Prisoners Riot Against Conditions in Attica Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A prison riot at the Attica State Correctional Facility attracted worldwide attention because of its political and racial implications and led to radical prison reforms in the United States.

Summary of Event

On September 9, 1971, a petty scuffle between two inmates at the Attica State Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, triggered the bloodiest prison riot in American history. Eventually, 1,281 inmates took forty-three hostages, who were either guards or civilian prison employees. During the initial outbreak, a guard named William Quinn was knocked unconscious and eventually died of head wounds. All the rioters were potentially liable to prosecution for murder under New York state law. This motivated their demand for blanket amnesty, which was the one demand authorities were unwilling to grant. Attica State Correctional Facility Riots;Attica State Correctional Facility Correctional facilities;Attica State Correctional Facility [kw]Prisoners Riot Against Conditions in Attica (Sept. 9-13, 1971) [kw]Riot Against Conditions in Attica, Prisoners (Sept. 9-13, 1971) [kw]Attica, Prisoners Riot Against Conditions in (Sept. 9-13, 1971) Attica State Correctional Facility Riots;Attica State Correctional Facility Correctional facilities;Attica State Correctional Facility [g]North America;Sept. 9-13, 1971: Prisoners Riot Against Conditions in Attica[00420] [g]United States;Sept. 9-13, 1971: Prisoners Riot Against Conditions in Attica[00420] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 9-13, 1971: Prisoners Riot Against Conditions in Attica[00420] [c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 9-13, 1971: Prisoners Riot Against Conditions in Attica[00420] Oswald, Russell G. Rockefeller, Nelson A. Schwartz, Herman Eve, Arthur O. Wicker, Tom

Trouble had been brewing for a long time. With the influx of African Americans and Hispanics into New York City following World War II, the composition of New York prison populations had gradually changed from predominantly white to predominantly nonwhite. There was no corresponding change, however, in the ethnic composition of the correctional officers, who tended to be strongly prejudiced against nonwhites and particularly against blacks. The verbal and physical abuse of inmates was one of the main factors causing unrest. Other grievances included the poor quality of prison food and the facts that inmates were paid far below minimum wage for their labor in prison shops, that their communication with the outside was severely restricted, and that their attempts to appeal their sentences in the courts were punished. These and other complaints eventually were formulated in a document presented to the prison authorities and to the news media.

The medium of television brought vivid pictures of the four-day riot into living rooms across the United States. For the first time, citizens could see for themselves what prisons and inmates as well as guards and state police really looked like; it was quite different from the picture that had been created in the popular imagination by Hollywood prison films.

Leaders of the riot took advantage of the media coverage to present a political message to the world. The essence of their thesis, which was derived largely from the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, was that they were actually victims of society because they were poor, uneducated, and victims of discrimination.

Mainly because of the leadership by members of the Nation of Islam, the riot was extremely well organized. Various committees were appointed to preserve order, distribute food, erect shelters, and dig latrines for sanitation. The center of all the rioters’ activities was the section of the prison known as “D yard.” There the leaders set up tables at which they issued orders and conducted negotiations with prison officials and outside observers. The authorities agreed to provide food and water in order to protect the lives of the hostages, who were generally well treated but confined to a small area entirely surrounded by inmates.

Commissioner Russell G. Oswald came to the negotiating table and was presented with a list of demands. One of the initial demands was for the presence of a group of outside observers, who would presumably see to it that the state lived up to any promises it made. Many of the guards and state police were disgusted with Oswald for even conferring with the inmates. Their instinct was to storm D yard with guns and tear gas and to save the hostages by the sheer weight and speed of their assault. They believed that any concessions to the prisoners would only make their jobs harder in the future.

Inmates at Attica State Prison raise their fists during negotiations with Russell G. Oswald, commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, on September 10, 1971. Oswald accepted twenty-eight of the prisoners’ demands.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Oswald was a progressive administrator who sincerely wanted to reform New York State’s prisons along the lines the inmates were demanding. He was handicapped, however, by the traditional attitude of the corrections officers and by a chronic unwillingness on the part of state legislators to provide the funds needed for improving facilities and hiring personnel. Many legislators, law-enforcement officials, and members of the general public were strongly opposed to what they considered “coddling” of prison inmates; they believed that if prisons were unpleasant places, then people would obey the law in order to stay out of them.

Eventually, the group of observers worked out a set of twenty-eight points that Oswald was willing to accept. These points were important both because they represented the spectrum of inmate grievances at the time the riot started and because they heralded the kinds of reforms that were actually implemented after it ended. Some of the points were obvious and reasonable: The inmates wanted better food, better recreational facilities, better medical and dental treatment, and better educational and rehabilitation services. Other points were considered quite radical for the time. They called for an end to censorship of reading material, unrestricted communication with the outside world, a permanent ombudsman service to arbitrate grievances, and the application of the New York state minimum wage law to all work done by inmates, who had been paid as little as twenty-five cents an hour in prison shops. Many of the proposals were aimed at improving the quality of prison life, which was unbearably grim and tedious.

The twenty-eight proposals that were acceptable to Commissioner Oswald and to the thirty-three observers were not sufficient to satisfy the leaders of the riot. The majority of the prisoners probably would have accepted the proposals, released the hostages, and gone back to the cells under the guarantee of complete administrative amnesty; however, the leaders believed strongly that they would be the targets of legal action after the prison was restored to order.

The only person they believed could grant them legal amnesty for all actions occurring during the riot, including the death of Quinn, was Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. The New York governor believed that the riot had worldwide political implications and could lead to more prison riots and even to revolution if not handled effectively. He was a strong contender for the presidency of the United States (and later served as vice president of the United States, from late 1974 through 1976, under President Gerald R. Ford). Rockefeller believed that being soft on the rioters would undermine the morale of all law-enforcement officials and alienate many conservative voters. He flatly refused to grant blanket amnesty, and the inmate leaders tore up the document listing their twenty-eight points. After that, a violent finale was inevitable.

State police and Attica corrections officers stormed D yard with tear gas, shotguns, deer rifles, and pistols. Twenty-nine prisoners were killed as well as ten hostages. It was later determined that all the hostages were killed by “friendly fire,” although inmates had severely wounded a number of their captives with crudely fashioned knives. Three hostages, eighty-five inmates, and one state trooper were wounded. The officers took revenge for their dead in an orgy of reprisals. Some 45 percent of the inmates in D yard suffered bruises, abrasions, lacerations, and broken bones. Eventually, three leaders were charged with thirty-four counts of kidnapping, and a total of 1,289 charges of criminal activity were brought against sixty-two inmates. In 1975, however, a general amnesty was declared, mainly because of the scandal surrounding the actions of the guards and police and subsequent attempts to cover up incriminating evidence against them. Seven inmates who had plea-bargained for reduced charges were pardoned by Governor Hugh Leo Carey. Carey, Hugh Leo John Hill, who had been convicted of killing William Quinn, had his sentence commuted and was paroled in March of 1979.

Significance

In A Prison and a Prisoner (1978), a study of Green Haven Correctional Facility, another upstate New York prison, author Susan Sheehan wrote that there had been more changes at New York State’s maximum security prisons in the 1970’s than in the preceding thirty years. Most of them were made in 1972, a few months after the Attica riot. Among the many changes instituted after the riot were improvements in living conditions. The prison’s interiors were painted a neutral beige, replacing the glaring institutional green. Prisoners were allowed to select colors for their cells. Pay telephones were installed for inmates’ use.

In addition, officials allowed longer visiting hours, and provisions were made for conjugal visits. The food was improved in quality, and less pork was served in response to protests from the Nation of Islam inmates, whose religion forbade them to eat pork. More academic programs were offered that led to high school and college degrees. Vocational training in such fields as photography, plumbing, and engine repair was also made available. In the prison’s “honor block,” model prisoners were allowed to cook their own food and move about unescorted. A new gymnasium, weekly movies, and some live entertainment were added as well. Many more black and Puerto Rican guards were hired as a result of a statewide effort at recruitment. Prisoners were required to spend much less time in their cells, and an effective inmate grievance procedure was installed to head off future riots.

Because the Attica riot of 1971 received such heavy media coverage, it inspired similar improvements in prisons all across the United States. This did not mean, however, that prisons became pleasant places to live. Attica proved that the classic notion of prisons as places of so-called rehabilitation was not only futile but hypocritical as long as society did nothing to change the conditions that produced criminals. Attica forced penologists to drop the pretense that prisons were places intended for rehabilitation and to admit that they were places of confinement and punishment, although prisoners were entitled to decent living conditions and to access to educational opportunities. The major emphasis in criminal jurisprudence focused on finding alternatives to incarceration, such as community service, halfway houses, public works projects, and restitution to victims through wage garnishments.

No doubt there will always be a need to incarcerate violent or remorseless individuals; however, the daily newspapers are full of evidence of judges’ efforts to treat nonviolent offenders like rational human beings. With shrinking budgets and overcrowded prisons, some officials have argued that the “lock them up and throw away the key” attitude of past decades is no longer financially feasible, nor has it helped to rehabilitate inmates. On the other hand, early-release programs, weak parole oversight, and leniency toward violent offenders have produced countless tragedies of repeat offenders engaging in the rape, battery, and murder of innocent people, posing an ongoing dilemma for the penal and corrections systems and society at large. Attica State Correctional Facility Riots;Attica State Correctional Facility Correctional facilities;Attica State Correctional Facility

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Badillo, Herman, and Milton Haynes. A Bill of No Rights: Attica and the American Prison System. New York: Outerbridge & Lazard, 1972. A bitter treatment of the prison system as revealed by the events at Attica in 1971 and a detailed proposal for sweeping reforms. Badillo, a Democratic congressman from the Bronx, was one of the team of observers who tried desperately to resolve the situation without bloodshed. Many valuable chapter notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, Malcolm. The Turkey Shoot: Tracking the Attica Cover-Up. New York: Grove Press, 1985. The author served in the New York State special prosecutor’s investigation of the Attica riot but later resigned in protest of what he considered to be a cover-up of atrocities committed by state police and prison guards in quelling the uprising. Charges that facts were suppressed to protect Governor Rockefeller, who had presidential ambitions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Richard X. The Brothers of Attica. New York: Links Books, 1973. Highly emotional and biased account of the Attica riot by a black inmate who was one of its leaders. Despite the work’s propagandistic intent, it effectively reveals the strength of the inmates’ passions and their attitude that society was more guilty than the inmates themselves.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coons, William R. Attica Diary. New York: Stein & Day, 1972. Personalized description of life at the Attica State Correctional Facility written by a college English instructor who was imprisoned there for illegal drug possession for a period of fifteen months shortly before the riot broke out. Describes well the monotony of prison life and the pent-up hostilities of the inmates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Featherstone, Richard Andrew, and Stephen H. Paschen. Narratives from the 1971 Attica Prison Riot: Toward a New Theory of Correctional Disturbances. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005. Compares and contrasts five published accounts from persons involved in the incident, extracts overarching themes from these narratives, and suggests new ways to approach institutional rioting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Robert. Understanding and Reforming the Prison. 3d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001. Provides historical information about prisons, prison life, and efforts toward prison reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">New York State Special Commission on Attica. Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica. New York: Praeger, 1972. Report of a “citizens’ committee” appointed by the chief judge of the New York Supreme Court to investigate the riot. Admirably thorough; the commission conducted interviews with more than sixteen hundred inmates, four hundred guards, hundreds of state police officers, Commissioner Oswald, Governor Rockefeller, and many others. Blames the 1971 uprising on the deplorable conditions in all New York prisons.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oswald, Russell G. Attica: My Story. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. Detailed account of the Attica riot from the point of view of the official who bore the heaviest responsibility for restoring order and saving lives. Asserts that the riot was orchestrated by political militants who sought a bloody confrontation for international propaganda purposes and did not sincerely desire the reforms he was willing to implement. Includes informative appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Useem, Bert, and Peter Kimball. States of Siege: U.S. Prison Riots, 1971-1986. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Presents sociological case studies of prison riots in five different states, beginning with the Attica riot of 1971, in an attempt to understand their causes and possible cure. Endnotes contain extensive references to secondary source material.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wicker, Tom. A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt. 1975. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. Written in first-person fashion by a senior journalist with The New York Times who served on the observer committee, this excellent study of the Attica riot won an Edgar Allan Poe Award in the Fact Crime category in 1976. Extensive endnotes cite a wealth of reference material.

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