Oct 3, 2011
Forty years ago, prisoners rebelled in Attica, New York state prison. The rebellion lasted five days until it was savagely repressed, leaving 31 prisoners and nine guards dead, all shot by the police.
There had been previous revolts in the prisons. From 1950 until Attica, there were some 50 other prison uprisings. But that didn’t prevent a prison official from declaring in 1966, they were “proud, satisfied and happy” with their system.
In fact, as events were to show, the prisons were becoming a breeding ground for revolt.
By 1970, many prisoners had begun to call themselves “revolutionaries.” The black movement and the U.S. war in Viet Nam led to political radicalization for many. These attitudes had spread throughout the population, including among prisoners.
A new type of prisoner appeared: those condemned in ordinary criminal cases whose political consciousness developed in prison. George Jackson was the best known representative. His book Soledad Brother tells of his development. Jackson was serving a ten-year term in prison for a theft amounting to $70. He supported the radical Black Panthers. He knew that his life was threatened by the U.S. government, which had begun a program targeting the radical wing of the black movement for assassination. In August 1971, George Jackson was shot in the back by a guard in San Quentin prison. The authorities tried to hide this assassination, but the truth came out. It led to a series of riots in many prisons. The Attica revolt was the deepest.
In Attica, 54% of the prisoners were black, but 100% of the guards were white. Prisoners were kept 14 to 16 hours per day in their cells. Their mail was read, their reading censured and they saw their families only through a separation barrier. They had almost no medical care and early releases were arbitrary. The system of plea bargaining, with 75% of those in prison having no trial, increased the feelings of injustice. The accused pled guilty, whether they were or not, in exchange for a promise of a reduced sentence ... which they didn’t always get.
The prison system reflected the society’s inequalities. In 1969, a crime of fraud by someone who had gained $200,000 led to seven months in prison, at worst. On the other hand, the prison term for a burglary yielding $321 was 33 months. Moreover, these sentences were usually harsher for blacks than for whites.
In a sociology class at Attica, prisoners began to discuss the changes they wanted. They organized demonstrations and presented modest demands.
George Jackson’s assassination increased tensions in all the prisons. When Jackson was assassinated, some prisoners in Attica seized a courtyard and held 40 guards hostage. The prisoners invited observers, including a New York Times reporter, to visit the place. One wrote, “The racial harmony that reigns among the prisoners was stunning. The courtyard was the first place that I’ve seen where there was no racism.” A black prisoner declared, “I didn’t think that the whites would join in. I cried at the idea that we were all so close. All united.”
The prison administration stalled any negotiations with the prisoners. On September 13th, Governor Rockefeller gave the green light for an assault by the national guard, prison guards, and local police, armed with automatic rifles, submachine guns and tear gas. In 15 minutes, 31 prisoners and nine guards were killed. The administration claimed at first that the guards had their throats cut by the prisoners, but autopsies proved that they had been killed by police fire.
These events didn’t prevent other movements in the prisons and the creation of support committees for those accused of further crimes at Attica. In the end, the judicial authorities gave up demanding life sentences for the prisoners who survived the assault.
Attica will always be a symbol of both the brutality of which the U.S. government is capable and of the heroism of ordinary people who have decided to make a stand.