The Attica Uprising

Against the Current, No. 126, January/February 2007

Heather Ann Thompson

ON SEPTEMBER 13, 1971 a four-day rebellion of over 1200 inmates at the Attica State Correctional Facility in bucolic upstate New York ended most horrifically after Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered almost 600 state troopers to storm the prison. Even though the raid took only 10 minutes, when one could finally see through the haze of spent ammunition, it was immediately clear that the price of retaking this facility by force had been staggeringly high.

Strewn across the muddy, rutted earth were bodies — 29 inmates and 10 hostages lay dead and scores of other men lay so severely wounded that they were assumed dead. As inmate James Asbury recalled shuddering, “I could see all this blood just running out of the mud and water. That’s all I could see.”…..

The bodies that littered D Yard were cleared away long ago. But the Attica rebellion is worth remembering, and reckoning with, because in ways that few have appreciated this uprising (and more specifically, the way in which it was “spun” to the public), left an important legacy. Not only did it have a significant impact on the post-1970s evolution of justice policy in the country, but it also had some serious political as well as legal fallout….

Before taking over the prison, Attica’s almost 2400 inmates had tried hard to get their concerns addressed through “proper” and official channels. (These ranged from a frustration with the substandard medical care, inadequate food and clothing, insufferable heat and the abusive and racially discriminatory treatment from more than a few of the guards.) They had written to at least one state senator and sent numerous letters to the Department of Corrections Commissioner, Russell Oswald. Suspecting that the grievances were merely a ploy of Black Nationalist inmates and their leftist supporters on the outside, however, officials did very little to stave off the crisis that was obviously brewing….

Ultimately, it was a rather commonplace skirmish on September 8, 1971 that led inmates finally to explode at Attica. On the morning of September 9th they overtook guards, and eventually the prison itself, after officials decided to lock men back in their cells after breakfast rather then allow them their expected rec time in the yard. Despite the chaotic nature of the initial hours of rebellion on the 9th, there was a core of already politically active prisoners at Attica who, with the help of other inmates, eventually managed to create some order.

 Initially these men were simply determined to keep D Yard from descending into sheer anarchy but quickly, the savvier among them realized that they now had a remarkable opportunity to tell the world about all that they endured behind bars. And this was exactly what so alarmed the state officials in Albany and New York City.

Indeed, the calmer and more organized the scene in D yard became after inmates assembled there as a group, the worse things were for those very officials. Not only were television cameras filming the inmates heartfelt speeches and showing that the hostages they held were being protected by a ring of Black Muslims, but several high profile and politically controversial “observers” (such as radical lawyer William Kunstler and Black Panther Bobby Seale) had also come to Attica at the inmates’ request. Eventually the so-called Observers Committee even had elected officials from the state Republican Party on it, but despite being politically eclectic, seemingly overnight this group became an outright advocate for the inmates…..

Although it appeared for a moment that negotiations might end this rebellion peacefully, it soon became clear to all that the state would not budge on the one demand that inmates and observers alike saw as most crucial: amnesty from physical, administrative and legal reprisals. The state’s recalcitrance on this issue deeply alarmed Attica’s observers because, looking out of the windows in the prison administration building where they had been sequestered, they could see that the grass around Attica was becoming jammed with State troopers, county sheriffs and off- duty prison guards — all of whom were passing out weapons indiscriminately and were admittedly itching to exact revenge for the hostages held inside.

In a desperate move, observer Tom Wicker of the New York Times, along with Republican State Senator John Dunne and two others, decided to call the governor himself hoping that they could persuade him to come to Attica. They hoped that such a visit would impress upon Rockefeller how ugly a forcible retaking would be, and they felt that the visit would also send a message to the inmates that the Governor took grievances and their safety most seriously.

But Rockefeller had no intention of coming to Attica and, as the inevitability of what would now happen sank in, the Attica observers decided to appeal directly to the American people. Stepping outside the prison and into the glare of media lights, they voiced their worst fears in a powerful public statement.

“The committee of observers in Attica Prison is now convinced a massacre of prisoners and guards may take place in this institution…We call on every person who hears these words to implore the governor of this state to come to Attica to consult with the observer committee.”

But as this passionate address went out over the television airwaves, troopers were readying to begin their assault….

On the morning of September 13th, inmates were huddling in their makeshift tents and working to keep warm and dry as a chilly rain fell over D Yard. About 9:30am they could hear the sounds of helicopters revving up nearby. Inmates began desperately seeking cover, and arming themselves with anything they could find, pieces of wood or sharpened sticks…..

As the sounds from the chopper grew louder, Attica’s inmates made one last dramatic, and highly risky, decision: they decided to take several blindfolded hostages up on to the catwalks that ringed Attica’s four yards and place  “executioners” at their necks with handmade knives drawn. When the incoming troopers saw this, these inmates reasoned and guards prayed, they would immediately pull back. Surely they wouldn’t kill their own.

But the troopers did not even pause for breath. At exactly 9:46am a helicopter swooped down over Attica and saturated it with gallons of CN and CS tear gas. The noxious fog blanketed the prison and immediately incapacitated every human being in D yard. But while inmates and hostages alike stumbled around blindly, tripping over themselves and each other, New York State troopers began their own raid on the yard armed with state-issue guns, their own personal weapons, and a seemingly endless supply of ammunition, including bullets outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

Joining them in this shooting spree were local sheriffs, Genesee Park police, and corrections officers from both Attica and nearby Auburn prison carrying their own personal firearms. For ten solid minutes the sounds of gunfire deafened all who were anywhere near the prison. As over 2,000 deer slug and hollow tipped bullets continued to rain down on the men diving for safety in the 50 X 50 yard enclosure of D yard, a disembodied voice on a megaphone in one of the helicopters hovering over D yard repeatedly intoned, “surrender with your hands up and you won’t be harmed…surrender with your hands up and you won’t be harmed….” Less than a quarter of an hour after the assault on Attica had begun, the prison was bathed in blood.

But rather than accept this as the disaster that it clearly was, the most remarkable thing occurred. The State of New York reported that something altogether different had in fact happened. Officials stood outside of Attica after the assault, looked straight into the TV cameras, and stated that the hostages had each had died because inmates had slit their throats. Worse, they said, one guard had actually been castrated and the inmate who did it shoved that guard’s testicles into his own mouth. Indeed, corroborated one official, he had seen this with his very own eyes…..

Most tragically, this “official” version of what had gone so wrong at Attica is what made the front page of hundreds of newspapers across the country — from the esteemed New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, to many a small town paper as well. And any sympathy for the plight of America’s incarcerated, any sense that they needed a greater voice in society or needed advocates among the nation’s voting population, began to evaporate in that instant.

As it turned out, there was at least one person who was willing to go public with the truth about who had killed the hostages: the local coroner, John Edland. But because Rockefeller himself refused to accept Edland’s findings, and insisted on two more autopsies, much of the public was highly suspicious of Edland’s report.

Ultimately, and with little fanfare, the other autopsies did confirm that trooper bullets had killed all who expired on the September 13th in D Yard, but by that time the public’s mind had already been made up. In fact no printed retraction in the nation’s many newspapers could stop the flood of telegrams that citizens from across the country were sending to the prison, and hundreds of letters that they continued to send into the editorial pages of those papers, which all expressed extraordinary hostility towards the inmates and gratitude that officials had taken Attica back….

In the weeks following the retaking of Attica, key actions taken by the State of New York only reinforced the public’s view that inmates alone were responsible for the tragedy of the 13th. Of course with so many dead at Attica a number of organizations and legislative committees took it upon themselves to explore what had happened. However, the official Attica investigation, called by Rockefeller, was undertaken by none other than the New York State Police and its Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) …[and, unsurprisingly, it focused] exclusively [on] the riot-related actions of inmates, not troopers.

To be sure, all had clearly not been nirvana while the inmates had control of Attica. In the first few minutes of the riot, for example, numerous inmates attacked one corrections officer who was guarding a major gate, 28-year-old William Quinn, He died days later as a result of serious injuries to his head.

What’s more, although over 1200 men remained non-violent and calm in D Yard during the rebellion, even setting up medical stations for the wounded, a few dangerous predators continued to haunt the dark recesses of the virtually abandoned D block. They sexually assaulted two inmates — 19-year-old twin brothers — and three other inmates were stabbed to death in some cells. But while BCI investigators knew that these crimes had been committed by a few individuals behind closed doors, they hadn’t a clue who perpetrated any of those brutal acts…..

[Nevertheless], armed with photographs of…. [the] alleged leaders [of the rebellion] the investigators spent days and days in a row, and endless hours each day, grilling Attica’s oftentimes seriously injured and always terrified surviving prisoners about whether so and so was indeed the person who had committed various crimes…..

Using the carrot of parole and the stick of a possible indictment, investigators eventually managed to cobble together enough “evidence” to accuse 62 inmates of having committed 1289 crimes in 42 separate felony indictments. Once again, Americans were sent a not-so-subtle message: the debacle of Attica was all about what the inmates had done wrong. To the State’s surprise, however, Attica’s many inmate defendants did not cop pleas and instead tried desperately to mount some sort of legal defense. The National Lawyers Guild…. managed to organize a volunteer army of law students and attorneys committed to providing free help for all of the “Attica Brothers,” as the indictees were soon dubbed.

Ultimately, the determined, young and mostly white advocates who descended on Buffalo en masse to assist the Attica Brothers did a Herculean job. Not only were they eventually able to get observers and reporters into Attica itself so that inmates had a greater measure of protection from reprisals than they would have had otherwise, but they also kept the Attica Investigation on its toes by filing hundreds of important motions and by going to court on behalf of the Attica Brothers in matters large and small….But they couldn’t stop the Attica Brothers from standing trial….

[In] one of the most important Attica cases [that went to trial], the state had charged inmate Bernard Stroble (aka Shango) with murder…[But to its dismay] this defendant was successfully defended by Detroit civil rights attorney Ernie Goodman…..

The other major case that came to trial was that of inmates Charles Pernasalice and John Hill (aka Dacajeweiah), who stood accused in the beating death of Guard William Quinn. Even though their attorneys were none other than Bill Kunstler and Ramsey Clark, this trial ended in convictions ….. verdicts that had more to do with heartfelt juror sympathy with the victim, as well as antipathy to radical attorney Bill Kunstler, than with any evidence mounted against the defendants…..

For the many young lawyers working so hard on the Attica Brothers legal defense, the future looked bleak. Thanks to them there had been four acquittals in the five Attica cases that had gone to trial, but the state of New York’s energy to continue indicting and trying inmates seemed limitless. But unbeknownst to any of these attorneys, someone on the inside of the Attica Investigation had started to wonder why 39 unarmed people had been shot to death by troopers at Attica but no one was investigating them. And this man would shake things up more than they could have hoped.

Harvard law grad Malcolm Bell had applied for a job with the Attica Investigation knowing little to nothing about the riot. But soon even he found it odd that his office wasn’t investigating any troopers….

After trying to take his concerns to the higher ups in the Attica Investigation itself, Bell ultimately had to become a whistle blower. He lost his job, but not before he managed to get none other than New York Governor Hugh Carey to investigate the Attica Investigation….[ultimately, however]…the Governor decided that it would be best if everyone simply put this unfortunate mess behind them. With one sweep of the pen Carey dismantled the Attica Grand Jury that had been sitting forever and a day in upstate New York, he granted blanket immunity to the troopers who had retaken Attica, and he ordered the indictments vacated on every Attica Brother still awaiting trial. As Carey put it, he was officially “closing the books” on Attica.

But wanting Attica to go away did not make it so. Attica inmate Frank “Big Black” Smith knew this first hand. He was the Attica Brother that prison officials had claimed castrated an Attica hostage. On the day that they retook the prison, troopers forced Black to lay on his back, naked, for hours while they burned him with cigarettes, played Russian roulette at his head, spit on him and threatened that if the football they had placed under his chin dropped, they would kill him.

Indeed, as it turns out, the shooting spree on the 13th of September at Attica was only the beginning of the nightmare suffered by the surrendering inmates. It was hours after order had been restored in D Yard that Big Black was forced to lay on that table, tears streaming down his face but unable to move a muscle to wipe them away.

Meanwhile, other inmates, many of them with multiple gunshot wounds, were being forced to crawl naked towards the door of cell block A. Their screams ricocheted off the walls of Attica’s four exercise yards when troopers then forced them to run barefoot through the shards of jagged glass that littered the entrance. And, once they managed to make it through that narrow enclosure, clubs, fists, and the butts of guns rained down on their naked bodies as they ran a gauntlet of troopers and guards positioned right inside the door.

While Black was trying to close his eyes against the sight of trooper holding a gun at his own head, and was desperately hoping that the state officials looking down at him from the catwalk would intervene, the men who had been herded naked into in Attica’s cell blocks continued to be tortured. These severely injured and profusely bleeding inmates were thrown three and four into empty concrete cells that measured 5×8 and were threatened with their lives every time they tried to move or cry out. They lay in these cells for days without any medical care whatsoever for the countless bullet wounds, deep lacerations and broken bones that left them nauseous and barely conscious.

As later court papers revealed, there was no limit to the brutality: One prisoner, who had two fractured femurs, was being returned to the E housing unit on a gurney when corrections officers dumped him onto the ground. He was told to crawl back to his cell but was unable to do so. Officers were then observed repeatedly shoving a screw-driver into the injured prisoner’s anus.

Ultimately, scores of men were permanently disabled from their trooper-inflicted injuries.

So while Governor Carey was busily trying to “close the books on Attica,” even sealing state records related to this event, Attica’s inmates were not about to let all of this trauma be swept under any state rugs. As early as 1971 almost 1300 prisoners had tried to file a civil suit against the state…. In 1974 an updated version of the case, Akil Al-Jundi et al., v. Nelson Rockefeller, et al, accused every top official at Attica as well as the head of the NYSP, the DOC and Nelson Rockefeller himself of having violated the civil rights of Attica’s inmate population on September 13, 1971 and in the weeks that followed.

Even with Big Black himself [eventually] making this case his full-time job, and even with intense commitment of tenacious attorneys such Elizabeth Fink, Dennis Cunningham and Michael Deutch, it took forever to get basic information from the state’s defense attorneys and, thus, it was next to impossible to litigate this case from day one. Fink and her legal team not only had to fight for basic discovery, but they routinely had to fight the state’s efforts to decertify the Attica Brothers as a class as well. But finally, in 1991, these advocates had their chance to address a jury. And even though this was a mostly white upstate jury, they persuaded it that at least Attica’s Deputy Superintendent was indeed liable…..

Although it would take until 1997 to get to the damages phase of this trial, the Attica Brothers triumphed there as well. One jury awarded Big Black $4 million, which set the upper limit of any damage award that an Attica prisoner might get and, to set the lower limit, another jury awarded inmate David Brosig $75,000. But no sooner had blame been legally established, and level of restitution finally determined, than a higher court took it all away. But thanks to the resolve of the Attica survivors the case was finally settled out of court for a total of $12 million — $8 million for the inmates and $4 million for the attorneys who had been working pro bono almost three decades.

Although this was a welcome settlement, once it was divvied up per person it also seemed to not a few survivors like far too little far too late. But, of course, there were a whole lot of people still out there that could not believe that inmates had received a dime. This was particularly true of Attica’s surviving hostages and the families of slain guards who lived in the tiny town of Attica, and the slightly larger nearby town of Batavia…..

While much of America just assumed that the state had taken care of the wounded guards and the widows, nothing could have been further from the truth. From the moment that state officials regained control of the prison, the guards and their families were left to deal with deaths, economic hardship and post-traumatic stress wholly on their own. Like the inmates, however, these victims and survivors never just laid down and gave up.

As individuals they tried to get some restitution from the State of New York by filing compensation claims. In fact, by 1983 guard families had more than twenty suits still pending in New York’s Court of Claims. By 1985, however, only one of these was permitted to go to trial. As it turned out, there was an additionally diabolical aspect to the Attica saga that [prevented all but one hostage survivor from suing the state and news of this] blindsided each one of [them] all over again…..

[But when the local radio station that had broadcast news of the inmates’ settlement to those hostages, widows, and guard family members decided to call a town meeting so that these folks could vent, these survivors] began to talk about their plight as a group for the first time. When former hostage Mike Smith got up to tell his story [he managed to channel at least some of] their anger at the inmates….into a determination to have their own needs met.

Mike was the guard that Big Black had allegedly castrated. But of course he had never been castrated. Instead he had been shot in the abdomen by four bullets that were designed to explode upon impact. No one from the state ever came to see him and no one every investigated who had shot him. The way Mike saw it, the state had treated the guards and the inmates equally abominably. And so, he reasoned, rather than begrudge the inmates, why not start demanding something for the guards? Thus was born a new organization called the Forgotten Victims of Attica (FVOA) which then embarked on its own years’ long journey to make the State of New York accountable….

The FVOA demanded that the State of New York unseal all records related to Attica, to provide monetary compensation and, most importantly, and an apology. No records were opened, no responsibility was taken — but the guard victims of the Attica retaking did get money…. In 2005 Governor Pataki agreed, with as little fanfare as possible, to set aside $12 million for these guards and their families.

Even today, 35 years after scores of people were killed, hundreds were severely wounded, hundreds more were sadistically tortured, and after millions of dollars have been distributed, and the State has still not admitted any wrongdoing at Attica. And, thus, Attica continues to haunt those who personally experienced the nightmare of the September 13th. Notably, it also haunts the nation as a whole in ways that few of us understand….

[In brief] Attica became the event, the code word, for politicians seeking to pass tougher laws, build more jails, mandate longer prison sentences, and devise harsher conditions within penal institutions….

The post-Attica turn to a more punitive justice policy has had very real social, political, and economic consequences. First, of course, tougher laws led to extraordinarily high rates of incarceration after 1971. Consider the following statistic: Between 1938 and 1971, pre-Attica, the number of Americans incarcerated in federal or state facilities increased by 37,776. In the subsequent 33 years, however, between 1971 and 2004, it increased by 1,235,732.

But of course when considering the full impact of the post-Attica law and order moment, it’s necessary to take into account everyone under correctional supervision (including those on parole, probation, in jail awaiting trial and in prison). In that case, by 1980 there were 1,842,100 people in the criminal justice system, but by 2004, there were 6,996,500….

[Thanks to the post-Attica embrace of the] Rockefeller drug laws throughout the 1970s, the mandatory sentencing guidelines of the 1980s, [and] the Three Strikes laws of the 1990s, there are now almost 7 million Americans who are effectively shut out of the productive labor market and thus are unable to provide for their over 14 million dependants.

There are many other far less obvious, but no less serious, costs to the staggering incarceration rates that flowed from post-1971 call for more a punitive justice policy. The race to incarcerate has had serious consequences for our very democracy. The U.S. census allows the counties that house prisoners to count these people as their residents — they gain more political power [and, in turn, more economic resources] the more prisoners they attract, even though prisoners can’t vote…Indeed today a record number of Americans, approximately 5.3 million, are denied the vote…..

As one writer has put it bluntly, “Where prisoners ‘live’ is a question of power. Counting prisoners as residents of rural counties robs cities of clout, money and services.” ….

Communities where prisoners’ children still live have fewer resources for education and nutrition than do the communities that are building more prisons. And, thus, the vicious and cyclical relationship between poverty and crime is perpetuated in a most subtle, but deeply significant, way…..

Thus, it is important that America reckons with Attica on the occasion of its Anniversary. This country now has more people in prison per capita than any other in the world and, in turn, our democratic process has itself has been distorted rendering our poorest communities poorer still…..And there is an additional reason why [we] should reexamine Attica and grapple with its legacy. Not only did mistruths told about this rebellion, and the mishandling of the state’s investigation of its calamitous end, each do its part to fuel the national race to incarcerate after 1971, but each also helped pave the way for the recent, and wholesale, assault on the notion that prisoners have any civil liberties or human rights…..

One of the greatest legal victories of the pre-Attica period was to get courts to see some of the heinous punishments that were being meted out in prisons, such as excessive time in solitary confinement, as “cruel and unusual” and therefore a violation of a prisoner’s constitutional rights.

There were many important legal cases that led to this revolutionary change….but today, the very idea that prisoners are human beings who have the right to be protected from cruel and unusual treatment has lost almost all traction. Every state now has at least one prison designed to keep inmates in perpetual solitary confinement for years on end—and if an inmate finds himself in a particularly “state of the art” facility—he may well have no human contact whatsoever….

Many of the hard-won laws that protected children from cruel and unusual punishment have similarly been eroded. There are now 14-year-olds locked up 23 hours a day for years on end in Supermax prisons, and children under the age of 14 are being confined in regular maximum security facilities — some with 30-year sentences — and no one seems the least bit concerned…..

 …..So, in closing, it is important to tell the Attica story anew, and to rescue one of the most important civil rights struggles in our nation’s past, because, contrary to the way it was spun, Attica was not at all a mandate for backlash. If anything, what the Attica rebellion of 1971 revealed was that, in fact, “criminals” could be far more humane than the members of law enforcement charged with keeping them in line, and that citizens might well be leery of the state having even greater control over those whom it incarcerates….

But, as I have shown here, that is not what America learned about Attica, nor for that matter, are these the lessons that it took from many other of these most dramatic clashes between the state and its citizenry in the 1960s and 1970s…. And yet, until this nation re-reckons with the iconic events that marked that most tumultuous period, including but not limited to the Attica prison uprising of 1971, its future will forever be tainted by the horrors of its past.

ATC 126, January-February 2007