Attica Prison riot
Coordinates: The Attica Prison riot 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 who was 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 43 people were dead, including ten correctional officers and civilian employees, and 33 inmates.
New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who refused to visit the prisoner during the rebellion, stated that the prisoners “carried out the cold-blood killings they had threatened from the outset”. On the other hand, New York Times writer, Fred Ferritti said the rebellion concluded in “mass deaths that four days of taut negotiations had sought to avert”. There are many different perspectives when considering the prison rebellion; the outside world either characterized the inmates as heroes or villains.
In a facility designed to hold 1,200 inmates and actually housing 2,225, 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. The mail was regularly intercepted and read by prison guards, and often destroyed. The officers’ goal was to break prisoners’ spirits and they accomplished this by utilizing punishments such as sweatboxes, iron yokes and solitary. A Walpole prisoner revealed the poor food quality explaining he hadn’t “eaten in the mess hall for four years… [prisoners] go into the serving line in the morning and 100 or 200 cockroaches would go running away from the trays”.
George Jackson is an admired figure that spoke out against these mistreatments he was admired by fellow prisoners for his fight and dedication. Jackson was an inmate in San Quentin and wrote letters from the prison, that were later published. Jackson was not weak and defenseless against their cruelty, he declared “I’m going to charge them like a maddened, wounded, rogue male elephant, ears flared, trunk raised, trumpet blaring…”. Jackson would continue to speak out against the injustices inmates encountered “until it proves my making or my end”. And on August 21, 1971, Jackson was shot in the back of the head at the prison as he allegedly was attempting to escape. There were inconsistencies with the reports and everybody knew the truth of Jackson’s death. The following morning at Attica, inmate Frank Smith explained that nobody picked up their silverware. Following Jackson’s murder, there was a number of prison riots in facilities like San Jose Civic Center Jail and Suffolk County Jail in Boston. However, according to Zinn, the “most direct effect of the George Jackson murder was the rebellion at Attica prison”.
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.
Throughout the negotiations, there was leadership and organization among the prisoners. The Muslim inmates protected the hostages, Frank “Big Black” Smith was appointed as head of security, and he also kept the hostages and the observers safe. Additionally, an ardent orator, Elliot L.D. Barkley, was a strong force during the negotiations, speaking with great articulation to the inmates, the camera crews, and outsiders at home. Barkley was killed during the recapturing of the prison. Assemblyman Arthur Eve testified that Barkley was alive after the prisoners had surrendered and the state regained control; another inmate stated that the officers searched him out, yelling for Barkley, and shot him in the back.
As speakers like Barkley raised morale, the rebels' negotiating team of prisoners proposed their requests to the commissioner. The Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto Of Demands is a compilation of complaints written by the Attica prisoners, which speak directly to the “sincere people of society”. It includes 27 demands, such as better medical treatment, fair visitation rights , and an end to physical brutality. The prisoners also requested better sanitations, improved food quality, and one set of rules for the state among numerous other demands. The manifesto specifically assigns the power to negotiate to five inmates: Donald Noble, Peter Butler, Frank Lott, Carl Jones-El, and Herbert Blyden X. Additionally, the document specifically lists out “vile and vicious slave masters” who oppressed the prisoners such as the New York governor, New York Corrections and even the United States Courts.
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.
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.
Al Jundi v. Mancusi
It was believed that a group of Muslims were responsible for the uprising and the harm of the hostages, when in fact the group of Muslims was protecting the hostages from other inmates. The leader of the Muslims even told the other inmates that if any of the inmates tried to hurt the hostages, that they would "kill [the inmates involved] or die protecting the hostages." The court in Al Jundi v. Mancusi, 113 F.Supp.2d 441 wrote:
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A number of former Muslim inmates testified that they had been singled out for "special" brutal treatment by troopers and prison officers because they had played an active role in protecting the hostages during the four days before the retaking. Because a number of militant inmates were prepared to do harm to the hostages, Frank "Big Black" Smith, in conjunction with the Muslim leadership, implemented a plan to secure the safety of the hostages during negotiations.
This view was corroborated by Michael Smith, age 51, a former corrections officer who was a hostage up to September 13, 1971. He testified that he was taken hostage on September 9, 1971 by a group of inmates who were out of control. He described them as a "wave of human emotion". He was in charge of the sheet metal shop and developed a good rapport with the inmates who worked under him and they protected him from the militant group. But eventually he came under the control of the take-over group and found himself in the center of D-Yard with other hostages. One of the inmates, Don Noble, whom he had befriended and who worked in the sheet metal shop, and Carl Reighn (originally referred to in previous interviews as Carl Rain) protected him on September 9, 1971, trying desperately to come up with ways to hide or save him and protect him; and would later save his life on September 13, 1971. Mr. Carl Reighn was there from the moment they broke the metal shop doors down.
Smith was interviewed by the media while being held hostage along with Corrections Officer Cunningham. He conveyed that the inmates' demands were for improved conditions and reported that he was not being harmed. He was blindfolded most of the time. Upon receiving news of Corrections Officer Quinn's death, the negotiation process broke down.
On Sunday night, September 12, 1971, the feeling was "somber". He got a pen and wrote a goodbye note to his wife and family on dollar bills which were in his wallet. He testified that the hostages sat in a circle and leaned up against each other for support.
On Monday, September 13, 1971, he was selected along with a few other hostages to be taken up on the A-Yard catwalk and a hostage execution was arranged. He was taken to the top of the catwalk by three inmates and sat on a chair blindfolded. Inmate Don Noble was on his left and held a knife to his throat. As the Army helicopter hovered over them and dropped tear gas, the shooting started and the inmate on his right was shot twice and blown over the railing of the catwalk. Don Noble pulled him to his left and the inmate immediately behind him received a fatal volley of gunfire. Noble was shot and Smith was shot four times in the stomach and once in the arm. The chair on which he had been sitting disintegrated from gunshots. Smith said in court, "I don't know how long the shooting went on. You could hear people crying, people dying and people screaming." He never lost consciousness as he lay on the catwalk until a trooper stood over him pointing a shotgun at his head. A prison officer saw what was going on and yelled to the trooper, "He is one of us", who then focused his attention on Noble, at which point Smith told the trooper, "He saved my life".
He was eventually taken by National Guard medics to St. Jerome's Hospital in Batavia for an extensive period of treatment involving multiple surgeries. He was eventually released from service as a corrections officer because of his physical inability to perform his duties. He commented on the inaccuracy of the McKay Report which claimed that he had been merely knocked unconscious—no mention of his extensive gunshot wounds nor how they were obtained. He openly stated that his life was saved while he was held hostage because of the dedicated efforts of the Muslim group at Attica. "In fact, I can recall hearing one of the Muslim leaders instructing one of their men that if anyone tries to break through their Muslim perimeter to kill them or die protecting the hostages."
In popular culture
- At least three TV movies of the riot have been produced: 1980's Attica, with George Grizzard, and Morgan Freeman, 1994's Against The Wall, with Samuel L. Jackson, Kyle MacLachlan and Clarence Williams III, and 2001's The Killing Yard, by Euzhan Palcy with Alan Alda.
- In the Gil Scott-Heron song, "We Beg Your Pardon", Scott-Heron is critical of Governor Rockefeller's handling of the riot, stating that "brother Richard X of Buffalo New York faces 1365 years... behind bars for participating in Attica, and Rockefeller faces being the Vice President of this country".
- In the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino's character, Sonny, who is holding eight bank employees hostage, starts a chant of "Attica! Attica!" at the massed police outside, evoking the excessive police force used in response to the Attica riot. The chant "Attica! Attica!" has since been parodied or used for comedic effect in everything from children's cartoons to crime procedurals.
- In the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta's character, Tony Manero, wakes up after a night out at the disco and, while looking at himself in the mirror and seeing a poster of Al Pacino in Serpico, debates whether he resembles Al Pacino. Becoming enamored of the idea, he yells "Al Pacino!" and then opens his bedroom door, walks into the hallway, and chants "Attica! Attica!" wearing only his underwear while his grandmother covers her eyes with her apron. This scene's reference to Pacino and his two characters (Serpico and Sonny) invites the audience to contrast them to Travolta and his character Tony, setting them up both as ideal models and as foils for Tony.
- The incident is directly referenced in several songs: Tom Paxton's "The Hostage", which was included by Judy Collins on her 1973 album True Stories and Other Dreams, John Lennon's "Attica State" on his Some Time In New York City album, Paul Simon's "Virgil", on his 1997 album Songs from The Capeman, and the song "Rubber Bullets" by English band 10cc. The Attica riot also inspired the Charles Mingus composition "Remember Rockefeller at Attica", and jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp's 1972 composition "Attica Blues" from his album of the same name. Rapper Nas mentioned Attica in his collaboration song with Lauryn Hill, "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)". Nas raps "I'd open every cell in Attica, send 'em to Africa". In the song "C.I.A. (Criminals in Action)", by KRS-One, Zack De La Rocha, and The Last Emperor: "I flip the shit like Pacino and it's your Dog Day Afternoon / Attica, Attica, drug agents you bring your static-a."
- Boxer Muhammad Ali recited a poem in Ireland, imagining what Attica's prisoners would have said before their death.
- In 1972, avant-garde composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski wrote two pieces connected to the Attica riot, both for percussion ensemble and speaker. "Coming Together" sets text by Sam Melville, a leader of the uprising and one of the people who lost their lives as a result of it, from a letter he wrote in 1971. The second and shorter piece, "Attica", is set to the statement made by inmate Richard X. Clark when he was released from the prison: "Attica is in front of me now." The two pieces was recorded in 1973 for the Opus One label by the Blackearth Percussion Group, with Steven ben Israel of the Living Theater as the speaker.
- The poem Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox by American poet Allen Ginsberg makes a reference to the Attica prison riot. This poem was also subsequently performed as a song by political rock band Rage Against The Machine.
- In the episode "A Date with the Booty Warrior" of the popular animated series The Boondocks, the episode's titular character takes Tom hostage with a shank, inciting a prison riot. After the convicts had taken the guards hostage, they were deciding what to do next. The other convicts were disgruntled to learn that the Booty Warrior's only demands were "to get some booty". One of the other convicts (voiced by Clifton Powell) remarked "I thought this was supposed to be some Attica-type shit!".
- In the 25th episode of TMNT (2003 TV series) titled The Search for Splinter: Part 1, Casey Jones says the phrase "Attica, Attica" while distracting the guards of TCRI while April disables the building's alarms.
- In the season 1 finale of the HBO series Oz, Attica is referenced by unit manager Tim McManus as his hometown and the riot as his original impetus for his wanting to set up Emerald City.
- In the episode "Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody's Ass" of the FX series It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in a form of protesting the bar's "No rules" stance, Charlie scares bystanders away from Dee's street performance by swinging a broom and screaming, "Attica! Attica, man!" repeatedly.
- In the episode "Missing Identity" of SpongeBob SquarePants, when SpongeBob imagines someone robbing a bank wearing his name tag. When the camera zooms in on the name tag the robber begins screaming "Attica!". This may be more of a reference to the movie Dog Day Afternoon, but it is an Attica reference nonetheless.
- The Milwaukee Star (1971)
- Ferretti (1971)
- Schmalleger, F., & Smykla, J. (2007, 2005). Corrections in the 21st Century. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Jackson, Bruce (1999). http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~bjackson/attica.htm Attica: An Anniversary of Death. Retrieved October 4, 2006.
- Zinn (2003), p. 518
- Zinn (2003), p. 514
- Zinn (2003), p. 517
- Zinn (2003), p. 519
- The Black Scholar (1972), p. 39
- Eyes on the Prize (1990)
- Zinn (2003), p. 520
- "Attica Correctional Facility: 1971 Prison Riot". Attica Central School District. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2006-10-04.
- "People & Events: Attica Prison Riot – September 9–13, 1971". American Experience—The Rockefellers. Public Broadcasting Service. Archived from the original on 8 September 2006. Retrieved 2006-10-04.
- Attica Timeline
- Criminal Injustice: Death and Politics at Attica (2013)
- The Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto Of Demands (1971)
- Benjamin, G., & Rappaport, S. (1974). Attica and Prison Reform. Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, 31(3), 203-212. Retrieved October 6, 2006, from JSTOR database.
- "A Year Ago at Attica". Time (Time Magazine, Inc.). 1972-09-25. Retrieved 2008-04-27.
- "The Nation: War at Attica: Was There No Other Way?". Time. September 27, 1971.
- "General Interest: Sep 9, 1971: Riot at Attica prison". This Day in History. History.com. Retrieved December 11, 2012.
- "Use of Shotguns in Attica Revolt Deplored in House Unit's Report; No Comment on Report". The New York Times. June 27, 1973.
- Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica. New York: Bantam Books. 1972. p. 456 (digital page 496). OCLC 601935.
- Ferretti, Fred (September 15, 1971). "Autopsies Show Shots Killed 9 Attica Hostages, Not Knives; State Official Admits Mistake". The New York Times. p. 1.
- Farrell, William E. (September 17, 1971). "Rockefeller Lays Hostages' Deaths to Troopers' Fire". The New York Times. p. 1.
- Berger, Dan, Outlaws of America: the Weather Underground and the politics of solidarity, (AK Press, 2006) pp. 182–3, via Google Books. Retrieved 2011-09-12.
- Al-Jundi v. Mancusi, 113 F. Supp. 2d 441 (W.D.N.Y. 2000)
- Chen, David W. (29 August 2000). "COMPENSATION SET ON ATTICA UPRISING". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 April 2013.
- "State and Prison Workers Settle Attica Riot Claims". The New York Times. 14 January 2005. Retrieved 22 April 2013.
- Kaplan, Thomas (19 April 2013). "Decades Later, State Seeks Release of Report on Attica Uprising". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 April 2013.
- "Obituary:Vincent Mancusi". Daily Telegraph. 24 Sep 2012. Retrieved 27 Sep 2012.
- Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica. New York: Bantam Books. 1972. pp. 28 (digital page 67). OCLC 601935.
- Rzewski, Frederic. Coming Together / Les Moutons de Panurge / Attica. Opus One: 20.
- Hampton, Henry; Fayer, Steve; Flynn, Sarah, eds. (1990). Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 9780553352320. OCLC 690078672.
- Zinn, Howard. "Surprises ." A People's History of the United States: 1492–present. [New ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. 506-539. Print.
- Eyes on the Prize. Dir. Henry Hampton. PBS Video, 1990. Film.
- "Attica Timeline." Attica Is All of Us. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. <http://atticaisallofus.org/?page_id=506>.
- "The Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto Of Demands." Race & Class 53.2 (2011): 28-35. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
- “Episodes from the Attica Rebellion." The Black Scholar 4 (1972): 34-39. JSTOR. Web.
- Criminal Injustice: Death and Politics at Attica. Christine Christopher. Blue Sky Project, 2013.
- Ferretti, Fred. "Like a War Zone." New York Times [New York] 18 Sept. 1971: 1+. ProQuest. Web.
- "41 Dead. Attica: National Tragedy." Milwaukee Star 18 Sept. 1971: 1-2. African American Newspapers, 1827-1998. Web.
- Yahoo! Directory: Attica Riot links
- Attica Prison Riot: Memories strong after 40 years
- Democrat and Chronicle: Attica – A History In Photographs
- Talking History: Attica Revisited
- Photographs taken during and after the prison riot
- "I Would Do It Any Day, Again" an Interview with Akil Al-Jundi
- "The Truth about Attica by an Inmate," National Review, March 31, 1972
- video interviews with Frank Smith
- Short history on American Experience @PBS.org
- Short history from Eyes on the Prize @PBS.org
- The Attica Prison Uprising on libcom.org—with links to related articles on the prisoners' movement, Black Panthers, Vietnam, etc.
- 40 Years After the Attica Uprising: Looking Back, Moving Forward - Conference Website Exploring the Uprising 40 Years Later