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Coordinates: The Attica Prison riot occurred at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, United States in 1971. This riot is one of the most famous and important riots during the Prisoner Rights Movement. 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 three guards and two prisoners 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 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 prisoners 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.
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 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 civilian 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.
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."
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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 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.
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 an example of '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.
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.
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."
Direct coverage of the Attica Prison riot:
Firestone’s 1974 film, restored in 2007, culls together primary footage from surveillance and news cameras along with prisoner, family and guard interviews to create an account of the massacre that has been described as temperate, but undeniably damning with respect to the state’s actions. As The New Yorker’s 1974 review describes it, “Cinda Firestone’s quiet picture uses horrifying film footage: shots taken through state troopers’ telescopic rifle lenses; musings by inmates which sometimes sputter into anger against a world that finds descriptions of Attica incredible; riot quellers insensibly proud of their skill with weapons, showing off their prowess before the commission of inquiry. … If Attica disturbed our slumber for a mere month or two, one of the qualities of this trumpet call of a film is that it makes the disturbance enduring.”
Several other films reference the uprising:
The incident is directly referenced in several songs.