Attica Riots

by Incarcerated Flavors


Lest We Forget…the beginning of the Attica Prison Revolt, September 9, 1971…

The Attica Prison Revolt occurred at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, United States in 1971. The riot was based upon prisoners’ demands for political rights and better living conditions. On September 9, 1971, responding to the death of prisoner George Jackson, a black radical activist prisoner shot dead after being involved in the murder of six guards while trying to escape from California’s San Quentin Prison on August 21, about 1,000 of the Attica prison’s approximately 2,200 inmates rebelled and seized control of the prison, taking 42 staff hostage.

During the following four days of negotiations, authorities agreed to 28 of the prisoners’ demands, but would not agree to demands for complete amnesty from criminal prosecution for the prison takeover or for the removal of Attica’s superintendent. By the order of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, state police took back control of the prison. When the uprising was over, at least 39 people were dead, including ten correctional officers and civilian employees.

The Revolt

At approximately 8:20 a.m. on Thursday, September 9, 1971, 5 Company lined up for roll-call. Hearing rumors that one of their companions was to remain in his cell and that he was to be tortured after being isolated for an incident involving an assault on a prison officer, a small group of 5 Company inmates protested that they too would be locked up and began walking back towards their cells. The remainder of 5 Company continued towards breakfast. As the protesting group walked past the isolated inmate, they were able to free him from his cell. They then rejoined the rest of 5 Company and proceeded on their way to breakfast.

A short time later, when the command staff discovered what had occurred, they changed the usual scheduling of the prisoners. Instead of going to the yard after breakfast as they usually did, the prisoners realized they were being led back to their cells. Complaints led to anger when the correctional officer tried to calm the mob of prisoners. He was assaulted and the riot began.
The inmates quickly gained control of sections, D-yard, two tunnels and the central control room, referred to as “Times Square”. Inmates took 42 officers and civilians hostage and aired a list of grievances, demanding their conditions be met before their surrender.

In a facility designed to hold 1,200 inmates and actually housing 2,225, they felt that they had been illegally denied rights and conditions to which they were entitled, illustrated by such practices as being allowed only one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper per person per month.

Negotiations

The prisoners continued to unsuccessfully negotiate with Correctional Services Commissioner Russell G. Oswald and then later with a team of observers that included Tom Wicker, an editor of the New York Times, James Ingram of the Michigan Chronicle, state senator John Dunne, state representative Arthur Eve, civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, Minister Louis Farrakhan, National Representative of the Nation of Islam and others.

The situation may have been further complicated by Governor Rockefeller’s refusal to come to the scene of the riot and meet with the inmates, although some later evaluations of the incident would postulate that his absence from the scene actually prevented the situation from deteriorating. Negotiations broke down and Oswald told the inmates that he was unable to negotiate with them anymore and ordered that they must give themselves up. Oswald later called Governor Rockefeller and again begged him to come to the prison to calm the riot. After the governor’s refusal, Oswald stated that he would order the State Police to retake the facility by force. Rockefeller agreed with Oswald’s decision. This agreement would be later criticized by a commission created by Rockefeller to study the riot and the aftermath.

Retaking of the prison and retaliation

The mood among the inmates had turned ugly. It appeared as though Gov. Rockefeller remained opposed to the inmates’ demands and they had become restless. Defensive trenches had been dug, metal gates had been electrified, crude battlements were fashioned out of metal tables and dirt, gasoline was put in position to be lit in the event of conflict and the “Times Square” prison command center was fortified.

The inmates brought four corrections officers to the top of the command center and threatened to slit their throats. Reporters in helicopters circling the prison reported that the hostages in D yard were also being prepared for killing. Gov. Rockefeller had ordered that the prison be retaken that day if negotiations failed. Situation commander Oswald, seeing the danger to the hostages, ordered that the prison be retaken by force. Of the decision, he later said “On a much smaller scale, I think I have some feeling now of how Truman must have felt when he decided to drop the A-bomb.”

At 9:46 a.m. on Monday, September 13, 1971, tear gas was dropped into the yard and New York State Police troopers and soldiers from the New York National Guard opened fire non-stop for two minutes into the smoke. Among the weapons used by the troopers were shotguns, which led to the wounding and killing of hostages and inmates who were not resisting. Former prison officers were allowed to participate, a decision later called “inexcusable” by the commission established by Rockefeller to study the riot and the aftermath. By the time the facility was retaken, nine hostages and 29 inmates had been killed. A tenth hostage died on October 9, 1972, of gunshot wounds received during the assault.

The final death toll from the riot also included the officer fatally injured at the start of the riot and four inmates who were subject to vigilante killings. Nine hostages died from gunfire by state troopers and soldiers. The New York State Special Commission on Attica wrote, “With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”

Media reports claimed that inmate hostage-takers slit the throats of many of their hostages, reports that contradicted official medical evidence. Newspaper headlines made statements such as “I Saw Slit Throats”, implying that prisoners had cut the hostages’ throats when the armed raid occurred. These fabricated reports set the stage for reprisals by troopers and prison officers. Inmates were made to strip and crawl through the mud and then some were made to run naked between lines of enraged officers, who beat the inmates. Several days after the riot’s end, prison doctors reported evidence of more beatings. The Special Commission found that state officials failed to quickly refute those rumors and false reports.

Retaliation by the Weathermen

On 7:30 p.m. September 17, the Weathermen launched a retaliatory attack on the New York Department of Corrections, exploding a bomb near Oswald’s office. “The communique accompanying the attack called the prison system ‘how a society run by white racists maintains its control,’ with white supremacy being the ‘main question white people have to face'” and saying that the Attica riots are blamed on Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Lawsuits and payments

Within four years of the riot, 62 inmates had been charged in 42 indictments with 1,289 separate counts. One state trooper was indicted for reckless endangerment.

Inmates and families of inmates killed in the prison retaking sued the State of New York for civil rights violations by law enforcement officers during and after the retaking of Attica. After years in the courts, in 2000, the State of New York agreed to pay $8 million ($12 million minus legal fees) to settle the case. The State of New York also recognized the families of the slain prison employees in 2005 with a $12 million financial settlement.

The Forgotten Victims of Attica have also asked the State of New York to release state records of the uprising to the public. In 2013, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said he would seek the release of the entire 570-page Meyer Report, the state’s review of the uprising. The report was prepared by former State Supreme Court justice Bernard S. Meyer and submitted in 1975. One volume was made public, but a State Supreme Court justice ordered in 1981 that the other two be sealed permanently.

Racial issues

At the time of the riots, black militancy was at its peak and many black prisoners had transferred to Attica causing prison population to increase from its designed 1200 prisoners to 2243. 54% of these were Black American, 9% Puerto Rican and 37% white; however, all of the 383 correctional officers were white. Some corrections officers were openly racist and assaulted the prisoners with their batons, which they dubbed “nigger sticks”. Additionally, George Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party, had died at the hands of white prison officers two weeks before the riot in the San Quentin State Prison in California.

From the Wikipedia

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