Attica Prison riot

The Attica Prison uprising, also known as the Attica Prison rebellion or Attica Prison riot, occurred at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, United States, in 1971. Based upon prisoners' demands for better living conditions and political rights, the uprising was one of the most well-known and significant uprisings of the Prisoners' Rights Movement. On September 9, 1971, two weeks after the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin State Prison, 1,281 of the Attica prison's approximately 2,200 inmates rioted and took control of the prison, taking 42 staff hostage.

Attica Prison uprising

Attica Correctional Facility
DateSeptember 9–13, 1971
42°50′59″N 78°16′18″W
Attica inmates New York State Police
New York State Department of Corrections
New York Army National Guard
Commanders and leaders
Cleveland McKinley “Jomo” Davis (the leader of the riot)
Frank "Big Black" Smith (who was responsible for the prison security)
Richard X. Clark (The head of the inmates and hostages internal security and served as a liaison between the inmates of D-yard and the authorities)
Elliott James "L.D." Barkley
Herbert X. Blyden
Frank Lott
Peter Butler
Donald "Don" Noble
Carl Jones-El
Governor Nelson Rockefeller
Commissioner Russell G. Oswald
Deputy Commission Walter Dunbar
Public Information Officer Gerald T. Houlihan
Superintendent William Kirwan
Deputy Superintendent Karl Pfeil
Warden Vincent R. Mancusi
Major John Monahan
Chief Inspector John C. Miller
Lieutenant Joseph P. Christian (GSW)
1,281 inmates 74 correctional officers (who managed to escape from becoming hostages)
550 state troopers
42 correctional officers and civilian workers (who are taken as hostages)
Casualties and losses
33 prisoners killed (29 by police bullets during the assault, 4 by inmates knives before the assault)
85 prisoners wounded (all by police bullets during the assault)
1 state trooper wounded by police bullet during the assault
10 correctional officers killed (1 died before the assault of his head injures, 8 died during the assault by police bullet, 1 died of his Injuries after the assault by gunshot wounds)
5 correctional officers wounded during the assault (3 by police bullets, 2 by inmates knives)

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 superintendent. By the order of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, state police took back control of the prison. When the uprising was over, at least 43 people were dead, including ten correctional officers and civilian employees, and 33 inmates.

Rockefeller, who refused to visit the prisoners during the rebellion, stated that the prisoners "carried out the cold-blood killings they had threatened from the outset,"[1] despite only one of the officers and four inmates killed being attributed to the prisoners. New York Times writer Fred Ferretti said the rebellion concluded in "mass deaths that four days of taut negotiations had sought to avert".[2]

As a result of the riot, a number of changes were made in the New York prison system to satisfy some of the prisoners' demands, reduce tension in the system, and prevent such incidents in the future. As of 2019, Attica remains the most prominent prison riot to have occurred in the United States.

The uprising

At approximately 4:20 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 after being isolated for an incident involving an assault on prison officer Tom Boyle after he was hit in the face with a full soup can by Inmate William Ortiz, a small group of 5 Company inmates 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 Ortiz, they freed 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, but did not tell prison officer Gordon Kelsey, the correctional officer in charge of leading 5 Company to the yard. Instead of going to the yard after breakfast as they usually did, the prisoners were led there to find a locked door, puzzling them and the correctional officer Kelsey. Complaints led to anger when more correctional officers led by Lt. Robert T. Curtiss arrived to lead the prisoners back to their cells. Officer Kelsey was assaulted and the riot began.[3]

The inmates quickly gained control of sections, D-yard, two tunnels, and the central control room, referred to as "Times Square". Inmates took 42 officers and civilians hostage, and produced a list of grievances demanding their conditions be met before their surrender.[4]


Throughout the negotiations, there was leadership and organization among the prisoners. Frank "Big Black" Smith was appointed as head of security, and he also kept the hostages and the observers safe.[5] Additionally, an ardent orator, 21-year-old Elliott James "L.D." Barkley, was a strong force during the negotiations, speaking with great articulation to the inmates, the camera crews, and outsiders at home.[6] Barkley, just days away from his scheduled release at the time of the uprising, was killed during the recapturing of the prison. Assemblyman Arthur Eve testified that Barkley was alive after the prisoners had surrendered and the state regained control; another inmate stated that the officers searched him out, yelling for Barkley, and shot him in the back.[6][7]

We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace, that means each and every one of us here, have set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed. We will not compromise on any terms except those terms that are agreeable to us. We’ve called upon all the conscientious citizens of America to assist us in putting an end to this situation that threatens the lives of not only us, but of each and every one of you, as well.

Elliott James "L.D." Barkley, 1971

As speakers like Barkley raised morale, the rebels' negotiating team of prisoners proposed their requests to the commissioner. The Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto Of Demands is a compilation of complaints written by the Attica prisoners, which speak directly to the "sincere people of society". It includes 27 demands, such as better medical treatment, fair visitation rights, and an end to physical brutality. The prisoners also requested better sanitation, improved food quality, and one set of rules for the state among numerous other demands. The manifesto specifically assigns the power to negotiate to five inmates: Donald Noble, Peter Butler, Frank Lott, Carl Jones-El, and Herbert Blyden X. Additionally, the document specifically lists out "vile and vicious slave masters" who oppressed the prisoners such as the New York governor, New York Corrections, and even the United States Courts.[8]

The prisoners continued to unsuccessfully negotiate with Correctional Services 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 senator John Dunne, state representative Arthur Eve, civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, and others. Prisoners requested the presence of Minister Louis Farrakhan, National Representative of the Nation of Islam, but he declined.[9]

The situation may have been further complicated by Governor Rockefeller's refusal to come to the scene of the uprising and meet with the inmates,[4] although some later evaluations of the incident would postulate that his absence from the scene actually prevented the situation from deteriorating.[10] Negotiations broke down, and Oswald was unable to make further concessions to the inmates. However, he did not tell them that negotiations had ended and he would take the prison back by force, even stating, "I want to continue negotiations with you."[11] Oswald later called Governor Rockefeller and again begged him to come to the prison to calm the riot. Following the governor's refusal, Oswald stated that he would order the State Police to retake the facility by force. Rockefeller agreed with Oswald's decision to retake the prison by force, a decision which was later criticized.[12]

Retaking of the prison and retaliation

As the demands were not met, negotiations broke down and the mood among the inmates deteriorated. It appeared as though Gov. Rockefeller remained opposed to the inmates' demands, and they became restless. Defensive trenches had been dug, metal gates had been electrified, crude battlements were fashioned out of metal tables and dirt, gasoline was put in position to be lit in the event of conflict, and the "Times Square" prison command center was fortified. The inmates brought four corrections officers to the top of the command center and threatened to slit their throats. Reporters in helicopters circling the prison reported that the hostages in D yard were also being prepared for killing. Gov. Rockefeller had ordered that the prison be retaken that day if negotiations failed. Situation commander Oswald, seeing the danger to the hostages, ordered that the prison be retaken by force. Of the decision, he later said "On a much smaller scale, I think I have some feeling now of how Truman must have felt when he decided to drop the A-bomb."[13]

At 9:46 a.m. on Monday, September 13, 1971, tear gas was dropped into the yard and New York State Police troopers opened fire non-stop 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.[14] Former prison officers were allowed to participate, a decision later called "inexcusable" by the commission established by Rockefeller to study the riot and the aftermath.[12] By the time the facility was retaken, nine hostages and 29 inmates had been killed. A tenth hostage, Correctional Officer Harrison W. Whalen died on October 9, 1971, of gunshot wounds received during the assault.[15]

The final death toll from the uprising also includes the officer fatally injured at the start of the uprising and four inmates who were subjected to vigilante killings. Nine hostages died from gunfire by state troopers and soldiers.[4][16] 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."[17]

Media reports claimed that inmate hostage-takers slit the throats of many of their hostages, reports that contradicted official medical evidence.[18] 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 set the stage for reprisals by troopers and prison officers. Inmates were made to strip and crawl through the mud and then some were made to run naked between lines of enraged officers, who beat the inmates.[18][19] Several days after the uprising's end, prison doctors reported evidence of more beatings.[12][20][21] The Special Commission found that state officials failed to quickly refute those rumors and false reports.[12]

Retaliation by Weatherman

At 7:30 p.m. on September 17, Weatherman launched a retaliatory attack on the New York Department of Corrections, exploding a bomb near Oswald's office. "The communique accompanying the attack called the prison system an example of 'how a society run by white racists maintains its control,' with white supremacy being the 'main question white people have to face.'"[22]

Lawsuits and payments

Within four years of the uprising, 62 inmates had been charged in 42 indictments with 1,289 separate counts. One state trooper was indicted for reckless endangerment.[23]

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 years in the courts, in 2000, the State of New York agreed to pay $8 million ($12 million minus legal fees) to settle the case.[24] The State of New York also recognized the families of the slain prison employees in 2005 with a $12 million financial settlement.[25]

The Forgotten Victims of Attica have also asked the State of New York to release state records of the uprising to the public. In 2013, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said he would seek the release of the entire 570-page Meyer Report, the state's review of the uprising. The report was prepared by former State Supreme Court justice Bernard S. Meyer and submitted in 1975. One volume was made public, but a State Supreme Court justice ordered in 1981 that the other two be sealed permanently.[26] In May 2015, 46 pages of the report were released. The released pages contain accounts from witnesses and inmates describing torture, burning, and sexual abuse of inmates by prison authorities.[27]

Racial issues

At the time of the uprising, black empowerment was increasing and many black prisoners had transferred to Attica, increasing population from its designed 1,200 prisoners to 2,243.[28] 54% of these were Black American, 9% Puerto Rican, and 37% white;[29] however, most of the 383 correctional officers were white. Some corrections officers were openly racist and assaulted the prisoners with their batons, which they dubbed "nigger sticks."[28] Additionally, two weeks before the uprising at San Quentin State Prison, George Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party, was shot and killed after taking several guards and two inmates hostage. In addition to his death, the incident ended with the deaths of 5 hostages.

Al Jundi v. Mancusi

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 was 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, that they would "kill [the inmates involved] or die protecting the hostages." The court in Al Jundi v. Mancusi, 113 F.Supp.2d 441 wrote:[30][31]

A number of former Muslim inmates testified that they had been singled out for "special" brutal treatment by troopers and prison 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 "Big Black" Smith, in conjunction with the Muslim leadership, implemented a plan to secure the safety of the hostages during negotiations.[32]

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, Don Noble, whom he had befriended and who worked in the sheet metal shop, and Carl Reighn (originally referred to in previous interviews as Carl Rain) protected him on September 9, 1971, trying desperately to come up with ways to hide or save him and protect him, and would later save his life on September 13, 1971. Carl Reighn was present from the moment they broke the metal shop doors down.

Smith was interviewed by the media while being held hostage along with Corrections Officer Cunningham. He conveyed that 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.

On Sunday night, September 12, 1971, the feeling was "somber".[32] He got a pen and wrote a goodbye 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 Smith was shot four times in the stomach and once in the arm. The chair on which he had been sitting disintegrated from gunshots. Smith said in 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 lay on the catwalk until a trooper stood over him pointing a shotgun at his head. A prison officer saw what was going on and yelled to the trooper, "He is one of us", who then focused his attention on Noble, at which point Smith told the trooper, "He saved my life".

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."

Effects on the New York State prison system

As an indirect result of the Attica uprising, the New York State Department of Corrections 1) began a grievance procedure, in which inmates could grieve (object to) actions by a staff member that violated published policy, 2) started at each prison a program under which the warden and other senior management meet on a monthly basis with elected representatives of the inmates, and 3) began allowing packages to inmates to be received year-round.


The first historical account of the Attica Prison Uprising (A Time to Die, 1975) was written by Tom Wicker, a N.Y. Times editor, who was present at the prison as an observer. A more detailed historical account of the uprising was published by historian Heather Ann Thompson in 2016. The book, entitled Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, draws on interviews with former inmates, hostages, families of victims, law enforcement, lawyers, and state officials, as well as significant archives of previously unreleased materials.[9] Malcolm Bell's historical account The Turkey Shoot: Tracking the Attica Cover-up had already been written and Bell was involved with the original New York (State) Special Commission on Attica.


Direct coverage of the Attica Prison rebellion:

  • ScreenSlate describes Cinda Firestone's documentary, titled Attica (1974), as follows:[33]

Firestone's 1974 film, restored in 2007, culls together primary footage from surveillance and news cameras along with prisoner, family, and guard interviews to create an account of the massacre that has been described as temperate, but undeniably damning with respect to the state's actions. As The New Yorker's 1974 review describes it, "Cinda Firestone’s quiet picture uses horrifying film footage: shots taken through state troopers' telescopic rifle lenses; musings by inmates which sometimes sputter into anger against a world that finds descriptions of Attica incredible; riot quellers insensibly proud of their skill with weapons, showing off their prowess before the commission of inquiry. …If Attica disturbed our slumber for a mere month or two, one of the qualities of this trumpet call of a film is that it makes the disturbance enduring."

Criminal Injustice: Death and Politics at Attica brings this historical event to life in completely new and startling ways. Based on scores of interviews of eyewitnesses who just now are telling their stories, as well as filmmaker access to newly discovered documents, Criminal Injustice brings genuinely new evidence to light regarding what exactly happened at Attica between September 9–13, 1971 and the role played there by local, state, and even federal officials. Indeed this film raises important new questions about the deaths caused at Attica, about the involvement by individuals in the White House at Attica, and the influence of Nelson Rockefeller's political aspirations on decision made before, during, and long after the controversial and deadly retaking of that prison. Forty years after this cataclysmic and highly charged event, filmmakers Marshall and Christopher found that many are willing to speak with new candor that adds depth, and in some cases alters, the historic record. The film includes the final interview regarding Attica given by NYT reporter Tom Wicker (who was an observer/negotiator on the scene and author of A Time to Die about his experiences at Attica), Malcolm Bell, the special prosecutor turned whistle blower, Dr. Heather Thompson who is the nation's leading academic authority on the Attica prison uprising—as well as inmates, former hostages, law enforcement officers and others.[35]

Several other films reference the uprising:

  • In the film Half Nelson (2006), one of Dunne's students tells the history of Attica with a brief monologue a half hour into the movie.
  • In the film Dog Day Afternoon, (1975), Al Pacino's character, Sonny, who is holding eight bank employees hostage, starts the chant, "Attica! Attica!", at the massed police outside, evoking the excessive police force used in response to the Attica uprising. The chant "Attica! Attica!" has since been parodied or used for comedic effect in many films and television shows. For example, In the film Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, (1994), Leslie Nielsen's character, Frank Drebin, shouts "Attica! Attica!" when he goes undercover in prison. Similarly, in the film Saturday Night Fever (1977), John Travolta's character, Tony Manero, wakes up after a night out at the disco and, while looking at himself in the mirror and seeing a poster of Al Pacino in Serpico (1973), debates whether he resembles Al Pacino. Becoming enamored of the idea, he yells "Al Pacino!" and then opens his bedroom door, walks into the hallway, and chants "Attica! Attica!"


The incident is directly referenced in several songs:


  • Boxer Muhammad Ali recited a poem during an interview on RTÉ on a visit to Ireland in July 1972, imagining what Attica's prisoners would have said before their death.[36]
  • In 1972, avant-garde composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski wrote two pieces connected to the Attica uprising, both for percussion ensemble and speaker. "Coming Together" sets text by Sam Melville, a leader of the uprising and one of the people who lost their lives as a result of it, from a letter he wrote in 1971. The second and shorter piece, "Attica", is set to the statement made by inmate Richard X. Clark when he was released from the prison: "Attica is in front of me now." The two pieces was recorded in 1973 for the Opus One label by the Blackearth Percussion Group, with Steven ben Israel of the Living Theater as the speaker.[37]
  • The poem "Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox" by American poet Allen Ginsberg makes a reference to the Attica prison rebellion. This poem was also subsequently performed as a song by political rock band Rage Against The Machine.


See also



  1. The Milwaukee Star (1971)
  2. Ferretti (1971)
  3. "Attica Correctional Facility: 1971 Prison Riot". Attica Central School District. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2006-10-04.
  4. "People & Events: Attica Prison Riot – September 9–13, 1971". American Experience—The Rockefellers. Public Broadcasting Service. Archived from the original on 8 September 2006. Retrieved 2006-10-04.
  5. Attica Timeline
  6. Eyes on the Prize (1990)
  7. Criminal Injustice: Death and Politics at Attica (2013)
  8. "The Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto of Demands and Anti-Depression Platform". Race & Class. 53 (2). 1971. doi:10.1177/0306396811414338.
  9. Oppenheimer, Mark (2016-08-18). "'Blood in the Water,' a Gripping Account of the Attica Prison Uprising". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-08-18.
  10. 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.
  11. Ann Thompson, Heather (2016-08-23). Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. Pantheon. p. 170. ISBN 978-0375423222.
  12. "A Year Ago at Attica". Time. Time Magazine, Inc. 1972-09-25. Retrieved 2008-04-27.
  13. "The Nation: War at Attica: Was There No Other Way?". Time. September 27, 1971.
  14. "Use of Shotguns in Attica Revolt Deplored in House Unit's Report; No Comment on Report". The New York Times. June 27, 1973.
  15. Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica (PDF). New York: Bantam Books. 1972. p. 456 (digital page 496). OCLC 601935. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-06-04. Retrieved 2011-12-01.
  16. Schmalleger, F. & Smykla, J. Corrections in the 21st Century. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  17. Kohli, Sonali (2015-03-03). "America's bloodiest day (since the Civil War) that no one talks about". QZ. Retrieved 2018-06-13.
  20. Ferretti, Fred (September 15, 1971). "Autopsies Show Shots Killed 9 Attica Hostages, Not Knives; State Official Admits Mistake". The New York Times. p. 1.
  21. Farrell, William E. (September 17, 1971). "Rockefeller Lays Hostages' Deaths to Troopers' Fire". The New York Times. p. 1.
  22. Berger, Dan, Outlaws of America: the Weather Underground and the politics of solidarity, (AK Press, 2006) pp. 182–3, via Google Books. Retrieved 2011-09-12.
  23. Al-Jundi v. Mancusi, 113 F. Supp. 2d 441 (W.D.N.Y. 2000)
  24. Chen, David W. (29 August 2000). "COMPENSATION SET ON ATTICA UPRISING". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 April 2013.
  25. "State and Prison Workers Settle Attica Riot Claims". The New York Times. 14 January 2005. Retrieved 22 April 2013.
  26. Kaplan, Thomas (19 April 2013). "Decades Later, State Seeks Release of Report on Attica Uprising". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 April 2013.
  27. New Attica documents reveal inmate accounts of torture after 1971 prison uprising The Guardian
  28. "Obituary:Vincent Mancusi". Daily Telegraph. 24 Sep 2012. Retrieved 27 Sep 2012.
  29. Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica (PDF). New York: Bantam Books. 1972. pp. 28 (digital page 67). OCLC 601935. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-06-04. Retrieved 2011-12-01.
  31. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-02-19. Retrieved 2008-07-31.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  33. "Tuesday, September 13 >> Featured Screening: Attica at BAMcinématek". ScreenSlate. September 13, 2011. Archived from the original on 19 February 2014. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  36. Savali, Kirsten West (10 September 2016). "#Attica45: Muhammad Ali Recites His Powerful Poem About the Attica Prison Uprising". The Root. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  37. Rzewski, Frederic. Coming Together / Les Moutons de Panurge / Attica. Opus One: 20.
  38. Thompson, Heather Ann. "Editorial: 'Orange' is the New Attica on Netflix". NBC News. NBC. Retrieved 28 June 2017.
  39. Source: Time Travel Files: "Past Tense". DVD extra included with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Complete Third Season. ASIN B00008KA5A.
  40. "Traces of Mind Control from Cold War America | Reforming : Legacy of the Attica Prison Riot". Retrieved 2018-01-18.


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