For one of the first and only times in U.S. history, the plight of the nation’s many prisoners and the brutal conditions under which they live was brought to the fore of world attention when, on September 9, 1971 around 1,000 incarcerated inmates rose up to rebel against their oppressors by seizing control over the entirety of the Attica “Correctional” Facility located in New York. While the rebellion, which lasted for four days, is said to have been ignited by the placement of two inmates (who allegedly got into a scuffle) into the the torturous solitary confinement box, the uprising did not happen in a vacuum. The Attica Prison facility was constructed to house 1,600 inmates max, yet in September, 1971 some 2,400 prisoners were trapped within its walls. The incarcerated were made to waste their lives away inside of a 6-by-9-foot cell for 16 hours of each day. On top of that humiliation, they were allowed to take just one shower a week. The visitation quarters were purposely kept unsavory as to discourage visitors from coming to visit inmates, and when they did come the prisoner would be forced to undergo a humiliating and invasive strip-search that often bordered on sexual abuse (something that undoubtedly continues in various prisons across the country to this day). Given that they were subjected to such brutal and dehumanizing treatment as a matter of everyday life, it was only a matter of time before the guards would push these men beyond their limits. (*) The day after the two inmates were sent to the segregation box, one of the prison guards involved in moving them there was assaulted by a prisoner. From there the uprising began. Within a matter of time the inmates had managed to take 40 of Attica’s staff members hostage. The purpose of taking hostages was to give the inmates the necessary leverage needed in order for them to negotiate the terms of their imprisonment with authorities before calling off the rebellion.
Time and again, before the uprising had ever taken place, the prison’s inmates petitioned to have the miserable conditions they lived in improved upon, issuing the just demand that they be afforded the rights with which the U.S. Constitution claims to guarantee all its citizens, regardless of their present condition. This was a step too far for prison authorities, including Attica’s Warden Vincent Mancusi, who responded to their requests by “increasing the frequency of cell searches, censoring all references to prison conditions from news sources, and announcing that there would be no prizes awarded to the winners of the upcoming Labor Day sporting competitions.” It was only after authorities made it clear that all demands for respect and human rights would be met with more violence, suppression, and an increase in authoritarianism that the uprising emerged as a last resort to achieving objectives that were more than reasonable. At the behest of five of the more politically-seasoned inmates (there were many political prisoners filling up America’s prison cells in the late ’60s and ’70s) who formed what was known as the Attica Liberation Front – Frank Lott, Donald Noble, Carl Jones-El, Herbert X Blyden and Peter Butler – a list of 27 demands was drawn up and set forth as The Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto of Demands. Among its most famous declarations:
We are MEN! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States.
This declaration put the world on alert to the contemptuous conditions prisoners were subjected to in the so-called “Land of the free”. As stated in the preamble,
The program which we are submitted to under the facade of rehabilitation are relative to the ancient stupidity of pouring water on a drowning man…
In our peaceful efforts to assemble in dissent as provided under this nation’s U.S. Constitution, we are in turn murdered, brutalized, and framed on various criminal charges because we seek the rights and privileges of all American People.
What follows is a brief summary of each of the 27 demands. (Five additional demands were added later.)
- legal representation provided at all parole hearings, being that as a matter of practice the hearings have been until now been completely biased and unethical
- provide access to adequate medical/ health care
- improve facilities for visitation
- end to segregation of inmates from general population based on their political beliefs
- end to forced labor and exploitation of inmates for the purpose of enriching multi-million dollar prison corporations
- end to the restriction against politically radical reading material
- outside employers should be allowed to hire inmates for an eight hour work day provided that adequate pay standards are met
- right to the formation of labor unions
- means to financially provide for families who are struggling as a result of the incarceration period
- that “correctional officers be prosecuted as a matter of law for any act of cruel and unusual punishment where it is not a matter of life or death.”
- inmate labor salaries must “conform with the state and federal minimum wage laws.”
- end to the alarming growth of physical brutality practiced by guards on inmates
- 3 lawyers of the New York Bar Association be available to assist inmates with “post-conviction relief” and in bringing inmate complaints to the attention of the administration
- improved working conditions that conform with state law
- an insurance plan be provided for inmate laborers injured on the job
- establishment of “unionized vocational training programs”
- accounting committee to oversee the use of an Inmate Recreational Fund
- dismantling of the Governor’s Parole Board in favor of a new Parole Board whose members are popularly elected by the people whose futures they hold in their hand
- creation of a “full-time salaried board of overseers for the State Prisons” to hear complaints/ allegations made by “inmates, their families, friends and lawyers against employers charged with acting inhumanely, illegally or unreasonably.”
- end to the prison authorities’ calculated heightening of racial/ethnic tensions and divisions among various inmate population groups
- counselors be provided to specifically deal with the unique plight and psychological trauma faced by Black and Brown prisoners
- “We Demand an end to discrimination in the judgement and quota of parole for Black and Brown people.“
- Prisoners must be present any time their cells or possessions are searched by prison authorities.
- end to abusive Parole Board practices and a limit of life sentencing to 10 years “as 7 is the considered statue for a lifetime out of circulation, and 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.“
- improvement in quality of food; quality drinking water be provided and no further limits be placed on the quantity of bread an inmate may eat
- an “end to the unsanitary conditions that exist in the mess hall” including “an end to the practice of putting food on the tables hours before eating time without any protective covering over it.“
- an end to the practice that allows for “each warden [to] makes rules for his institutions“; instead there should be “one set of rules governing all prisons in the state”.
Later, as the state Commissioner of “Corrections” Russell Oswald made it increasingly clear there would be no concessions on the part of the state (Oswald continually repeated he would “look into [the demands]”, a statement which rightly fell on deaf ears), five more very important Practical Demands were added. These included amnesty, guaranteed protection from retribution by authorities, and most significantly transport to a non-imperialist country of the inmates’ choosing. Finally Gov. Nelson Rockefeller made the decision many had been pressing for since September 9. On September 13 the Governor ordered the National Guard to take Attica back by force.
The massacre that ensued from the Governor’s order remained a source of controversy for years to come. After the National Guard stormed Attica Prison, setting it ablaze in what can only be described as an operation of unbridled terror, at least 43 people were massacred. 33 of the slaughtered were prison inmates; the remaining deaths were of some of the very same hostages the National Guard supposedly went to rescue. Immediately afterward the Commissioner’s Office placed the blame for the 10 dead hostages directly on the Attica rebels, but slowly but surely this web of lies unraveled and was revealed to be an outright fabrication. Despite claims that the hostages were each bludgeoned to death, autopsies proved they met their ends in a hail of gunfire, meaning that all of the deaths that day were almost certainly at the hands of the Authorities.
In a final assessment by the New York Special Commission on Attica (aka the McKay Commission), it was stated that
“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.”
Tragically, despite the unprecedented attention the Attica Rebellion brought to the severe plight of America’s incarcerated, the problems have since been only exacerbated. With a prison population that has grown by 2.2 million in just a matter of decades, the United States has the dubious distinction of being the nation with the largest number of incarcerated people both by rate and in raw numbers in the entire history of the planet earth. In fact, no other nation even comes close. Once again, we’re #1!
Lest you fall under the mistaken impression that this is all a bunch of ancient history, a story appearing in the March 1st edition of the New York Times carries the stomach-turning details of some of the abuse that is still going on in Attica at the very present. See A Brutal Beating Wakes Attica’s Ghosts.
* Giving further impetus to the rebellion at Attica and prisons across the nation was the barbaric murder of Black Panther Party member George Jackson in San Quentin Prison in August, 1971 by prison authorities. Prisoners in every region participated in work stoppages in a show of solidarity with the martyred Jackson.