Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
44 years ago this month, inmates seized control of Attica over prisoners’ rights issues—which are still flashpoints today.
“The Attica Prison Move … is a tactical move towards going forward to show the world’s community people how to begin to end oppression and wretched, unjust prison incarceration.” — The Black Panther newspaper, Sept 18, 1971
It took 15 minutes for police to deactivate the Attica prison revolt via blitzkrieg. On September 9, 1971, Attica inmates overpowered 10 prison guards and placed them, in their words, “under arrest.” As history tells it it, they took the guards hostage. Whatever you call it, the reason inmates seized Attica was to draw attention to the “hostage crisis” they said they had been detained in for decades.
Months before the prison seizure, a group of inmates called the Attica Liberation Faction had made a number of prisoners’ rights demands, including better medical care, minimum wages for their prison labor, the right to join labor unions, better food (they called their food selection a “gastronomical disaster”), and a 10-year cap on life sentences, because “if a man cannot be rehabilitated after a maximum of ten years of constructive programs, etc., then he belongs in a mental hygiene centre, not a prison.”
By the time of the September Attica siege, the faction had radicalized and expanded its list of demands by five, including amnesty for the prisoners and their safe transport to a “non-imperialistic country.”
What sharpened their ultimatums were the overcrowding and terrible living conditions in Attica, which had seemed to reached a nadir but in reality were terribly average for the American prison system. The official 1972 report from the New York State Special Commission on Attica said that it was only “chance” that “the explosion” happened first in Attica because “the elements of replication are all around us. Attica is every prison; and every prison is Attica.”
Probably because of this, Attica inmates insisted on negotiating their demands not with the prison warden, whom they distrusted, but face-to-face with then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The governor was barely more trustworthy, as he was part of a long line of extreme “law and order” politicians, and he was about to make an example out of Attica.
The state had rejected the demands regarding amnesty, and the governor refused to meet with the agitators at all. Instead, the inmates were mowed down on September 13 by police with shotguns, tear gas, and other munitions. Twenty-nine inmates were killed, as were the 10 prison guards they were holding hostage, while hundreds more inmates were injured—many of them tortured and brutalized by police after the siege was dismantled.
Subsequent investigations revealed that it wasn’t just conditions inside the prison that led to this violent ending, but also conditions in the criminal justice system—before the accused ever saw prison walls. The New York State Special Commission on Attica pointed to overcrowding in both prisons and courtrooms.
“So crowded are the criminal courts, particularly in the cities, that the calendars are kept manageable only by extensive plea bargaining,” reads the report. The commission also noted that while 54 percent of the inmates were black and 80 percent of them were from the “cities’ ghettos,” the correction officers were “all white and drawn from the rural areas in which we build our prisons.”
The commission forebodingly described city conditions that predicated Attica that sound analogous to what other commissions have written about the urban unrest of recent years:
For the black inmate in Attica, the atmosphere on September 8, 1971, was not unlike that in the cities before the holocausts of Harlem, Watts, Newark, and Detroit. Sit-ins, demonstrations, and petitions had been met with excuses, delays, and repression. Organized, peaceful efforts had been rebuffed or ignored. … No organizers were necessary; no plans were required; no leaders needed. As in the cities in 1967, the situation itself was explosive. All that was needed was a spark to set it off.
This language mirrors that of Missouri’s “Forward Through Ferguson” report released last week. That report also includes calls to action that closely reflect the demands made by Attica inmates in 1971. Some of those:
- All municipalities shall develop and implement an operating plan to provide necessary medical services, including mental health services, for all persons in custody;
- All municipal court, jail, and city government employees shall receive annual cultural bias training and training on how to protect the constitutional rights of residents and defendants, and how to effectively administer courts;
- All municipal courts shall explicitly establish formal and uniform systems of documentation and record-keeping at every stage of defendants’ court involvement. Whenever possible and appropriate, such documents and records shall be available to defendants;
- To keep from assessing a fine or fee that a defendant simply cannot afford, municipal courts shall determine a defendant’s ability to pay at the defendant’s first court hearing;
- Municipal courts shall not incarcerate individuals for minor, nonviolent offenses. They should also not issue “failure to appear” warrants on such charges, as these often lead to incarceration;
- Municipal courts shall retain the services of dedicated personnel (e.g., social workers, community service coordinators, through a community justice center or otherwise) for the provision of social services, diversion options, and other alternatives to traditional sentencing to all municipal defendants who choose or are determined to require such services;
- Direct County and City Governments across the state to differentiate emergency and demonstration approaches by consulting with community members, community organizers and law enforcement officials to design a publicly available Demonstration Response Plan that first prioritizes the preservation of human life and adheres to the principles of community policing, guardianship, and the protection of human and constitutional rights;
- Direct the state to cease providing, and local departments to cease using, militarized weaponry that does not align with a use of force continuum that authorizes only the minimal amount of force necessary.
Current U.S. Department of Justice investigations into jail and prison problems in Baltimore, Rikers Island, New Orleans, and many other incarceration centers describe conditions almost identical to what the Attica inmates described. Solitary confinement, a huge sticking point for the Attica prisoners, is only now seen as cruel and unusual by the nation’s top law authorities. They are also finally examining the mental hygiene of aging inmates who’ve been incarcerated longer than 10 years.
Attica inmates recognized in their demands that, “The working conditions in prisons do not develop working incentives parallel to the many jobs in the outside society, and a paroled prisoner faces many contradictions of the job that add to his difficulty in adjusting.”
Now, as my colleague Linda Poon reported, some are envisioning jails that resemble colleges. If only Governor Rockefeller had met with the Attica faction 44 years earlier, perhaps some of these ideas could have been implemented sooner.