THE ATTICA REVOLT: HEROIC PRISON UPRISING

Attica-prisoners-during-rebellion-0971
Attica prisoners, whose rebellion was sparked by the assassination of George Jackson at San Quentin, came together in his memory across racial divides and for the five days they controlled the yard peacefully governed through unanimous decision-making.

Next to the flagpole, in front of Attica prison, is a granite monument. On the monument, in alphabetical order are the names of the eleven civilians and prison guards who were slaughtered in the riot of 71. They were picked off by their fellow guards, co- workers, Attica neighbours, and life-long friends when Rockefeller ordered the prison’s yard to be retaken. The monument symbolizes the collective guilt shared by the living.

Altogether 39 were killed that day. But, as if no prisoners ever lived, therefore never died, none of the dead prisoner’ names are memorialized in the granite.

Each morning a trusted prisoner strolls out to raise the flag. Each evening he returns to lower the flag. In between he sits in his cell. In between he does not exist. I[1]

‘We are firm in our resolve and we demand, as human beings, the dignity and justice that is due to us by our right of birth. We do not know how the present system of brutality and dehumanization and injustice has been allowed to be perpetrated in this day of enlightenment, but we are the living proof of its existence and we cannot allow it to continue’[2]

According to Pallas and Barber [3] prisons are society’s ultimate means of control over people who are actually or potentially disruptive of the social order. In order to punish these criminals who are deemed a threat to our society they are confined into prisons as a punishment. However, international law and most countries of the world give certain basic human rights to these prisoners and also arrange different rehabilitation programmes for them so that prisoners can once again become the part of our society. In spite of these guarantees given by different legislations if one closely looks at the plight of prisoners in different parts of the world then the truth is that prisoners are treated like animals. One such horrific example of inhuman treatment of prisoners took place in New York State in 1970s as a result of which the prisoners decide to raise their  voice against the unjust system.
Approximately 40 years ago, more than 1000 inmates at Attica Correctional Facility began a major civil and human rights protest which is unfortunately barely highlighted in the text books.

On Sept. 9, 1971, almost 1,500 inmates in Cell Block D took over the Attica Correctional Facility several months after having formally submitted a 27-point manifesto to the prison administration and the media. Following the takeover by prisoners, staff members began to draw back to the administration building but many were taken hostage by a group of prisoners. However, what is worth noting is that after take over it was quickly established by the inmates that hostages i.e. both guards and civilians would be protected at all cost therefore, a group known as Nation of Islam took responsibility for guarding the hostages in a protected circle in the middle of the yard.

This decision by inmates clearly demonstrate that the whole purpose of revolt was not to engage in any violence but only to make sure that their legitimate demands are fulfilled.  The awful conditions of the prison and prisoners can be guessed from the fact that there were 2,300[4]  inmates living in a facility built for 1,600. Also, the prison was completely run by white guards and employees although over 60 percent of inmates were Black and Latino. Moreover, prisoners were only allowed one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper each month. Beside their mail was heavily censored to cut out anything involving prisons and prisoners’ rights. Guards often pitted inmates against each other to incite racial violence. Additionally, inmates also laboured for 40 cents a day, assembling mattresses, shoes and license plates.

However, having read the brutal conditions under which prisoners used to live one should not assume that the Attica prison uprising was isolated or spontaneous clash which took place in one night. In fact alongside some of the worst living conditions the root cause of the Attica revolt also lies in a revolutionary mood that swept through Black and Latino communities and other progressive sectors of the population in the United States. In other words, it can be said that the Attica rebellions were extensions of the national liberation struggles happening all over the United States[5]. Moreover, the murder of respected revolutionary George Jackson by Californian prison authorities on August 21 1971 acted as a catalyst to accelerate the revolt process.  In other words, the Attica revolt can safely be termed as a ‘slow boiling volcano’ which erupted with the death of Jackson.

Once taking control of the prison the inmates formed a representative council and made an initial list of 28 demands. The main demands included the replacement of the incompetent doctor and better medical care for prisoners, end to prison censorship and slave wages, right to legal representation, segregation of prisoners etc. Also, what makes this revolt unique as compared to other prison revolts in the past (Jackson revolt in 1950s in Michigan for example) was the fact that in the Attica revolt the prisoners demanded union recognition and Black and Latino inmates were joined by anti racist white prisoners. Furthermore, in order to prove the merit of their demands the leadership of the Attica revolt invited independent observers to come to the prison and witness their grievances and the good faith of their desire to negotiate a peaceful settlement. These eventually included New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, the radical lawyer William Kunstler, politicians like Arthur Eve who from time to time raised  concerns about the degrading and inhuman treatment of Attica prisoners. In order to resolve the issue Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald came from Albany to negotiate. Although in the beginning he agreed to several demands and promised to read others but later on in front of the media Oswald denounced them for refusing to release the hostages immediately. In consequence of this a new set of demands emerged i.e. the prisoners who wanted to would be removed and deported to a non-imperialist country and that there would be an amnesty from prosecution for all prisoners involved in the rebellion for any crimes committed during the riot.

However, the issue of amnesty became the primary issue when over the weekend a guard who had been hit in the head in the early stages of the uprising died from his injuries. Despite the three days of fitful negotiations, the Nation of Islam prisoners made sure that hostages were safe and on 12 September the prisoners announced that the conflict would be peacefully resolved if then-governor Nelson Rockefeller would hold open negotiations with them[6]. It is worth noting that at this stage several observers begged the governor to come to Attica. In relation to the amnesty, media and observers reasoned that his presence might at least assure the inmates that the state would honour any agreement it made with them and prevent any reprisals should they end their protest. Rockefeller did not consider it. Instead, he sent in several hundred national guardsmen, state troopers, and prison guards to retake the prison by force. On the morning of  13 September1971, helicopters rose suddenly over Attica and blanketed  it with tear gas. As a result of this tear gas when inmates and hostages fell to the ground blinded, choking and incapacitated then approximately 500 state troopers burst in, riddling catwalks and exercise yards with thousands of bullet. Consequently, within the 15 minutes the air was filled with screams and the prison was littered with the bodies of 39 people i.e. 29 inmates and 10 hostages who lay dead. Unfortunately the outrageous inhuman activities of the authorities continued even after of massacre of Attica prisoners. After the shooting stopped, the officers quickly began clubbing the gasping, unresisting prisoners to their feet, included many who were wounded and driving them across the yard to a doorway in one of the tunnels. Following this inside and out the prisoners were met with more officers who beat them and tore their clothes off. The naked prisoners had to run, or when they were tripped or knocked down, stumble and crawl the length of the tunnel.

Once the massacre ended, state police who led the assault were asked to determine what had gone wrong  and it was guaranteed that only inmates not troopers would face the charges. In order to mislead the public it was announced by the officials that the dead hostages had been killed by prisoners who slit their throats which they said they saw with their own eyes and therefore they were left with no choice but to attack. Interestingly when autopsies revealed that the slain hostages had died from gunshot wounds from the lawmen’s weapons, state officials denounced local pathologist John Edland as a communist and tried to discredit his findings[7]. However, as one can hide the truth but cannot suppress it for a long time hence the McKay Commission Report revealed that there was no plan to rescue the hostages and they were simply sacrificed in the aid of Rockefeller’s political ambitions.  

The story of this barbaric act took a new ugly turn when the survivors of the Attica massacre were later indicted by a local grand jury made up of friends and neighbours of the prison guards and run by a Rockefeller intimate Robert Fischer, a former judge who was appointed as a special attorney general. Despite the best efforts by state officials to hide their ugly deeds the Attica Brothers were granted amnesty by a new appointed governor Hugh Carey under immense public pressure. Additionally as a result of the effective defence and campaign of Attica Brothers Legal Defense[8] (ABLD) it was only in 1991 (i.e. after 20 years of the massacre) that the full extent of the killing, brutality and denial of medical care inflicted on the men of Attica was publicly exposed.

In 1997 the inmates were awarded damages for the many violations of their civil rights. The state officials appealed against the judgement, in 2ooo 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[9], Nevertheless, it was noted that the vast majority of the inmates and guards got far less than they deserved. In addition to this what is worth mentioning here is that despite having to pay damages 40 years later, the State of New York still has not acknowledged the responsibility for Attica neither has it accepted that it used excessive force or its troopers killed inmates and guards.

What can be learned from the story of Attica revolt is that any state in the world including imperial states should understand that prisoners are human beings whose determination and power should never be underestimated. Despite the fact that prisoners’ liberty is taken from them their basic dignity and constitutional rights must always be protected.

Bibliography

•    Attica Prison Uprising 101:A Short Primer by Mariam Kabba at http://atticaisallofus.org/uploads/attica_primerfinal.pdf

Endnotes    

uAttica Prison Uprising 101:A Short Primer by Mariam Kabba at http://atticaisallofus.org/uploads/attica_primerfinal.pdf