September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Attica Prison Riot and Massacre of 1971

6 min read
The 1971 Attica prison riot resulted in a massacre of inmates and guards and drew in the Black Panthers and President Nixon
attica prison riot

Over a four day period in September 1971, the Attica maximum security prison in New York state exploded into rioting that left 29 inmates and 10 prison officers dead. A shocking landmark in the history of American prisons sparked by brutal conditions inside and rampant racism.

Everybody knew that Attica was hell on earth. A “correctional facility” with a very high African American and Hispanic prisoner population. Ritual humiliation, a lack of basic medical care, most of the day locked up, and a crumbling edifice. This was like a penal colony from a dystopian science fiction movie.

But the United States in the 1960s and 1970s was a society in ferment. Radical liberation movements were demanding equal rights and free speech. Prisons were not immune to what was going on outside. And it made the conditions faced within these antiquated buildings seem even worse.

Gone was the deference or resignation of the past. Prisoners wanted more rights. The prison authorities knew they’d have to give ground but not by force. The guards carried on as usual with their regime of petty indignities. And it all burst into rioting during the herding of prisoners from one area to another. Several hostages were taken and the whole of America watched an incredible drama unfold.

The historian Howard Zinn described conditions at Attica:

“Prisoners spent 14 to 16 hours a day in their cells, their mail was read, their reading material restricted, their visits from families conducted through a mesh screen, their medical care disgraceful, their parole system inequitable, racism everywhere.”

Role of the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground at Attica

As they seized control of the prison, the inmates demanded figures they respected to come and negotiate on their behalf. These included Bobby Seale and Huey Newton of the Black Panthers and also Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Seale obliged and came to Attica but Farrakhan refused. This came as a severe blow to black Muslim prisoners.

Seale’s involvement was welcomed by some but loathed by conservative public opinion. He was accused of ‘racialising’ the prison riot – which in fact was racialised well before he set foot in Attica. The prison authorities tried to brush off Seale’s involvement saying he’d only been with the rebellious prisoners for four to five minutes and achieved little. Seale clearly had a different recollection of his visit became he subsequently an interview about his role.

One of the Attica prison riot leaders was Sam Melville – a member of a violent but hard-to-define terrorist organisation, The Weather Underground. He was imprisoned at Attica over his involvement between 1969 and 1971 in the bombing of eight government and commercial offices.

The influences on Melville’s political views were a weird combination of Vietnam protests and the literally insane bombing campaign of George Metesky in the 1940s and 1950s. For about 16 years, Metesky planted incendiary devices under seats in cinemas, storage lockers in train stations, and other public places. He was eventually committed to an asylum for life. Melville took to painting “George Metesky was here” on walls prior to his arrest.

Nobody doubts that Melville played a role in both organising the riot and formulating the prisoners’ demands. During the uprising, a letter from him was smuggled out that read as follows:

“Power People! We are strong, we are together. We are growing. We love you all . . . Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh. Please inform our next of kin.”

After the shoot out, Melville was reportedly still alive but then shot dead by a law enforcement officer. Ever since 1971, there have been accusations that this was an execution of an unarmed man, known to the police. It’s claimed he was not armed and surrendering.

Suppressing the Attica prison riot

New York state’s commissioner of prisons, Russell Oswald, tried to diffuse the situation on his watch by listening to the prisoners’ demands. He claimed to be not unsympathetic to requests for religious freedom and an end to censorship. Oswald appealed to state governor Nelson Rockefeller to join him in talking to the inmates and ending the riot through some kind of diplomacy. But Rockefeller was having none of it.

The governor was bent on using force. He was feeling the heat from his political masters in Washington DC. Force was the only answer now. What unfolded next could rightly be described as a battle. The prisoners had dug trenches and created barricades. They then lined up the prison guards they had taken hostage in the hope this might deter an attack.

But it was not to be. Police, troopers, sheriffs, and prison guards swarmed in. Tear gas was fired and 128 people shot as the prison came back under official control. The hostages were all killed. It was later described as the single bloodiest day in American history since the Civil War.

President Nixon unmoved by the Attica prison riot

Congress in Washington DC began to investigate the circumstances of the riot and the methods used to suppress it. President Richard Nixon made it clear he supported the measures that had been taken to retake the prison. In marked contrast, the thirteen African American members of Congress called on Nixon’s Attorney General to appoint a special federal Grand Jury to examine the storming of the prison.

New York state governor Nelson Rockefeller faced a barrage of criticism. His office had stated that hostages had been stabbed to death but then had to retract that admitting they were shot. Prisoners were said not to have had access to guns. That raised a highly concerning question over who had been killing who.

From within the Nixon administration, there were grumblings about Rockefeller. Why hadn’t he gone to the prison to intervene in some way? Why was he claiming rather implausibly that the Attica prison riot was part of a wider, nationwide conspiracy? One of Rockefeller’s open critics was the African American Republican politician Arthur Fletcher. But on balance, Nixon’s people put on a show of support for Rockefeller and law enforcement.

Little learned in the aftermath?

As the dead were carted away, opinion divided American society. Some called for much needed prison reform and a more humane treatment of inmates. Others argued that force had been the only answer in the face of organised thuggery.

A year later, and journalists were reporting that prisons were still simmering cauldrons of rage. Those working in the system had done little to address their own prejudice. At the Elmira correctional facility, also in New York, prison staff told reporters that when they tried to break up a black Muslim meeting, prisoners who had adopted the role of religiously appointed guards held them back.

Prison staff also noted that homosexual prisoners were no longer held in “special units” sharing cells with other prisoners and participating in all programs – like that was a bad thing.

DISCOVER: The Short Sharp Shock prison regime of Margaret Thatcher

The fight for compensation after the Attica prison riots

Both inmates, guards, and their families were locked into a long legal battle for compensation that spanned decades. Oswald sought to distance himself from Rockefeller. But he was implicated in the bloody retaking and especially the questionable use of prison guards in that operation. Oswald must also have been aware that once the uprising was crushed, there would be severe reprisals – as there were. He was accused of turning a blind eye. In the year 2000, a net figure of about $8m was paid out to survivors.

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