The Legacy of the Attica Rebellion
Eunji Kim

" The Lingering Injustice of Attica", The New York Times, a commissioned linocut by Raymond Verdaguer

There’s a highly restricted world in our midst…. Locked up in orange jumpsuits, prisoners in US prisons and jails carry out their sentence, under the command of the Queen Bee: the guards.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of rebellion – the anti-war movement, the black power movement, the women’s movement and more. Among these uprisings was the prisoners’ rights movement.

In various prisons there were strikes, demonstrations and other acts of liberation, including the killing of African-American activist prisoner George Jackson in California. Attica prisoners were inspired and responded in an expression of outrage at unfair treatments and intolerable conditions.

Attica’s 2,200 inmates were denied basic human rights. Each man was allotted one roll of toilet paper per month. Muslim prisoners were denied religious services. Officers cut out newspaper articles relating to prisoners’ rights from prisoners’ publications.

In the summer of 1971, the Attica prisoners attempted to peacefully negotiate with the authorities, providing a list of their complaints: inhumane conditions, abuse by prison guards, arbitrary release dates and lack of racial diversity among guards.

All failed and on September 9, the prisoners seized control of the Attica prison, taking 33 staff hostage in the process.

The Muslim prisoners made a great effort to protect the hostages by making a human barrier around them to prevent abuse from other inmates. “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,” said Michael Smith, an officer who was taken hostage during rebellion.

Then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused to meet with the inmates and opposed demands such as getting amnesty for their prison take-over. Instead, after four days the commissioner of corrections submitted a settlement ultimatum to the inmates and gave them an hour to respond. If the prisoners did not agree to the terms, the state would use force to reclaim the prison.

Two hours later, officials shut down the prison’s electricity as the state police dropped tear-gas canisters from helicopters and aimed their rifles to the inmates. The rebellion ended in one of the bloodiest incidents in prison history, with a total of 43 prisoners and officers killed.

Retribution by the authorities continued well after they regained control of the prison. Besides the unwarranted beatings from the guards, the inmates were forced to strip naked and crawl through the mud and run between lines of enraged officers who beat them.

Attica created a domino effect of other prison rebellions that led to notable, though short-lived prison reform.

The living conditions inside the prisons improved, at least temporarily. GED classes and college programs were provided to the Attica inmates. Work assignments and various jobs were assigned to the

A personal note
I was kept in a bubble my entire life. I never knew such problems existed in US prisons. As someone who never experienced a life behind bars, I felt sympathetic toward the inmates. They committed a crime so they shouldn't be pampered at a top-quality luxurious facility…But do their wrongdoings justify their harsh treatment in prisons? As my research on the 40-year-old Attica rebellion unraveled, I gained insight into what happens behind bars and began to question what kind of treatment those locked-up for coming crimes receive and deserve…

prisoners so they could be active outside of their cells. Basic privileges such as making phone calls, getting mail and holding religious services were granted.

But it's just not enough.

By 1982, college educational programs were offered in 350 prisons across the country. But in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed legislation denying grant money to prisoners' education. Flash forward to now, programs have disappeared, except a few based on volunteers.

Broken System
Living conditions continue to be poor, as in the case of a prison in Los Angeles. In May 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported on overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that have persisted for 30 years at the Los Angeles County Central Jail. The ACLU called the facility a "medieval dungeon" where prisoners live in fear of abuse and violence.

"It's a broken system that doesn't work," an attorney at the Center for Community Alternatives, Alan Rosenthal said. The "United States is the number one jailer in the world. One out of 31 Americans is under some form of criminal control today."

With so many people imprisoned in the US, a rising number of the inmates find it harder to assimilate to life outside of prisons. "When prisoners are integrated back into society, there are many barriers," Rosenthal said. "It's much more difficult to re-establish a successful life."

Rosenthal believes that sentencing policies need to be revisited to reduce our tremendously high incarceration rate. Better transitional programs need to be implemented to make it easier for the prisoners to adjust to life outside bars. Alternatives to incarceration such as drug rehabilitation, education, community service and job training should be used more widely.

One of the other problems of the American penal system is the inherent tension between the authority and the prisoners. Professor of English at Hamilton College, Doran Larson, thinks this barrier has something to do with both sides failing to recognize a similar bond they share.

Often, prison guards are drawn from working class families looking to improve their economic situation. Most of the inmates also come from poverty, some committing crimes because of their financial situation. "Officers and prisoners have a lot in common," Larson said. "They have a reluctance to recognize that similarity."

Larson said this reluctance to acknowledge the similar economic classes of many officers and inmates leads to some of the conflict between prisoners and guards.

A Long Way to Go
Forty years after the Attica uprising, we need more reforms, reforms and reforms.
"It doesn't look like much has been won," Larson said. "The sacrifice the Attica prisoners made influenced the history that followed. But it's probably not enough."

In recalling the Attica rebellion and its aftermath we can once again put the spotlight on abusive conditions in our nation's jails and prisons. The attention of the larger community combined with activism by prisoners can lead to more far-reaching change.

Recently, there have been large-scale nonviolent prison protests that have once again highlighted the failures of our penal system. On July 1, 2011, Pelican Bay State prisoners went on a peaceful hunger strike to protest their living conditions. Pelican Bay is a California prison notorious for its cruel solitary confinement of inmates.

With non-bloody strikes like this, we can hope for a better future, a better prison system in the US.

Eunji, a senior at Syracuse University, is a Peace Council intern this semester.