45 Years After Attica Uprising, Prisoners Are Rebelling Again

Source: The Intercept

Earlier this month, inmates across the country embarked on what organizers have called the largest prison strike in U.S. history, an ambitious mass protest against prison labor and inhumane prison conditions. The strike, which was the culmination of a series of renewed efforts at prison organizing in recent years, kicked off on September 9, in tribute to one of the bleakest moments in the country’s history of incarceration, the uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility, in upstate New York.

On September 9, 1971, prisoners at the overcrowded prison seized an opportunity to gain control of the facility and took a number of hostages, inspired by earlier prison and jail uprisings and by the momentum of the liberation movements raging outside the prisons’ walls. But prisoners at Attica were mostly driven by growing desperation over unbearable conditions inside: constant abuse by guards, medical neglect, lack of showers and toilet paper. Four people — one guard and three prisoners — were killed in the early hours of the riot. Then for the following four days a group of leaders who emerged out of the initial chaos attempted to negotiate a peaceful surrender with state officials, demanding amnesty for actions conducted during the riot, as well as access to classes, religious freedom, and fairer disciplinary practices.

Despite recommendations from all sides that he do so, New York state governor Nelson Rockefeller — who two years later shaped the future of New York’s criminal justice system when he signed his infamous drug laws — refused to visit Attica. Instead, on September 13, he ordered state troopers to “retake” the prison.

By the end of the assault, 39 people — 29 prisoners and 10 hostages — had been killed by police, who entered the prison protected by a thick fog of tear gas and armed with state-issued weapons as well as personal guns and hunting rifles. Dozens of other inmates were injured and tortured in the hours that followed. But as the state regained control of the prison, officials told reporters waiting outside that prisoners had killed the hostages, sometimes embellishing those accounts with fabricated details that shocked public opinion, like when they said an inmate castrated one of the guards and shoved his testicles into his mouth.

What followed was an enormous cover-up, as 62 prisoners and zero law enforcement officials were indicted over the massacre. The cover-up was partially exposed in the decades that followed, but the magnitude and callousness of it all is something we are just now beginning to fathom thanks to Blood in The Water, a monumental account of the uprising and its aftermath by historian Heather Ann Thompson, published earlier this year.

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