New York: For 40 years, the Attica Prison Rebellion still demands justice for prisoners

September 8, 2011

The Lingering Injustice of Attica

By HEATHER ANN THOMPSON, in an op-ed opinion column in the New York Times

FORTY years ago today, more than 1,000 inmates at Attica Correctional Facility began a major civil and human rights protest — an uprising that is barely mentioned in textbooks but nevertheless was one of the most important rebellions in American history.

A forbidding institution that opened in 1931, Attica, roughly midway between Buffalo and Rochester, was overcrowded and governed by rigid and often capricious penal practices.

The guards were white men from small towns in upstate New York; the prisoners were mostly urban African-Americans and Puerto Ricans. They wanted decent medical care so that an inmate like Angel Martinez, 21, could receive treatment for his debilitating polio. They wanted more humane parole so that a man like L. D. Barkley, also 21, wouldn’t be locked up in a maximum security facility like Attica for driving without a license. They also wanted less discriminatory policies so that black inmates like Richard X. Clark wouldn’t be given the worst jobs, while white prisoners were given the best. These men first tried writing to state officials, but their pleas for reform were largely ignored. Eventually, they erupted.

Over five days, Americans sat glued to their televisions as this uprising unfolded. They watched in surprise as inmates elected representatives from each cellblock to negotiate on their behalf. They watched in disbelief as these same inmates protected the guards and civilian employees they had taken hostage.

They also saw the inmates request the presence of official “observers” to ensure productive and peaceful interactions with the state. These eventually included the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker; the radical lawyer William M. Kunstler; politicians like Arthur O. Eve, John R. Dunne and Herman Badillo; and ministers as well as activists.

As the rebellion wore on, and the lawn around Attica filled with hundreds of heavily armed state troopers, these observers worried that Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, having already refused to grant amnesty to the inmates if they surrendered, would turn to force. This, they knew, would result in a massacre.

Several observers begged the governor to come to Attica. In lieu of amnesty, they reasoned, his presence might at least assure the inmates that the state would honor any agreement it made with them and prevent any reprisals should they end their protest. Rockefeller wouldn’t consider it.

On the morning of Sept. 13, 1971, he gave the green light for helicopters to rise suddenly over Attica and blanket it with tear gas. As inmates and hostages fell to the ground blinded, choking and incapacitated, more than 500 state troopers burst in, riddling catwalks and exercise yards with thousands of bullets. Within 15 minutes the air was filled with screams, and the prison was littered with the bodies of 39 people — 29 inmates and 10 hostages — who lay dead or dying. “I could see all this blood just running out of the mud and water,” one inmate recalled. “That’s all I could see.”

Incredibly, state officials claimed that the inmates, not the troopers, had killed the hostages. Meanwhile, scores of inmates who had survived the assault were tortured. Enraged troopers, and not a few correctional officers, forced these men, many of whom had been shot multiple times, to crawl naked across shattered glass and to run a gantlet as fists, gun butts and nightsticks rained down on their bodies. Investigators from the state police, the very entity that had led the assault, were then asked to determine what had gone wrong — all but guaranteeing that only inmates, not troopers, would face charges. Public opinion toward the inmates, once sympathetic, gradually turned against them.

The hostages were also treated miserably. The state offered families of dead hostages small checks, which they cashed to tide them over in this difficult time, but it did not tell them that taking this money meant forgoing their right to sue the state for sizable damages.

Much of the nation, however, never heard this history. Had it not been for the legal fight waged by inmates to hold the state accountable, and the testimony provided later by surviving hostages and their families, there might have been no official record of these brutal acts.

In 1997, the inmates were awarded damages for the many violations of their civil rights and, though the state fought that judgment, in 2000 it had to pay out a settlement of $8 million. In 2005, the state reached a settlement with the guards and other workers for $12 million. The vast majority of the inmates and guards got far less than they deserved.

Despite having to pay damages, 40 years later, the State of New York still has not taken responsibility for Attica. It has never admitted that it used excessive force. It has never acknowledged that its troopers killed inmates and guards. It has never admitted that those who surrendered were tortured, nor that employees were misled.

We have all paid a very high price for the state’s lies and half-truths and its refusal to investigate and prosecute its own. The portrayal of prisoners as incorrigible animals contributed to a distrust of prisoners; the erosion of hard-won prison reforms; and the modern era of mass incarceration. Not coincidentally, it was Rockefeller who, in 1973, signed the law establishing mandatory prison terms for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs, which became a model for similar legislation elsewhere.

As America begins to rethink the wisdom of mass imprisonment, Attica reminds us that prisoners are in fact human beings who will struggle mightily when they are too long oppressed. It shows as well that we all suffer when the state overreacts to cries for reform.


Heather Ann Thompson, an associate professor of history at Temple University, is writing a book on the Attica uprising.

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