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The Attica Prison Riot: Did It Open the Door to Prisoner Rights?

attica prison riots

45 years ago this month, prison officials and prisoners alike experienced a few of the darkest days in American incarceration history. It was also a time that opened the eyes of many who typically forgot about prisoners the moment they were found guilty and locked away. It can be argued that it was one that marked a turning point in how Americans saw the prison system, possibly sparking what was then the first real prison reform efforts in this country.

On September 9, 1971, Attica Correctional Facility, a depression-era high-security prison that dominates the small upstate New York town of 2,500, became the scene of the largest prison riot to date in the U.S. Forty-two hostages, mostly made up of prison guards, were taken by mutineering prisoners in protest of the conditions within the prison at the time.

It wasn't as though the conditions within the old prison were necessarily any more horrendous than any other average prison in the nation at that time. Prison was pretty much a squalid place no matter where you were housed. Prisoners were universally unhappy with their confines and were perpetually arguing, typically unsuccessfully, for more rights. Medical care was lacking, food was inadequate, there were no real rehabilitation or education programs or religious freedoms, racism and segregation were the norm -- essentially the same conditions found in prisons everywhere.

In the case of Attica, however, things were systematically horrible. For instance, medical care within the prison was so bad that it resulted in one prisoner’s death, causing several civilian staff members to vocalize their dismay in the system. The day the riot jumped off, rumors had spread that a prisoner had been killed by a guard the night before. Staff was so generally negligent that the rumor was believable, quickly leading to a perfect storm of hatred and paranoia. An accidental locking of a group of prisoners in one of the tunnels they used to go from work to their cells resulted in a panic that surged. Imagining that guards had intentionally trapped them to more easily retaliate against more prisoners, they felt there was no option but to break their way out of the tunnel. Once they did, all hell broke loose.

Twelve-hundred inmates managed to take possession of the prison. Largely blamed on the missteps of the then New York State Commissioner of Corrections, Russell Oswald -- ironically the most liberal prison reform advocate in the state -- the riot continued for another four days. Instead of launching an assault and taking back control of the prison before the rebellers could dig in, as most prison authorities would have done, Oswald committed himself to negotiations with the prisoners, hoping for an amicable solution. He even arranged for members of the media to come onto the prison yard to record the discussions.

It was this act that would perhaps be a part of setting reforms in motion, causing a historical wave that has carried rights to prisoners in America.

Typically prison life is the opposite of transparent. What happens behind bars stays behind bars. Life inside is intentionally kept vague. Even though every prison system has a public information department, actually gaining information from them is akin to squeezing water out of a steel bar. Despite the amount of media attention we have in modern society, the access granted to the press at Attica during the riot would never happen today. Perhaps not the wisest move during a hostage-taking event back then, the attention made public the unnecessary deprivations, from the mouths of the prisoners themselves, that many Americans had never been able to witness. It wasn't solely the media on the scene, however, that raised awareness for the need of change.

Shortly after negotiations concluded, things unraveled. One of the officers injured in the initial hours of the takeover unfortunately died from his wounds. Any "deal" that was made with the rioters was now off the table, the rioters assumed, causing them to barricade themselves strongly against whatever was about to come busting in. As if by self-fulfilling prophecy, four days in, the authorities decided to act with force. No one anticipated that the retaking of the prison would be as brutal as it was.

With the assistance of a National Guard helicopter that blanketed the prison yard with tear gas, five hundred and fifty New York State police troopers, senselessly joined by the prison guards, flooded into the prison and started shooting. In the confusion, they indiscriminately fired at everything that moved. "The bullets were coming like rain," as one hostage recalled. The prison was eventually re-secured, but not before it earned the distinction as "the bloodiest prison massacre the country had ever seen." In the end, 39 were dead -- ten hostages and 29 prisoners -- with more than a hundred others seriously injured.

That wasn't quite the end of the story, however. Autopsies revealed that all of the hostages killed were put to death by the gunfire of the advancing troopers and guards. Not a single hostage was killed by a prisoner. Further, it was determined that many of the authorities decided to take it upon themselves to meet out instant justice, hunting down those who were thought of as the riot's ringleaders and summarily executing them. Other prisoners, it was found, were tortured with games of Russian roulette, forced to drink urine, and to run a gauntlet of club-swinging guards who seemed to see this as a free pass to make sport of the circumstances. One wounded inmate was forced to clutch a football under his chin with a warning that if he dropped it he would be killed, after which he was beat as he pleaded for mercy. The guards reasserted their authority in some of the most animalistic ways possible, proving in many cases the thin line between prisoners and those charged with keeping them.

It was these acts, however, that likely unwittingly most affected the landscape of prisoner rights. After the incident, many of the prisoners took what was allowed to happen to them to the courts. The state, of course, attempted (unsuccessfully) to prove that it was the prisoners who should be blamed for the massacre. But in the meantime, prison conditions in Attica and across the nation began to improve, as if the prison system was trying to make up for the abominations that occurred on its watch.

In 1971, for example, there were just a handful of prison education programs around the U.S., despite the fact that Pell Grants were approved for prisoners six years earlier. A couple years after the Attica riots, however, there were suddenly nearly 200 of them. Quickly, that number experienced further exponential growth alongside other rights that prisoners were gradually being granted, seemingly with the Attica riot as the starting point.

Prison violence, or violence in general, is seldom a way to accomplish change. It's a great way to inspire fear, but when it comes to the criminal justice system, fear often has the opposite effect on positive reforms. But in the case of Attica, it seems that the fear of reprisal over the atrocities that were committed at the end of the riot, or perhaps embarrassment over them, may be what ultimately made them change their course and forced them to begin giving prisoners some of the rights they should have had all along, and other prison system's followed suit. Perhaps this is just a coincidence, but the prison system in the U.S. hasn't been the same since.

As a country, we still have a long ways to go in that regard, but hopefully what happened in Attica proves that there are much easier ways to accomplish a positive outcome for all involved before things get so out of hand. We shouldn't need such dark days as that to see the light on bad incarceration practices in this country. Hopefully, we'll never again have to endure such an extreme catalyst as the Attica riot.

Prison Lives (www.prisonlives.com) is a non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.

Prison Lives provides prisoners and their families with access to information and resources specific to their circumstances through 500+ page publications, including prisoner resource guides, prisoner education guides and prisoner entertainment guides.

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