Against the background of the mass revolutionary, black power and prisoners’ movements in the US, a five day revolt began on September 9, 1971 at the Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, NY in the United States. Its repression left 39 people killed.
“If we can’t live as men, we sure as hell can die as men”
– Attica prisoner
In 1970 the National Guard had gunned down unarmed students protesting against the Vietnam War at Jackson State and Kent State Universities. Armed guards smashed a Teamsters truckers’ strike. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had both been murdered. When George Jackson, Black Panther and political prisoner was murdered at San Quentin by the guards on August 21, 1971, his book “Soledad Brother” was being passed from prisoner to prisoner, tensions were running mounting. A prisoners’ rights movement was growing.
Attica was surrounded by a 30-foot wall, 2 feet thick, with fourteen gun towers. 54% of the inmates were black; 100% of the guards were white, many of whom were openly racist. Prisoners spent fourteen to sixteen hours a day in their cells, their mail was read, their reading material restricted, their visits from families conducted through a mesh screen, their medical care disgraceful, their parole system inequitable, racism everywhere. How perceptive the prison administration was about these conditions can be measured by the comment of the superintendent of Attica, Vincent Mancusi, when the uprising began: “Why are they destroying their home?”
Most of the Attica prisoners were there as a result of plea bargaining. Of 32,000 felony indictments a year in New York State, 4,000 to 5,000 were tried. The rest (about 75%) were disposed of by deals made under duress, called “plea bargaining,” described as follows in the Report of the Joint Legislative Committee on Crime in New York:
The final climactic act in the plea bargaining procedure is a charade which in itself has aspects of dishonesty which rival the original crime in many instances. The accused is made to assert publicly his guilt on a specific crime, which in many cases he has not committed; in some cases he pleads guilty to a non-existing crime. He must further indicate that he is entering his plea freely… and that he is not doing so because of any promises made to him.
In plea bargaining, the accused pleads guilty, whether he is or not, and saves the state the trouble of a trial in return for the promise of a less severe punishment.
When Attica prisoners were up for parole, the average time of their hearing, including the reading of the file and deliberation among the three members, was 5.9 minutes. Then the decision was handed out, with no explanation.
The official report on the Attica uprising tells how an inmate-instructed sociology class there became a forum for ideas about change. Then there was a series of organised protest efforts, and in July an inmate manifesto setting forth a series of moderate demands, after which “tensions at Attica had continued to mount,” culminating in a day of protest over the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin, during which few inmates ate at lunch and dinner on a hunger strike, and many wore black armbands.
On September 9. 1971, a series of conflicts between prisoners and guards ended with a relatively minor incident, involving a guard disciplining two prisoners. This was the spark that set off the revolt a group which began when a group of inmates from D Block broke through a gate with a defective weld and taking over one of the four prison yards, with forty guards as hostages.
Then followed five days in which the prisoners set up a remarkable community in the yard. A group of citizen-observers, invited by the prisoners, included New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, who wrote (A Time to Die): “The racial harmony that prevailed among the prisoners—it was absolutely astonishing… That prison yard was the first place I have ever seen where there was no racism.” One black prisoner later said: “I never thought whites could really get it on. . . . But I can’t tell you what the yard was like, I actually cried it was so close, everyone so together.” All the prisoners – black, Latino, white – who took part in the revolt were united. It was no “race riot” but a united class action.
The prisoners demanded removal of the warden, amnesty for those who had taken part in the revolt, and better conditions. The state agreed to 28 of the 33 demands but not amnesty. The prisoners were not willing to back down on this, as they knew repression would fall heavily on them.
After five days, the state lost patience. Governor Nelson Rockefeller approved a military attack on the prison (see Cinda Firestone’s stunning film Attica). One thousand National Guardsmen, prison guards, and local police went in with automatic rifles, carbines, and submachine guns in a full-scale assault on the prisoners, who had no firearms. Thirty-one prisoners were killed. The first stories given the press by prison authorities said that nine guards held hostage had their throats slashed by the prisoners during the attack. The official autopsies almost immediately showed this to be false: the nine guards died in the same hail of bullets that killed the prisoners.
Guards beat and tortured prisoners after the revolt. A wave of other prison rebellions spread like wildfire, involving 20,000 people.
There were several hundred thousand in prison in 1971 – now there are two million. The memory of Attica is still there – in 2004 prisoners in Texas started a hunger strike on the 33rd anniversary to commemorate the Attica uprising and to support prisoners’ rights.
OCRed by Linda Towlson and lightly edited by libcom – US to UK spelling, additional details, clarifications and links added – from two articles by Howard Zinn and the Anarchist Federation.