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Attica Prison riot

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The Attica Prison riot occurred at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, United States in 1971. The riot was based in part upon prisoners' demands for better living conditions, and was led in large part by a small band of political revolutionaries.[1] On September 9, 1971, responding to the death of prisoner George Jackson, a black radical activist prisoner who had been shot to death by corrections officers in California's San Quentin Prison on August 21, about 1,000 of the prison's approximately 2,200 prisoners rioted and seized control of the prison, taking 33 staff hostage. The State began negotiating with the prisoners.

During the following four days of negotiations, authorities agreed to 28 of the prisoners' demands, but would not agree to demands for complete amnesty from criminal prosecution for the prison takeover or for the removal of Attica's superintendent. Under order of governor Nelson Rockefeller, state police took back control of the prison. When the uprising was over, at least 39 people were dead, including ten correction officers and civilian employees.

Contents

[edit] The riot

At approximately 8:20 a.m. on Thursday, September 9, 1971, 5 Company lined up for roll-call. Hearing rumors that one of their companions was to remain in his cell and that he was to be tortured after being isolated for an incident involving an assault with a prison officer, a small group of 5 Company inmates protested that they too would be locked up and began walking back towards their cells. The remainder of 5 Company continued towards breakfast. As the protesting group walked past the isolated inmate, they were able to free him from his cell. They then rejoined the rest of 5 Company and proceeded on their way to breakfast. A short time later, when the command staff discovered what had occurred, they changed the usual scheduling of the prisoners. Instead of going to the yard after breakfast as they usually did, the prisoners realized they were being led back to their cells. Complaints led to anger when the correctional officer tried to calm the mob of prisoners. He was assaulted and the riot began.[2]

Officer Quinn in the central control room of the tunnels tried to phone for help when he saw what was happening in the tunnel. However, he kept getting a busy signal and the mob of prisoners managed to get into the control room and beat him unconscious with the lead handle of the rotary phone.[3]

The inmates quickly gained control of sections, D-yard, two tunnels and the central control room, Times Square. Inmates took 42 officers and civilians hostage and aired a list of grievances, demanding their needs be met before their surrender.[3] In a facility designed to hold 1,200 inmates and actually housing 2,225,[4] they felt that they had been illegally denied rights and conditions to which they were entitled, illustrated by such practices as being allowed only one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper per person per month.[5]

[edit] Negotiations

The prisoners continued to unsuccessfully negotiate with Correctional Services Commissioner Russell G. Oswald and then later with a team of observers that included Tom Wicker, an editor of the New York Times, James Ingram of the Michigan Chronicle, state senator John Dunne, state representative Arthur Eve, civil rights lawyer William Kunstler and others including Nation of Islam member Louis Farrakhan.

The situation may have been further complicated by Governor Rockefeller’s refusal to come to the scene of the riot and meet with the inmates,[3] although some later evaluations of the incident would postulate that his absence from the scene actually prevented the situation from deteriorating.[6] Negotiations broke down and Oswald told the inmates that he was unable to negotiate with them anymore and ordered that they must give themselves up. Oswald later called Governor Rockefeller and again begged him to come to the prison to calm the riot. After the governor's refusal, Oswald stated that he would order the State Police to retake the facility by force. Rockefeller agreed with Oswald's decision. This agreement would be later criticized by a commission created by Rockefeller to study the riot and the aftermath.[7]

[edit] Retaking of the prison and retaliation

At 9:46 AM on Monday, September 13, 1971 tear gas was dropped into the yard and New York State Police troopers opened fire non-stop for two minutes into the smoke. Among the weapons used by the troopers were shotguns, which led to the wounding and killing of hostages and inmates who were not resisting.[8] Former prison officers were allowed to participate, a decision later called "inexcusable" by the commission established by Rockefeller to study the riot and the aftermath.[7] By the time the facility was retaken, 9 hostages and 28 inmates had been killed.

The final death toll from the riot also included the officer fatally injured at the start of the riot and 4 inmates who were subject to vigilante killings. Nine hostages died from gunfire by state troopers and soldiers.[3][4] The New York State Special Commission on Attica wrote, "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."[4]

After the riot, nothing was done to prevent reprisals by troopers and prison officers. Inmates were made to strip and crawl through the mud and then some were made to run naked between lines of enraged officers, who beat the inmates. Several days after the riot's end, prison doctors reported evidence of more beatings. The Special Commission accused state officials of allowing rumors to spread and of unjustifiable delay in denying the false report that one hostage had been castrated and that others had their throats fatally slashed.[7]

Media reports claimed that inmate hostage-takers slit the throats of many of their hostages, reports that contradicted official medical evidence. Newspaper headlines made statements such as "I Saw Slit Throats," implying that prisoners had cut the hostages' throats when the armed raid occurred. These "reports" were later found to be entirely and deliberately fictitious.[7][9]

[edit] Lawsuits and payments

Within four years of the riot, 62 inmates had been charged in 42 indictments with 1,289 separate counts. One state trooper was indicted for reckless endangerment.[10]

Inmates and families of inmates killed in the prison retaking sued the State of New York for civil rights violations by law enforcement officers during and after the retaking of Attica. After 27 years in the courts, in 2000, the State of New York agreed to pay $12 million to settle the case.[10] The State of New York also recognized the families of the slain prison employees in the autumn of 2004 with a $12 million financial settlement.

[edit] Racial issues

Many people attribute the riot to the racial issues inside of the prison at the time. Of 2,225 inmates, 54% of the inmates were African American and 9% Puerto Rican; however, all of the 383 correctional officers were white. From reports on the prison conditions, some corrections officers were openly racist and assaulted the prisoners with their batons, which they dubbed "nigger sticks". During this time period in the country, black militancy was at its peak and several prisons had their black militants transferred to Attica. Additionally, George Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party, died at the hands of white prison officers only a few days before the riot in the San Quentin State Prison in California, adding to the racial tension. The aftermath of the riot called for prison reform, especially in the treatment of minority inmates who were becoming a majority in several state correctional facilities across America.[citation needed]

[edit] Al Jundi v. Mancusi

Additionally, Muslims were allegedly targeted by the officers for torture and punishment. It was believed that a group of Muslims were responsible for the uprising and the harm of the hostages, when in fact the group of Muslims were protecting the hostages from other inmates. The leader of the Muslims even told the other inmates that if any of the inmates tried to hurt the hostages, "to kill them the inmates or die protecting the hostages." The court in Al Jundi v. Mancusi, 113 F.Supp.2d 441 wrote:[1] and [2]

A number of former Muslim inmates testified that they had been singled out for "special" brutal treatment by troopers and prison officers because they had played an active role in protecting the hostages during the 4 days before the retaking. Because a number of militant inmates were prepared to do harm to the hostages, Frank "Big Black" Smith, in conjunction with the Muslim leadership, implemented a plan to secure the safety of the hostages during negotiations.[citation needed]

This view was corroborated by Michael Smith, age 51, a former corrections officer who was a hostage up to September 13, 1971. He testified that he was taken hostage on September 9, 1971 by a group of inmates who were out of control. He described them as a "wave of human emotion". He was in charge of the sheet metal shop and developed a good rapport with the inmates who worked under him and they protected him from the militant group. But eventually he came under the control of the take-over group and found himself in the center of D-Yard with other hostages. One of the inmates, Don Noble, whom he had befriended and who worked in the sheet metal shop,and Carl Reighn (originally referred to in previous interviews as Carl Rain) protected him on September 9, 1971 trying desperately to come up with ways to hide or save him and protect him; and would later save his life on September 13, 1971.Mr.Carl Reighn was there from the moment they broke the metal shop doors down.

Smith was interviewed by the media while being held hostage along with Corrections Officer Cunningham. He conveyed what the inmates' demands were for improved conditions and reported that he was not being harmed. He was blindfolded most of the time. Upon receiving news of Corrections Officer Quinn's death, the negotiation process broke down.

On Sunday night, September 12, 1971, the feeling was "sombre".[citation needed] He got a pen and wrote a goodbye note to his wife and family on dollar bills which were in his wallet. He testified that the hostages sat in a circle and leaned up against each other for support.

On Monday, September 13, 1971, he was selected along with a few other hostages to be taken up on the A-Yard catwalk and a hostage execution was arranged. He was taken to the top of the catwalk by three inmates and sat on a chair blindfolded. Inmate Don Noble was on his left and held a knife to his throat. As the Army helicopter hovered over them and dropped tear gas, the shooting started and the inmate on his right was shot twice and blown over the railing of the catwalk. Don Noble pulled him to his left and the inmate immediately behind him received a fatal volley of gunfire. Noble was shot and Smith was shot 4 times in the stomach and once in the arm. The chair on which he had been sitting disintegrated from gunshots. Smith said in court, "I don't know how long the shooting went on. You could hear people crying, people dying and people screaming." He never lost consciousness as he lay on the catwalk until a trooper stood over him pointing a shotgun at his head. A prison officer saw what was going on and yelled to the trooper, "he is one of us", who then focused his attention on Noble, at which point Smith told the trooper, "he saved my life".

He was eventually taken by National Guard medics to St. Jerome's Hospital in Batavia for an extensive period of treatment involving multiple surgeries. He was eventually released from service as a corrections officer because of his physical inability to perform his duties. He commented on the inaccuracy of the McKay Report which claimed that he had been merely knocked unconscious - no mention of his extensive gunshot wounds nor how they were obtained. He openly stated that his life was saved while he was held hostage because of the dedicated efforts of the Muslim group at Attica. "In fact, I can recall hearing one of the Muslim leaders instructing one of their men that if anyone tries to break through their Muslim perimeter to kill them or die protecting the hostages."

[edit] Exoneration of inmates

One of the leaders of the uprising, Cleveland "Jomo" Davis (cf. Jomo Kenyatta) was later pardoned by New York Governor Hugh Carey. On April 2, 1978 Davis was accused of having fatally shot New York City Police Officers Christie D. Masone and Norman R. Cerullo in Brooklyn, New York. Following two mistrials, Davis was found not guilty.[11]

[edit] In popular culture

  • In the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino's character, Sonny, who is holding eight bank employees hostage, starts a chant of "Attica! Attica!" at the massed police outside, evoking the excessive police force used in response to the Attica riot. Many pop culture references stem from this scene rather than from the riot itself. For example, in the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero, played by John Travolta, repeats Pacino's "Attica! Attica!" line. The character Arthur Spooner from King Of Queens chants "Attica! Attica!" at a passing police patrol car at the end of season three episode "Strike Out". In the film The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, Leslie Nielsen's character Frank Drebin, who is an undercover police officer, chants "Ain't no prison yet could hold me. Attica! Attica! Power to the brothers! Kill whitey! Kill whitey!" when he enters prison, in an attempt to gain acceptance from the other prisoners. In the TV series Family Guy, Peter shouts "Gattaca! Gattaca!" in a scene from the episode "Hell Comes to Quahog". On the TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will and his friend Kellogg handcuff themselves to a class door and chant "Attica! Attica!" to protest the firing of a teacher in the episode "Those Were the Days." In A Tale of Two Santas in Futurama, the robot prison is called Stattica. In the House episode Lines in the Sand, when Cuddy refuses to give House's carpet back, House yells "Attica! Attica!" while banging his cane on the ground. In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode, "Missing Identity", Spongebob imagines what terrible uses his missing name tag might be used for. He imagines a man robbing a bank shouting "Attaca!" while wearing his name tag.
  • In the television show Oz, racial tension and poor living conditions cause the prison inmates to riot in the episode "A Game of Checkers." When taken hostage the administrator Tim McManus discusses how he was motivated to enter the corrections profession by having been raised in the town of Attica, in which the prison was a source of income, direct or indirect, for almost all families - his father had a diner opposite the prison. McManus's 10th birthday party was canceled and instead he went to a memorial service - the fathers of three friends died in the riot. "Oz" is the nickname for the Oswald State Correctional Facility, which is possibly named after Correctional Services Commissioner Russell G. Oswald.
  • In 1972, avant-garde composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski wrote two pieces connected to the Attica riot, both for percussion ensemble and speaker. "Coming Together" sets text by Sam Melville, a leader of the uprising and one of the people who lost their lives as a result of it, from a letter he wrote in 1971. The second and shorter piece, "Attica", is set to the statement made by inmate Richard X. Clark when he was released from the prison: "Attica is in front of me now." The two pieces was recorded in 1973 for the Opus One label by the Blackearth Percussion Group, with Steven ben Israel of the Living Theater as the speaker.[12]
  • Kurt Vonnegut's 1990 novel Hocus Pocus contains numerous references to the "New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institution at Athena". Events in the book center around a prison break in the facility, which is located in a small town in upstate New York, as is the Attica Correctional Facility. Further strengthening the identity of Athena with Attica is the fact that Athens, the city of the Greek goddess Athena, is located in the historical region known as Attica, and is currently within the Greek periphery of the same name.
  • The chanting of "Attica! Attica!" was a running gag on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and continues to some extent with the closely related RiffTrax. The chant is usually provoked by movie scenes of prisoners in squalid conditions or scenes involving any kind of riotous mob.

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ "The Truth About Attica by an Inmate". National Review. http://www.nationalreview.com/nroriginals/print/?q=OGI3ZjFmMWQ1YmQxNjA0MWI0M2ZmZTBkYTEyNGRmNDc=. Retrieved 2010-07-23. 
  2. ^ "Attica Correctional Facility: 1971 Prison Riot". Attica Central School District. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. http://web.archive.org/web/20070930031630/http://www.atticacsd.org/hs/library/Prison/prison/riot.html. Retrieved 2006-10-04. 
  3. ^ a b c d "People & Events: Attica Prison Riot – September 9–13, 1971". American Experience—The Rockefellers. Public Broadcasting Service. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/rockefellers/peopleevents/e_attica.html. Retrieved 2006-10-04. 
  4. ^ a b c Schmalleger, F., & Smykla, J. (2007, 2005). Corrections in the 21st Century. New York: McGraw-Hill. 
  5. ^ Jackson, Bruce (1999). http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~bjackson/attica.htm Attica: An Anniversary of Death. Retrieved October 4, 2006.
  6. ^ Benjamin, G., & Rappaport, S. (1974). Attica and Prison Reform. Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, 31(3), 203-212. Retrieved October 6, 2006, from JSTOR database.
  7. ^ a b c d "A Year Ago at Attica". Time (Time Magazine, Inc.). 1972-09-25. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,903593,00.html. Retrieved 2008-04-27. 
  8. ^ Use of Shotguns in Attica Revolt Deplored in House Unit’s Report, New York Times (June 27, 1973)
  9. ^ Fred Ferretti, "Autopsies Show Shots Killed 9 Attica Hostages, Not Knives; State Official Admits Mistake" New York Times (Sep. 15, 1971); William E. Farrell, "Rockefeller Lays Hostages’ Deaths to Troopers’ Fire", New York Times (Sep. 17, 1971)
  10. ^ a b Al-Jundi v. Mancusi, 113 F. Supp. 2d 441 (W.D.N.Y. 2000)
  11. ^ New York Times June 29, 1980
  12. ^ Rzewski, Frederic. Coming Together / Les Moutons de Panurge / Attica. Opus One: 20.

[edit] Bibliography

  • Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s, eds. Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer

[edit] External links



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