On This Day

attica prison uprising, attica prison riot, attica riot
Associated Press
Inmates at Attica State Prison raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity during the Attica uprising.

On This Day: Attica Prison Uprising Begins

September 09, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 9, 1971, the deadliest prison rebellion in U.S. history began at the Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, N.Y.

Prisoners Revolt for their Rights

The rebellion had been sparked by a minor conflict between prisoners and guards earlier that day, which ended with the disciplining of two prisoners. A rumor spread that the two prisoners had been beaten as punishment.

Attica, like most other prisons in the country, suffered from overcrowding, poor-quality food and medical care, and censorship. Inmates were limited to one shower a week and one roll of toilet paper a month. The inmates, who had long been upset with the harsh conditions and overt racism by the guards, saw the rumored beatings as the last straw, and began to riot.

A group of inmates broke through a gate and took over an exercise yard, taking several guards hostage. They demanded the removal of the warden, amnesty for revolt participants, and better conditions.

During the next few days, the prisoners created a community in the yard that was praised by some observers as a united effort between black, Latino and white prisoners. “The racial harmony that prevailed among the prisoners—it was absolutely astonishing,” wrote New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, who was invited to observe the event, in his book “A Time to Die.”

A black prisoner later echoed the sentiment, saying, “I never thought whites could really get it on. … But I can’t tell you what the yard was like, I actually cried it was so close, everyone so together.”

The state agreed to the demands except for amnesty, and so the prisoners refused to back down.

On the morning of Sept. 13, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller met with his advisors and approved a military attack on the prison, calling it “a matter of principle.” One thousand National Guardsmen stormed the jail and started firing indiscriminately at the unarmed inmates and their hostages.

Twenty-nine inmates and 10 hostages were killed as the guardsmen put down the riot and took control of the prison. Four other inmates had died during the five-day riot, leaving the total death toll at 43 people.

Outrage Over the Government Response

The press was originally told that the hostage prison guards had had their throats slashed by the prisoners, but it was later discovered that they died from the same bullets that had been unleashed on the prisoners. After the riot had been put down, the prisoners suffered violent retaliation from prison guards, who beat and tortured many of the inmates.

A state investigatory commission led by New York University Law School Dean Robert B. McKay concluded that the assault was poorly conceived and executed, and that troopers used excessive force. An outraged public blamed Rockefeller, who had ignored pressure to visit Attica and to approve of a compromise plan.

The McKay Commission wrote, “Where state neglect was a major contributing factor to the uprising, the governor should not have committed the state’s armed forces without first appearing on the scene and satisfying himself that there was no other alternative.”

The prisoners would not be compensated until 2000, when the state of New York agreed to award $8 million to 1,280 men who survived the attack. “The demons of Attica have never been exorcised. Memories of them may have faded, but their shadows are felt just the same,” wrote Clyde Haberman of The New York Times.

Key Players: Nelson Rockefeller; Akil Al-Jundi

New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller
Nelson Rockefeller was born in 1908 into one of the wealthiest families in the country. His grandfather was John D. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil. He entered politics in 1940 and became governor of New York in 1958. During his four terms, he focused on welfare and drug rehabilitation, the transportation system and public works projects.

In 1960, he ran for the Republican presidential nomination, but lost to Richard Nixon. In 1974, he became vice president under President Gerald Ford, though he was not chosen to run in Ford’s 1976 re-election campaign. Rockefeller died in 1979 of a heart attack in his Midtown Manhattan office.

Rockefeller endured intense criticism after the Attica prison incident, but he never expressed any regret for his part in the affair, besides saying that he wished he were more aware of the “tremendous need that existed” at the facility.

Akil Al-Jundi
Attica inmate Akil Al-Jundi
was a gang leader in Harlem who he was convicted of second-degree murder 1961 after assaulting a man with an umbrella. He converted to Islam and became an avid reader while in prison.

According to The New York Times, Al-Jundi was part of the Muslim contingent of prisoners who supervised the guards taken hostage during the uprising. After being freed in 1975, he dedicated himself to getting justice for the inmates as a minister of information for the Attica Brothers Legal Defense Fund and was part of a federal class action that led to a 1992 verdict that held the state responsible for several atrocities.

The Revolutionary Worker interviewed Al-Jundi in 1991 about his experience in the Attica revolt: “Would I do it again? I would do it any day again. … I am proud to have been involved in it because I think it was a momentous historical happening and I daresay one of the most important events that happened in the 20th century. … Because one thing I know for sure is that, although the rebellion and the massacre technically speaking ended in 1971, it didn’t. It’s a continual process.”

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines