Criminal Justice Chronicle: A is for Attica

“We are men, we are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”

But they were. The Attica Uprising in September, 1971 was instigated by less-than-human conditions at the Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York. Men were allowed one shower per week, one roll of toilet paper per month; their mail was censored and they regularly went to bed hungry. And layered over all of that was routine cruelty and sadistic treatment of the inmates.

The uprising took three lives early on: two inmates, and a corrections officer who was beaten and thrown out a window. At some point, inmate leadership took control of the chaos and communicated the inmates’ demands for reform. Elliott “L.D” Barkely, of the quote above, was a leader in the negotiations, and was one of the prisoners killed at Attica.

Inmates of the Attica Correctional Facility negotiating with Russell G. Oswald, lower left, the state prisons commissioner, in September 1971. Associated Press.

Despite their attempts to negotiate, the then-governor of New York, Nelson A. Rockefeller, refused to meet with them and instead sent in hundreds of armed state troopers to “retake control” of the institution, resulting in 29 inmate and 10 hostage deaths. The State then proceeded to lie and hide facts about what actually happened, including falsely blaming the prisoners for the deaths of the hostages. Autopsy reports proved otherwise. And what could have been a transformative moment in criminal justice reform went down in a shower of bullets.

From all accounts, the prisoners were subjected to even more brutality after the uprising by vengeful and emboldened guards. Many years later, following a class-action lawsuit, a total of $8 million was divided among 500 inmates. The State did not even take care of “its own”; slain correction officers’ families lost their right to sue when they accepted death-benefit checks; both groups claim that no one explained their legal rights and as a result, they were denied appropriate compensation.

Blood in the Water by Heather Thompson, is the definitive account of the Attica uprising and its aftermath. In his review of the book, James Forman says he had to put it down “…to breathe. To wipe the tears.” Simply reading the review made me feel sick, and I’ll admit I don’t have the courage to read the book itself.

The Attica uprising happened 46 years ago this month, and not a lot has changed at Attica, or elsewhere in prisons around the country. For many Americans, the criminal justice system is working perfectly, by simply locking up and forgetting about “undesirables” (aka people of color and poor people) via a system that treats them as though they are barely human. We seem to be very good at that. But some of us hold out hope that there is a better way that includes decent treatment while in prison, and a second chance after release.

My business, OpportunityKnits, supports men and women who are transitioning from prison back to community, family and employment. Ten percent of all sales helps to purchase personal care kits (toothpaste and toothbrushes; soap; deodorant; shampoo, etc.) for students in retraining and job readiness programs. To join the effort, visit my shop HERE.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *