Attica Prison Riot (1971)

Prisoners in control of prison yard, Attica State Prison, September 10, 1971
Fair use image

The Attica prison riot took place at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York on September 13, 1971.  This conflict would leave twenty one inmates and nine guards dead.  It was the bloodiest prison conflict since the Civil War.  There were numerous causes of the riot. Tensions were already high as the prison was extremely overcrowded and inmates were being denied basic sanitation needs. They were usually limited to one shower a week and one roll of toilet paper per month. Additionally there were allegations of racism by the prison’s all white guards against the 54% black population and a significant Puerto Rican minority.

The Riot began when a fight between two inmates was broken up by a guard and they were taken to isolation cells. Rumors circulated that the men were going to be beaten in reprisal for the fight. Angry inmates crowded against a prison gate when a faulty bolt gave way, suddenly allowing them access to other areas of the prison including the control center.

Using pipes, chains, and baseball bats, the inmates quickly overcame the guards in the area.  Suddenly they were in command of the prison and had taken 40 staff members hostage. Their demands were: federal takeover of the prison, better conditions, amnesty for the crimes committed during the revolt, and the removal of the prison’s superintendent.

The authorities and prisoners remained at a stalemate for four days until New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller approved an operation to reclaim the prison. Tear gas was dropped by helicopter into the prison yard and law enforcement officers opened fire into the smoke. In six minutes more than two thousand rounds had been discharged. The prison was retaken but at the cost of 39 inmates and ten guards’ lives.

The nine-member commission put together by Governor Rockefeller to sort out this tragedy had a number of criticisms about the handling of this situation. The media was allowed access and this attention gave the prisoners a national spotlight that they were unwilling to give up. Governor Rockefeller, despite numerous requests from the Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald to come to the prison, had refused and then ordered the state’s armed forces into action without ever appraising the situation himself.  Also the negotiations were hampered by the fact that they took place with 1,200 rioters looking on.

The assault itself was poorly planned and inmates and hostages alike were wounded and killed as a result. The use of shotguns after the tear gas was dropped in particular was criticized as the potential for unintentional injuries was enormous.  Additionally no adequate medical care was arranged for those injured in the assault and rushing to find help for the wounded put lives needlessly in danger.