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The Attica Prison Riot

Updated on September 5, 2011
Attica Prison after the riots
Attica Prison after the riots | Source

September 9, 1971 was the beginning of what would eventually be the worst prison confrontation in American history and the bloodiest assault on Americans by Americans since the Civil War. Some reports say that the incident began as a response to a Black panther’s death by a prison guard in California. Others claim it was due to a fight that had been broken up and rumors swirled that the guards planned retaliation against two prisoners who had been taken to isolation. Others state the riot began with the assault of a prison guard by a group of inmates. Whatever the initial cause, the results were the same; a great many people lost their lives and experienced immense suffering.

Attica Prison is located in upstate New York and was at the time of the riots, and still is today, a maximum security prison. The rural location of the prison resulted in all but one guard being white; the one non-white guard was Latino. The prison population was 63% minority, 54% of which was black. Additionally, 80% of the guards were from rural settings while 70% of the prisoners were urban. This created a cultural divide that resulted in an atmosphere of keepers and kept. Adding to the tensions was an overcrowded prison, where sanitation needs were strongly regulated such as one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper per month.

The initial stages of the riot resulted in the prisoners taking command of the facility and holding 40 staff members hostage. Four days of negotiations followed. The prisoners wanted a federal takeover of the prison, better living conditions, improved rehabilitative programs, removal of the prison superintendent, less mail censorship, the hiring of more minority guards and amnesty for crimes committed during the revolt. The inmates asked for a committee of politicians and journalists to help oversee their interests. However, an agreement could not be reached. Even though Corrections Commissioner Oswald made numerous requests for then Governor Rockefeller to come to the prison, he refused. Rockefeller was at the time planning for a presidential run and was concerned about appearing soft on crime. He formed a nine member panel to handle the situation and approved their plan to retake the prison without ever reviewing the situation himself.

On September 13, 1971 a helicopter flew over the prison and released tear gas. This was immediately followed by gun fire that lasted six minutes and used more than two thousand rounds of ammunition. Both inmates and prison staff hostages were hit, resulting in numerous injuries and casualties. One report claims that 10 hostages and 29 inmates were among the dead and that 80 others were seriously wounded. Adding to the devastation was a lack of timely medical services and claims that the guards took brutal revenge on the inmates, stripping and torturing them. Some guards also asserted that it was the inmates who shot the hostages, though no guns were found that inmates could have used.

Following the riots, an investigation resulted in over 60 inmates being indicted that lead to eight eventually being convicted. One guard was charged with reckless endangerment, but his case was eventually dropped. Lawsuits resulting from the situation remained in courts well into the new millennium. In 1997, an inmate who had been beaten and tortured by guards received $4 million. In 2000, a federal judge ordered the state to pay $8 million to roughly 400 inmates who were tortured after the uprising by guards, and in 2005, the state agreed to pay $12 million to the families and survivors of the employees who had been killed.


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