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Attica Prison Uprising 101: A Short Primer
(Editors Note: What follows is the introduction to a new educational resource developed by Project NIA on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Attica Prison revolt. The primer is available as a free download (pdf) at Prison Culture.)
There are so many roots to the tree of anger/that sometimes the branches shatter/before they bear. -Audre Lorde
What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.- Declaration to the People of America by Attica prisoners, September 9, 1971
From September 9 to 13, 1971, prisoners took control of the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, motivated by a series of abuses as well as anger over the recent murder of Black Panther activist George Jackson in San Quentin prison. The prisoners made a series of demands to prison administrators and held about 40 people as hostages. After four days of fruitless negotiations and without meeting with prisoners, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered that the prison be retaken by force; 39 people were killed in a 15-minute assault by state police. The New York State Special Commission on Attica (also known as the McKay Commission) appointed to investigate the uprising stated that “with the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”
In September 1971 at Attica Prison, there were over 2,200 people locked up in a facility built to accommodate 1,600. 54% of those prisoners were Black and 9% were identified as Puerto Rican. 40% of the prisoners were under the age of 30. One out of 398 correctional officers was Latino and all of the prison administrators were white. It cost $8 million dollars to run Attica Prison in fiscal year 1971-72; that amounted to about $8,000 per prisoner. Most of this money was spent on correctional officers’ salaries (62%). Inmates at Attica spent 14 to 16 hours a day in their 6 by 9 foot cells.
Attica had been on a slow boil throughout the summer of 1971. In June 1971, five Attica prisoners established the Attica Liberation Faction (ALF). Carl Jones-EL, one of the five founders, suggested that the ALF was created “to try to bring about some change in the conditions of Attica. We started teaching political ideology to ourselves. We read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Malcolm X, de Bois, Frederick Douglass and a lot of others. We tried a reform program on ourselves first before we started making petitions and so forth. We would hold political classes on weekends and point out that certain conditions were taking place and the money that was being made even though we weren’t getting the benefits (1).”
On September 8th 1971, two prisoners were roughhousing in the yard at Attica Prison. They were ordered by correctional officers to stop. An altercation ensued involving a few prisoners and guards. There is some confusion about what exactly happened during this incident. Regardless, later in the day, two prisoners were accompanied by guards to the infamous “box” in Housing Block Z (HBZ). Prisoners at Attica had heard stories about what happened to people who were taken to segregation and none of what they heard was pretty. Stories of abuse, brutality and torture circulated; the guards did nothing to disabuse prisoners of these ideas.
It seems that one of the prisoners who were targeted for confinement at HBZ hadn’t even been involved in the original melee. His fellow inmates were furious at this perceived injustice. The next day, a correctional officer named Robert Curtiss who had been involved in the previous day’s incident was overpowered by a group of prisoners in retaliation. This sparked the most well-known prison uprising of the 20th century.
The group known as the Attica Liberation Faction did not instigate the riots that led to the Attica Rebellion, but they quickly stepped in to help negotiate the prisoners’ demands and organize prisoners’ anger into a platform. The five founders were Frank Lott (who took on the title of Chairman), Donald Noble, Carl Jones-EL, Herbert X. Blyden, and Peter Butler.
Lee Bernstein (2010) provides some background about the founders of the ALF:
“These five – Frank Lott, Herbert X. Blyden, Donald Noble, Carl Jones-EL, and Peter Butler – were among the most experienced activists in Attica. Blyden had participated in a rebellion at the Tombs prison in New York City the previous year, helping to write the rebels’ list of demands. Others had been involved in a sit-down strike at Auburn prison. Blyden is credited with demanding that the prisoners be transported to a non-imperialist country as a condition of ending the takeover. While deemed impractical by one of the outside observers, this demand grew logically from the political education many inmates received while in prison. Blyden and Jones served on the negotiating committee during the takeover. Blyden was a member of Attica’s Nation of Islam community, and Carl Jones-EL and Donald Noble were members of the prison’s Moorish Science community. (Bernstein, p.67-68)”
During that summer, prisoners at Attica launched peer-led classes in sociology. This was preceded by the formation of several study and discussion groups led by prisoners who had affiliations with the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords and the Five Percenters. Carl Jones-EL explains:
“The education department, the school system that they have, it only goes so far, far as trying to give a man an education. We more or less have to educate ourselves. When we came here [Attica] we knew the conditions and we felt that people should come together and get a better understanding of the conditions here, what was being did to them by the administration. So behind this we would hold meetings in the yard. We’d hold open house and whoever wanted to come and listen to our political ideology were welcome. We didn’t bar anyone. This was frowned upon by the institution and they would break it up. If we congregated too big, this wasn’t allowed. In order to reach everyone, we had to set up some sort of communications. We had to get along with the different factions here: the Muslims, the Fiver Per-centers, and all the other factions to become one solid movement, rather than just be separate parts here trying to accomplish the same things, better conditions for the inmates. (2)”
These informal gatherings provided a forum for prisoners to debate and discuss the social and political issues of the day. The McKay Commission found that these prisoner-created spaces politicized and radicalized inmates and contributed to a series of protests in the summer of 1971.
In July 1971, the Attica Liberation Faction presented a list of 27 demands to Commissioner of Corrections Russell Oswald and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. This list of demands was based on the Folsom Prisoners’ Manifesto, which had been crafted in support of a November 1970 prisoner strike in California. Carl Jones-EL offered this description of the genesis of the manifesto and the prisoner’s motivations:
“We wanted to do things, let’s say, diplomatically. We were seeking reform. Although, many were not in favor of reform, because they didn’t believe that the people would listen. So, five of us had gotten together. This is how we started. We met in the yard and we’d draw up drafts as to proposals we should make. And we sought support from the entire population, the four different blocks. And the only way we could accomplish this was that by us not being able to see everyone in different blocks, we, more or less, had to get on the traveling list. In other words, if you were a baseball, a football, a softball official, and you were in a position to travel and get around to different blocks. So we did this. One of us would go to different blocks, and there we would set up an educational program, and bring to their attention what the manifesto was going to be about. So we got a lot of support on this. Then we moved on it. Everyone was not in favor of signing their names to it though, because they didn’t want to spotlight themselves. So five of us did . (3)”
Commissioner Oswald did not act on the demands. Instead the warden of Attica, Vincent Mancusi, responded “by increasing the frequency of cell searches, censoring all references to prison conditions from news sources, and announcing that there would be no prizes awarded to the winners of the upcoming Labor Day sporting competitions (Bernstein, p. 69).”
The next month, August 1971, Black Panther activist George Jackson was killed by correctional officers at San Quentin Prison. His killing sparked protests including work stoppages at prisons across the U.S. At Attica, the different prisoner factions, who had previously found it difficult to unify in order to strengthen the likelihood that their demands would be enacted, were mobilized by the killing of Jackson. Donald Noble, one of the founders of the Attica Liberation Faction, explained it this way:
“What really solidified things was George Jackson’s death. This had a reaction on the people, one that we were trying to accomplish all along, to bring the people together. We thought, ‘How can we pay tribute to George Jackson?’ because a lot of us idolized him and things that he was doing and things that he was exposing about the system. So, we decided that we would have a silent fast that whole day in honor of him. We would wear black armbands. No one was to eat anything that whole day. We noted that if the people could come together for this, then they could come together for other things . (4)”
The Attica Rebellion came quickly on the tail of the non-violent protests following Jackson’s killing. The demands that developed out of the rebellion were different than those advanced by the Attica Liberation Front, but there was some overlap. Five initial demands became “15 Practical Points,” points of unity that formed the basis for prisoners’ negotiations with the prison system. Rather than ending in a negotiated agreement, however, the events at Attica concluded in a massacre by state forces. Guards being held hostage in the prison were murdered alongside prisoners. In the long term,the Attica Rebellion did result in an investigation into the event, and increased awareness around the country about prison conditions and abuses. The voices of those in Attica were lifted up, but this attention ultimately came at a very dear price —the lives of 43 people.
Why are we talking about this now?
On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Attica Prison revolt, we felt that it was a good time to both reflect on the conditions that precipitated the rebellion and to examine its legacy. First and foremost, we want to honor those who gave their lives to this struggle then, and those who continue to give their lives now. We want to honor those currently incarcerated, to whom this struggle belongs today. Many of the most heroic stories of resistance and radical organizing are still unknown to us, but Attica is a piece of the history of resistance that has thankfully been well documented.
The situation of incarceration today is both similar and different to the situation when the Attica Rebellion occurred. In 1970, there were 48,497 people in federal and state prisons in the U.S.(5) By 2009, there were 1,613,740 million individuals locked up in our federal and state prisons.(6) This exponential growth of the prison population means that the events of Attica are as relevant today as they were in 1971, perhaps even more so.
While some reforms in conditions have been enacted in some places, the numbers of people incarcerated have shifted drastically; poor people and people of color are consistently targeted for incarceration.Incarceration has become a big business, bringing in profits to private companies through lucrative contracts and through “employing” prisoners at low or no wages. A whole slew of abuses continue, including long term solitary confinement, group punishments for individual actions, denial of health services, shackling of pregnant women in prison, androutine verbal and physical harassment and abuse, especially of women, youth, Muslims, queer and trans people, and other members of marginalized groups within prisons.
During the last year, separate prison strikes and protests have started and spread statewide in Georgia, California and Indiana. In Georgia, a statewide strike in December 2010 demanded fair wages for prisoners and pointed out that prisoners’ unpaid labor is a form of modern-day slavery. The Georgia strike, which lasted six days, also called for educational opportunities, decent health care, an end to cruel and unusual punishment, decent living conditions, nutritional meals, vocational and self-improvement opportunities, access to families, and justice in parole decisions. Georgia prisoners are now attempting to win justice through civil suits against the prison system.
In California, a July 2011 hunger strike involved nearly 7,000 people in thirteen facilities. The five core demands of the strikers asked for fair policies in punishment within prisons, an end to long-term solitary confinement, adequate food, and more programs and privileges to allow prisoners to “engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities..."
In Indiana, an August 2011 protest was the result of a unilateral crackdown on prisoners after a single violent incident. Similar to the protest in California, prisoners demanded that large groups not be punished for the actions of individuals.
Outside solidarity with these strikes and protests is one of the ways we can support current movements to reform and shut down prisons (see Resource section for more information). It is also important that we know our history, and know that prison organizing on the inside has been happening for decades.
Attica marks an important, dramatic point in our collective history and in the history of anti-prison struggles. We hope that the story of Attica will inspire you to continue to act in your own ways, and in your own communities, to fight the PIC.
With gratitude, and in solidarity,
1. Voices From Inside: 7 Interviews with Attica Prisoners (1972).
2. Edited transcription of separate interviews with nine of those the prison administration had isolated as “leaders” of the rebellion taken from interviews conducted by Bruce Soloway of Pacifica Radio, WBAI, in February 1972. In “We Are Attica: Interviews with Prisoners from Attica” published by the Attica Defense Committee.
3. Edited transcription of separate interviews with nine of those the prison administration had isolated as “leaders” of the rebellion taken from interviews conducted by Bruce Soloway of Pacifica Radio, WBAI, in February 1972. In “We Are Attica: Interviews with Prisoners from Attica” published by the Attica Defense Committee.
4. Donald Noble, interview, in Prisons on Fire: George Jackson, Attica, and Black Liberation, audio CD (San Francisco: Freedom Archives, 2001).
5. Langan, Patrick A. Race of prisoners admitted to state and federal institutions, 1926-86. NCJ-125618. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (May 1991).
6. Numbers for both years 1970 and 2009 exclude the jail population.
Cross-posted to Critical Mass Progress: Educate, Agitate, Organize