Attica: A 45-year Riot

For over 45 years now, six letters have represented the very essence of revolution. A single word-turned chant has wrapped up definitions for rebellion, freedom and protest, transforming them into a single simple notion. Say it once and your cause is heard. Say it twice more and the message is undeniable. Attica! Attica! Attica! September 13, 1971 was the first time this, now famous, cry was heard and now, more than forty-five years later, the Attica Prison Riot is stapled into history. The 1960s and 70s marked a time of constant revolution for much of America’s marginalized, and the justice system was no different. In 1866, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners had no constitutional rights. This case, known as Pervear v. Massachusetts, wasn’t overturned until 1963, nearly a century later. And though prisoners had just regained their constitutional rights, their fight for justice was far from over.

The Perfect Storm

Attica was not an isolated moment. It was the result of a many surrounding issues and protests finally giving way to a single explosion. The Prisoner’s Rights Movement raged most heavily during the 60s and 70s, demanding better living conditions, attorney rights, and much more. In this time prison riots became something of a norm. In 1970 New York State alone recorded six riots. And while these smaller outbursts were largely unsuccessful, they furthered the Prison Rights Movement and created the atmosphere for which Attica could happen.

A corridor of cells in the Attica Correctional facility.

One of the biggest grievances within the movement were overcrowded and understaffed prisons. At one point Attica reported there were around 70 prisoners to every one correctional officer. Furthermore, for all of the 2,243 inmates there were only two trained doctors, who were rarely of any help. In fact, an inmate once died in their care while the doctor responsible was neither fired nor was there steps made to better medical treatment. Due to the flurry of movements going on prisoners were becoming more and more educated. They learned about law, became (or were already) involved in social justice movements such as the Black Panther Party and were reading prison memoirs such as the one by Austin Reed. This knowledge lead to an acute understanding of the injustices faced and Attica inmates were devoted to doing something about it. Contrary to popular belief however, their preferred method was a very democratic one. In June of 1971 inmates crafted a manifesto to outline their demands and grievances. The manner in which they wrote was closer to something expected of an academic rather than a “criminal.” It began with a “Dear Sir” and continued on to describe a list of 28 demands of which included: ending physical abuse by guards, religious freedom for Muslims, improvements in the working and living conditions, and a change in medical staff, policy and procedure. The document ended clearly indicating that rioting was the last thing on their minds. “These demands are being presented to you,” they said. “There is no strike of any kind to protest these demands. We are trying to do this in a democratic fashion.” That month the New York State Correctional Services Commissioner, Russell Oswald, found the Manifesto, and in spite of its amicable nature of the letter, he felt the manifesto represented the coming together of once warring groups. Inmates across racial lines and religious backgrounds were now collectively asking for justice. However, instead of directly addressing the issues outlined in the manifesto, Oswald enforced harsher rules within the prison. For example, any inmate found with the manifesto was subject to anything from keeplock, meaning they were grounded in their cells, to solitary confinement.   After months of this indirect treatment and no real change in prison conditions, inmates were increasingly agitated. Trust became an outdated commodity. And while there was no formal planning for a riot nor was there a true desire for one, inmates and guards alike knew there was no turning back. “You could feel it in the air,” one lieutenant said in testimony after the riot. “You knew something was brewing… Every night we expected it.”

Breaking Point

On Sept. 9 a seemingly small miscommunication ignited the flames. The day before in A yard Leroy Dewer celebrated his release from keeplock with a friend when nearby guards mistook his celebration for the beginnings of a fight. Lieutenants Curtiss and Maroney answered the call and attempted to remove Dewer from the yard and place him back under keeplock. Their attempt was unsuccessful. Dewer rebelled, punching Maroney while inmates both black and white swarmed. They heckled the guards, demanding they release Dewer. One in particular, Lamorie, broke through the crowd and declared to the guards they were going to “leave this kid alone.” Between the pressure from other inmates and the protests of Lamorie, the guards left the yard altogether. And thus the power shifted. Not only did an inmate disobey a guard, they did so with physical force—and got away with it. It wasn’t until late in the night that guards returned to capture Dewer and Lamorie. They were removed from their cells around midnight and placed in HBZ. Again, inmates were not silent. They shouted in protest, throwing random items at the guards until they were out of reach. The next morning while Company 5, to which Lamorie belonged, headed to breakfast, an officer ordered the gate to A yard locked. Company 5 was known as the more “radical” company, comprised mostly of younger inmates assumed to be a part of the black power movement. In short, they worried administration and considering the last 24 hours they were all to be on keeplock. This message however, did not reach the officer escorting them from breakfast. The entire Company was in the tunnel headed to A yard as normal when their CO noticed the door was locked. Company 5 sat stuck in a tunnel panicked and unsure. They were already riddled with anxiety over Dewer and Lamorie’s punishment; it was a firm belief among inmates that prisoners sent to HBZ during the night were severely beaten along the way. This compounded with already strained relations was the final straw. Inmates attacked both the lieutenant and the CO accompanying them. And in one swift moment the Attica Prison Riot began.

Into the Riot

The next four days saw 42 hostages, about 1,000 rioting inmates and seemingly endless negotiations.

Inmates at Attica State Prison in Attica, N.Y., raise their fists in unity during the uprising. (AP Photo)

Said discussions revolved around a manifesto created during the riot. Titled The Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto of Demands, the document included 33 demands mirroring those from the first manifesto with only the addition of amnesty for all inmates involved in the riot. The negotiations were, in a word, unsuccessful.  By Sep. 12 neither side showed any signs of resignation. And while Oswald accepted 28 of the demands, he refused to grant amnesty, thus stalling any real progress. By this point the state opted out of further negotiations and instead planned a takeover by lethal force. The assault the following morning saw the death of 33 inmates and 10 prison employees, making the riot one of the goriest in history.

The Impact

Some accounts of the riot do exist; the most acknowledged include The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica and Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971. In reality, however, much of Attica is still a mystery. Until recently the majority of the documents and research done on the riot were kept from the public, locked within New York State’s control. Even now not all the information is readily available. For context, it wasn’t until 2000 that New York State paid $12 million to settle the case and 2005 that they settled with families of slain prison employees with another $12 million. Perhaps it might be another 45 years before new developments surface. But right now it is still possible to note the effects and legacy Attica left behind. A mean goal within the Prison Rights Movement was heightened public knowledge of prison conditions. And, unlike other riots, Attica prisoners demanded that the media cover their protest. Because of this, the public gained a rare look inside prison walls and thus acquired a better understanding of what inmates faced. After Attica, the movement as a whole gained a new type of visibility; which, as we know now, was long lasting.

Forty-five Years of Riot

Although the Prisoners’ Rights Movement and Attica made great strides, much of the criminal justice system did not change. And what did change wasn’t always for the better. Immediately after the riot, Commissioner Oswald refused all of the demands in the manifesto and for the most part Attica’s conditions remained unchanged. Overcrowding persisted, inadequate medical care continued and prisoners were still left to arguably inhumane conditions. Fast-forward to today and many of the same issues from 1971 still exist. March of last year William C. Holman Correctional Facility inmates in Alabama rioted against allegedly inhumane living conditions. And, as in Attica, physical pain and mental abuse were central causes in their protest. A 2014 report stated, “Attica is in dire need of a regime change… because the conditions here are no different now than they were in 1971.” The Attica Prison Riot remains a fixture in history because of its impact both then and now. But looking into what these inmates fought for suggests perhaps this protest is much more than a moment past. Instead the Attica legacy is one continuously lived out by inmates and a riot for justice that must, if need be, continue on for another 45 years.

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