Attica Prison riot

Attica Prison riot

The Attica Prison riot occurred at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, United States in 1971. The riot was based in part upon prisoners' demands for better living conditions. At the time, inmates were given one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper a month.Jackson, Bruce (1999). " [ Attica: An Anniversary of Death] ." Retrieved October 4, 2006.] On September 9, 1971, responding to the death of prisoner George Jackson, a black radical prisoner who had been shot to death by guards in California's San Quentin Prison on August 21 while armed and attempting to escape, about 1,000 of the prison's approximately 2,200 prisoners rioted and seized control of the prison, taking thirty-three correction officers hostage. The State began negotiating with the prisoners.

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 warden. Under 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 correction officers and civilian employees.

The riot

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 with a prison officer, a small group of 5 Company prisoners 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 rookie correctional officer tried to calm the mob of prisoners. He was assaulted and the riot began.cite web
publisher = Attica Central School District
title = Attica Correctional Facility: 1971 Prison Riot
accessdate = 2006-10-04
url =

Officer Quinn in the central control room of the tunnels tried to phone for help when he saw what was happening in the tunnel. However, he kept getting a busy signal and the mob of prisoners managed to get into the control room and beat him unconscious with the lead handle of the rotary phone. This officer would later die from injuries received at the hands of the inmates.cite web
publisher = Public Broadcasting Service
work = American Experience—The Rockefellers
title = People & Events: Attica Prison Riot – September 9-13, 1971
accessdate = 2006-10-04
url =

The inmates quickly gained control of sections, D-yard, two tunnels, and the central control room, Time Square. Inmates took forty-two officers and civilians hostage and aired a list of grievances, demanding their needs be met before their surrender. In a facility designed to hold 1,200 inmates and actually housing 2,225,cite book | author = Schmalleger, F., & Smykla, J. | date = 2007, 2005, 2002 | title = Corrections in the 21st Century | location = New York | publisher = McGraw-Hill ] theirs was a substantial list. 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 between inmates and prison officials

The prisoners continued to unsuccessfully negotiate with Corrections 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 representative Arthur Eve, lawyer William Kunstler and other officials.

The situation may have been further complicated by then-Governor Nelson 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. [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.] 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 will order the State Police to retake the facility by force. Rockefeller agreed with Oswald's decision and this agreement would be later criticized by a commission created by Rockefeller to study the riot and the aftermath.cite news
last =
first =
coauthors =
title = A Year Ago at Attica
work = Time
pages =
language =
publisher = Time Magazine, Inc.
date = 1972-09-25
url =,9171,903593,00.html
accessdate = 2008-04-27

The retaking of the prison and retaliation by guards

At 9:46 A.M. on Monday, September 13, 1971 tear gas was dropped into the yard and New York State Police state troopers opened fire nonstop 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 [Use of Shotguns in Attica Revolt Deplored in House Unit’s Report, "New York Times" (June 27, 1973)] . Former prison guards 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 twenty-eight inmates had been killed.

The final death toll from the riot also included the officer fatally injured at the start of the riot and four inmates killed when "inmate justice" was administered. Nine hostages died from gunfire by state troopers and guards. 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."

After the riot, nothing was done to prevent reprisals by troopers and guards. Inmates were made to strip, crawl through the mud, and then some were made to run naked between lines of enraged guards, who beat the inmates. Several days after the riot's end, prison doctors reported evidence of more beatings. The commission established by Rockefeller to study the riot and the aftermath accused state officials of allowing rumors to spread, and of unjustifiable delay in denying the false report that one hostage had been castrated and that others had their throats fatally slashed.

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" were later found to be deliberately fictitious. [Fred Ferretti, "Autopsies Show Shots Killed 9 Attica Hostages, Not Knives; State Official Admits Mistake" "New York Times" (Sep. 15, 1971); William E. Farrell, "Rockefeller Lays Hostages’ Deaths to Troopers’ Fire", "New York Times" (Sep. 17, 1971)]

ubsequent 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.Al-Jundi v. Mancusi, 113 F. Supp. 2d 441 (W.D.N.Y. 2000)]

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 27 years in the courts, in 2000, the State of New York agreed to pay $12 million to settle the case. The State of New York also recognized the families of the slain prison employees in the autumn of 2004 with a $12 million financial settlement.

Notability of the Attica riot

The Attica riot was notable in that it directed national media attention to the condition of prisons in the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Racial issues

Many people attribute the riot to the racial issues inside of the prison at the time. Of 2,225 inmates, 54% of the inmates were African American and 9% Puerto Rican; however, all of the 383 correctional officers were white. From reports on the prison conditions, the guards were openly racist and assaulted the prisoners with their batons, which they dubbed "Nigger Sticks." During this time period "black militancy" was at its peak and several prisons had their black militants transferred to Attica. Additionally, George Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party, died at the hands of white prison guards only a few days before the riot in the San Quentin State Prison in California, adding to the racial tension. The aftermath of the riot called for prison reform, especially in the treatment of minority inmates who were becoming a majority in several state correctional facilities across America.Fact|date=February 2007

Al Jundi v. Mancusi

Additionally, Muslims were also targeted by the officers for torture and punishment. 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 were 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, "to kill them [the inmates] or die protecting the hostages." The court in Al Jundi v. Mancusi, 113 F.Supp.2d 441 wrote: [] and []

quote|A number of former Muslim inmates testified that they had been singled out for "special" brutal treatment by troopers and corrections 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 "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 proved to be his life saver. The inmate was Don Noble whom he had befriended and who worked in the sheet metal shop. Noble protected him on September 9, 1971 and would later save his life on September 13, 1971.

Mr. Smith was interviewed by the media while being held hostage along with Corrections Officer Cunningham. He conveyed what 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 and a different "mood" set in.

On Sunday night, September 12, 1971, the feeling was "somber." He got a pen and wrote a good-bye 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 Michael Smith was shot four times in the stomach and once in the arm. The chair on which he had been sitting disintegrated from gunshots. Mr. Smith told the 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 laid on the catwalk until a trooper stood over him pointing a shotgun at his head. He was certain that he was going to be killed. A corrections officer saw what was going on and yelled to the trooper, "he is one of us" and then the trooper focused his attention on Don Noble who was still alive. Michael Smith yelled to the trooper, "he saved my life" and the trooper spared Noble.

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."

Exoneration of inmates

One of the leaders of the uprising, Cleveland "Jomo" Davis was later pardoned by New York Governor Hugh Carey. On April 2, 1978 Davis was accused of having fatally shot New York City Police Officers Christie D. Masone and Norman R. Cerullo in Brooklyn, New York. Following two mistrials, Davis was found not guilty. [New York Times June 29, 1980]

Cultural impact

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. Many more pop culture references stem from this scene than from the riot itself. For example, in the 1977 film "Saturday Night Fever", Tony Manero, played by John Travolta, repeats Pacino's "Attica! Attica!" line. See Dog Day Afternoon in popular culture for many more examples.

At least three TV movies of the riot have been produced: 1980's "Attica", with George Grizzard, 1994's "Against the Wall", with Samuel L. Jackson, and 2001's "The Killing Yard", by Euzhan Palcy with Alan Alda.

In the television show "Oz", racial tension and poor living conditions cause the prison inmates to riot in the episode "A Game of Checkers." When taken hostage the administrator Tim McManus discusses how he was motivated to enter the corrections profession by his father, a prison guard, being called back to work to deal with the riot.

The incident is directly referenced in at least two songs: John Lennon's "Attica State" on his "Some Time In New York City" album, and Tom Paxton's "The Hostage," which was included by Judy Collins on her 1973 album "True Stories and Other Dreams". The Attica riot was also said to have inspired both the 10cc song "Rubber Bullets" and the Charles Mingus composition "Remember Rockefeller at Attica."

The 1972 album "Attica Blues" by jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp and its title track are a direct reference to the incident.

Composer Frederic Rzewski wrote two pieces, "Coming Together"/"Attica" (1972), that set excerpts from a letter by Sam Melville, one of the prisoners killed in the riot.

Poet Alen Pol Kobryn’s verse series, "Attica State," was broadcast on WBAI, 1976.



* Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s, eds. Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer

External links

* [ Yahoo! Directory: Attica Riot links]
* [ Democrat and Chronicle: Attica – A History In Photographs]
* [ Talking History: Attica Revisited]
* [ "I Would Do It Any Day, Again" an Interview with Akil Al-Jundi]
* [ video interviews with Frank Smith]
* [ Short history on American Experience]
* [ Short history from Eyes on the Prize]
* [ The Attica Prison Uprising on] - with links to related articles on the prisoners' movement, Black Panthers, Vietnam, etc.

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