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The Attica Prison riot occurred from 9 to 13 September 1971 when 1,281 inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, Wyoming County, New York seized control of the prison and took 42 of the prison's employees as hostages. The prisoners rebelled following the death of the black nationalist activist George Jackson in a police shootout at San Quentin State Prison in California, and the prisoners demanded better living conditions and political rights. On 13 September 1971, 550 state troopers stormed the prison, resulting in the deaths of 33 prisoners and 10 correctional officers (8 of whom were accidentally killed by police bullets).

Background

By 1971, the nonviolent Civil Rights movement had radically transformed as a result of the rise of the militant Black Power movement and the violent actions of the Black Panther Party, Black Guerrilla Family, and other armed black nationalist groups. On 21 August 1971, BGF founder George Jackson was killed during a failed prison escape from San Quentin State Prison in California, leading to outcry from the black nationalist cause.

History

Background

By 1971, 60% of Attica Prison's population was African-American and Hispanic, and overwhelmingly from poor, inner-city neighborhoods. On 9 September 1971, two weeks after Jackson's death, 1,281 of Attica's 2,200 inmates rioted and took control of the state prison, with Frank "Big Black" Smith crediting bad food, bad educational programs, and low "slave" wages as major causes of the uprising. Amiri Baraka would later describe how black nationalist leaders at the time began to see how "revolutionary activity" could transform "prisoners into revolutionaries". News of Jackson's death had caused great sorrow among the inmates at Attica, and another leader of the inmates, Herbert X. Blyden recalled that George Jackson had been like a "mentor" to him, as he protested against the "breaking down of the Black man's spirit".

Negotiations

The Attica inmates demanding amnesty

The prisoners took over the prison after a brawl with the guards, and they took 42 correctional officers and civilian workers as hostages. The 35 Nation of Islam members in the prison ensured that no harm was done to the hostages, and the inmates set up a defined leadership team which decided to release 11 injured guards. However, 39 prison employees remained hostages in the prison, and Commissioner of Corrections Russell G. Oswald agreed to hold televised negotiations in the prison yard. Several hostages reported that they had been treated well, and several inmates expressed their fears that they would be retaliated against by the government. Oswald learned that the inmates had an agenda, and they handed over a list of demands, including improved conditions such as education programs, an end to censorship of letters and magazines, better healthcare, the hiring of African-American and Puerto Rican guards and social workers, the freeing of Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party and the leader of the Young Lords, and other demands, which totalled to 27. The authorities agreed to many of the demands, but refused to remove the prison's supertintendent or provide amnesty to the rebellious inmates.

Assault

State troopers arriving at Attica

By 13 September, the inmates had grown restive and threatened to slit the throats of four of the captive guards. State troopers were sent in to surround the prison, leading to the escalation of the situation, although the hostages appealed to the state to approve the inmates' requests and not to storm the prison. At 9:46 AM, after Governor Nelson Rockefeller reluctantly gave the order to storm the prison (after one of the 11 wounded guards died in the hospital the night before), tear gas was dropped into the yard, and state police officers opened fire into the smoke for two minutes straight. Helicopters also participated in the attack on the prison. Many state troopers used shotguns and fired indiscriminately, killing 8 of the hostages in addition to non-resisting inmates. The police killed 29 inmates as well, and they forced the survivors to lay down on the ground, after which they stripped them and forced them to stand naked in long lines; several of the prisoners, including "Big Black" Smith, later revealed that they had been sexually abused by the police. The New York State Special Commission on Attica later reported that the Attica Prison riot was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the American Civil War (with the exception of the "Indian massacres" of the Plains Indian Wars). As a result of the riot, the New York State Department of Corrections gave a grievance procedure to inmates, started a "prisoner representative" program to improve communications between the warden and the prisoners, and began allowing for inmates to receive packages year-round.

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