reform is catching on again across the country. Last year, the total number of state prisoners declined, ever so slightly, for the first time since 1972. But if the Attica anniversary teaches us anything, it should be that we’ve been here before. It’s time to think bigger, beyond reform; to question our fundamental assumptions about prisons and their purpose; to accept that, like the “war on drugs,” mass incarceration is an experiment that has failed; to move forward, as Rothman wrote in 1973, “with some confidence and boldness. After all, no matter how badly we fare, the legacy we pass on cannot be worse than the one we inherited.”