Attica Revisited Attica Is All of Us”
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The Attica Riot
On 9 September 1971 inmates began a riot and takeover at the Attica State Correctional Facility in New York. The takeover ended four days later when law enforcement officers stormed the prison. Forty-three people were killed: ten prison guards who were being held as hostages and thirtythree inmates. The Attica riot captured the attention of the nation, directing interest to prison conditions and the rights of prisoners.

The riot at Attica came after a summer of tension and unrest at the prison. The prison was over-crowded, housing 2,250 men in a facility considered safe for 1,600. Racial tensions were also high. The prison had no black guards and only one Puerto Rican guard, yet the inmates were 54 percent black and 9 percent Puerto Rican. Tensions at the prison grew after inmate George Jackson was shot to death at San Quentin prison in California. Inmates assumed that he had been murdered because he was a black radical. On 9 September minor disciplinary actions against two fighting inmates erupted quickly into a full-scale riot involving more than a thousand inmates. Fifty prison guards were taken as hostages. Most were beaten by angry inmates. Several seriously injured hostages were released, and one hostage died as a result of his injuries.

The inmates quickly organized a negotiating team to put together demands for the prison administration. Their initial demands included complete amnesty for participants in the riot, federal intervention, and the organization of an independent negotiating committee made up of public figures sympathetic to the prisoners' conditions to ensure that the prison officials kept their promises. State officials refused to offer amnesty, particularly after the hostage guard died. They did organize the negotiating team requested by the inmates. The negotiations focused on amnesty and prison conditions. The prison administration agreed to twenty-eight of the inmates' requests, including an end to the censorship of reading materials, a right to be active politically, a more nutritious diet, an expansion of library programs, more recreational opportunities, and true religious freedom. Officials refused a complete amnesty from criminal prosecution for the riot and the removal of the prison superintendent. Negotiations stalled at this “RBG Attica Revisited-Attica Is All of Us” Page 2

point. State officials then presented an ultimatum to the inmates: either accept the offer or have the prison retaken by force. The inmates refused to accept.

Storming the Yard
New York governor Nelson Rockefeller then ordered state police, sheriffs' deputies, and correctional officers to launch an attack on the area of the prison controlled by inmates. They fired tear gas into the cell blocks; officers fired rifles and shotguns into the prison yard from roofs and other high points. The attack lasted ten minutes. Initial reports stated that nine hostages had their throats slashed by inmates and that twenty-eight inmates were killed in the attack. Later investigations made clear that inmates had not killed any hostages during the attack. Instead, ten hostages had been killed by gunshots from the police and prison guards retaking the prison yard. Twenty-nine inmates were killed in the attack; three others had been killed by other inmates before the attack.

The Aftermath
New York State officials were heavily criticized as the cause of the hostages' deaths became known. They were criticized for their attack and for the prison conditions that had led to the riot in the first place. Attica came to symbolize the dangerous conditions of many prisons and the often-petty restrictions on prisoners' religious and political freedoms. The Attica riot provoked several efforts to reform prison conditions across the United States. Those reform efforts often failed because of budget constraints and escalating prison populations, which increased prison overcrowding. Prison populations grew 88 percent from 1970 to 1981, while new prison building lagged behind. Prison conditions and overcrowding were considered more of a problem at the end of the 1970s than they were at the time of the Attica riot.

The Constitutional Rights of Prisoners
The 1970s also brought a growing concern for the constitutional rights of prisoners. The general principle was stated by the Supreme Court in Wolff v. McConnell (1974): "Lawful imprisonment necessarily makes unavailable many rights and privileges of the ordinary citizen.… But though his rights may be diminished by the needs and exigencies of the institutional environment, a prisoner is not wholly stripped of constitutional protections when he is imprisoned for crime. There is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country." In Wolff v. McConnell the Court guaranteed prisoners a hearing before they could be denied time off for good behavior. Prisoners were also guaranteed a hearing in initial

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parole decisions, but not when the prisoner was being transferred from one prison to another. Prisoners were guaranteed the right to marriage. They were denied any right to be interviewed by members of the press.

Local Challenges
District courts also heard several challenges to prison conditions. Prisoners challenged overcrowding, poor medical care, solitary confinement, and inadequate food and sanitation as violations of the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. District courts in Arkansas, Alabama, and Ohio ordered prison officials to correct some problems, particularly overcrowding and poor medical care. However, by the early 1980s the Supreme Court had restricted the reach of the cruel and unusual punishment clause. The Court ordered district courts to defer to the decisions of prison officials. Prison conditions were no longer a constitutional issue.

Tom Wicker, A Time to Die (New York: Quadrangle, 1975).

Yahoo! Directory: Attica Riot links Democrat and Chronicle: Attica – A History In Photographs Talking History: Attica Revisited "I Would Do It Any Day, Again" an Interview with Akil Al-Jundi video interviews with Frank Smith Short history on American Experience Short history from Eyes on the Prize The Attica Prison Uprising on - with links to related articles on the prisoners' movement, Black Panthers, Vietnam, etc.

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