50 years after Attica, lawmakers say grim anniversary is a reminder of needed reforms

Photo by Jayu, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the bloodiest prison uprising in U.S. history.

The Attica prison uprising began on the morning of September 9, 1971, and when it ended four days later, 43 people were dead, including 33 inmates and 10 correctional officers and civilian employees. 

Coinciding with the anniversary, the Correctional Association of New York put together virtual panels as part of an exhibit called “Open Wounds,” in remembrance of the event. The panels featured conversations with Aaron Noble, a senior historian and curator at the New York State Museum, and Tyrell Muhammad, a senior advocate for the Correctional Association of New York and a former inmate at the Attica prison. 

Fifty years later, the Attica Prison riot still serves as a reminder of the reforms still needed today, say prison rights advocates and their allies in state government.

“In the last 50 years there hasn’t really been an opportunity or closure for any of the victims and their families… even after 50 years this is still a raw and emotional event… the state has never apologized for the event,” Noble said.

The Attica Correctional Facility located in Wyoming County, is a maximum security prison constructed in the 1930s to house some of the state’s most dangerous criminals. 

According to the Correctional Association’s virtual exhibit on the revolt, the men incarcerated at Attica attempted to publicize legitimate concerns and complaints about overcrowding, poor medical treatment, and rampant racism, which evolved into the grievance system in place today. The prisoners tried many times to reform their living conditions and other forms of mistreatment, but they were ignored.

The revolt ,which began on Sept. 9, 1971, resulted from the prisoners’ unheard demands for better living conditions and political rights. On this date, the prisoners overpowered the guards, rampaging through the prison, burning down the chapel and using makeshift weapons to maintain control. 

Although authorities regained control of the prison using tear gas and submachine guns, the inmates still had control of part of their outdoor space called D Yard. This is where the prisoners held 39 hostages, some guards, some prison staff, and demanded that their voices be heard in exchange for the hostages. The riot lasted four days. 

Eventually, a team of State Police, Park Police, sheriff’s deputies and correctional officers stormed in when the inmates’ request for amnesty for everyone involved in holding the hostages in D Yard could not be met. They killed 29 inmates and 10 of the hostages by shooting aimlessly into the fog of tear gas. The police tried to claim that it was the prisoners who had killed the hostages during the riot, but after closer examination, it was clear the police were responsible: The hostages died from gunshot wounds, which no inmates had access to. 

The attempted cover-up brought even more attention to the issue of prison reform. The inmates involved in the riot were severely beaten by police, and some were shot more than once even after they had surrendered during the riot. 

“It seems that the Department of Corrections won’t be held responsible, but it’s like it’s the culture of New York state corrections, it’s very frustrating… we’re supposed to be in the age of transparency and openness and change, ” Muhammad said.

Even after the uprising, prisoners were tortured and not provided with adequate medical treatment for their injuries. 

One week ago, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation that restricts incarcerating New Yorkers for “technical” and non-criminal parole violations which gives recently released prisoners a shot at rehabilitation. It also allows for speedier hearings.

Hochul announced last week that the Board of Parole under her direction will have 191 people released from Rikers Island in New York City, as they have served their sentences under the dictates of the new Less Is More Act. 

Hochul notes how parole is meant to help people return to life with re-entry programs in place, but all too often, “parole becomes a ticket back into jail because of very technical violations,” Hochul said.

“What it does is it lands people back in a place they finally paid their debt to. New York state incarcerated more people for parole violations than anywhere in the country. It’s going to be fixed today,” said Hochul. “We want to have people rejoin society.” 

Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn, has introduced a bill (S.316-A) that would allow some grand jury proceedings related to the actions of police and correctional officers to be unsealed on the grounds of “enduring historical importance,” making it easier for people to request records “that may help us learn truths in our history.”

His bill is sponsored in the Assembly (A.6542-a) by Crystal Peoples Stokes, D-Buffalo.

“Fifty years ago, incarcerated people at the Attica Correctional Facility took control of the prison in an effort to bring attention to demands for humane and fair conditions,” Myrie said. “Over the course of the next four days, 29 prisoners and 10 prison employees were killed and nearly 90 others were wounded.

“Subsequently, a grand jury reviewed evidence and handed down 42 indictments — every one of them against incarcerated people. That none of the corrections officers or other law enforcement involved in the Attica violence would be criminally charged is both shocking and sadly unsurprising,” the senator said. “This episode was yet another instance of police being allowed to evade accountability for violence, especially against people of color.

“This grim tradition continues today, in cases such as those of Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and Daniel Prude.”

The virtual exhibit was put together to address the 50th anniversary of the riot, but it also serves as a reminder that there is a long way to go when it comes to prison reform and prisoners’ rights.

“The system is designed to incarcerate people that come primarily from communities of color and inner cities…” said Noble, making them susceptible to these cycles of abuse. 

“People really need to know that a real injustice has happened there… no one has taken accountability… we have to document and investigate these horrendous conditions in depth” said Muhammad. “It’s really heart wrenching to know we’re still fighting this old fight… no one wants to be honest about what happened 50 years ago.”