49 Years Since the Attica Prison Rebellion

The Attica Prison Rebellion 49 years ago

Last month I wrote a brief post about the meaning of Black August for Black liberation (specifically led by and for incarcerated people) and its context during a worldwide pandemic in which those in jails and prisons are most at risk of contracting the deadly virus. Critical Resistance shared an article about the month’s importance for Black revolution, which partially read, “the month of August bursts at the seams with histories of Black resistance–from the Haitian Revolution to the Nat Turner Rebellion, from the Fugitive Slave Law Convention and the foundation of the Underground Railroad to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, from the March on Washington to the Watts Uprising, from the births of Marcus GarveyRussell Maroon Shoatz, and Fred Hampton to the deaths of W.E.B du Bois and George Jackson’s own younger brother Jonathan killed while attempting to free the Soledad Brothers from prison.  We celebrate Black August, commemorating the anniversary of George Jackson’s death while understanding his life as a revolutionary in a long and unbroken line of resistance and sacrifice of Black people throughout history.” One of the most important dates in the history of modern Black liberation, though not falling in August, is the Attica Prison Rebellion, which occurred 49 years ago today.

Fueled by inhumane living conditions and human rights abuses in New York’s Attica Correctional Facility, Black organizers within the prison led 1,300 of their fellow incarcerated men in a 4-day uprising that even 49 years later would still be known as the deadliest prison riot in American history. Prior to the imminent brutality, the organizers released a list of demands (which you’ll read are extremely reasonable) targeting overcrowding, racism, and violence from the staff. The list reads:

1. We Demand the constitutional rights of legal representation at the time of all parole board hearings and the protection from the procedures of the parole authorities whereby they permit no procedural safeguards such as an attorney for cross-examination of witnesses, witnesses in behalf of the parolee, at parole revocation hearings.

2. We Demand a change in medical staff and medical policy and procedure. The Attica Prison hospital is totally inadequate, understaffed, and prejudiced in the treatment of inmates. There are numerous “mistakes” made many times; improper and erroneous medication is given by untrained personnel. We also demand periodical check-ups on all prisoners and sufficient licensed practitioners 24 hours a day instead of inmates’ help that is used now.

3. We Demand adequate visiting conditions and facilities for the inmate and families of Attica prisoners. The visiting facilities at the prison are such as to preclude adequate visiting for inmates and their families.

4. We Demand an end to the segregation of prisoners from the mainline population because of their political beliefs. Some of the men in segregation units are confined there solely for political reasons and their segregation from other inmates is indefinite.

5. We Demand an end to the persecution and punishment of prisoners who practice the Constitutional Right of peaceful dissent. Prisoners at Attica and other New York prisons cannot be compelled to work as these prisons were built for the purpose of housing prisoners and there is no mention as to the prisoners being required to work on prison jobs in order to remain in the mainline population and/or be considered for release. Many prisoners believe their labor power is being exploited in order for the state to increase its economic power and to continue to expand its correctional industries (which are million-dollar complexes), yet do not develop working skills acceptable for employment in the outside society, and which do not pay the prisoner more than an average of forty cents a day. Most prisoners never make more than fifty cents a day. Prisoners who refuse to work for the outrageous scale, or who strike, are punished and segregated without the access to the privileges shared by those who work; this is class legislation, class division, and creates hostilities within the prison.

6. We Demand an end to political persecution, racial persecution, and the denial of prisoner’s rights to subscribe to political papers, books, or any other educational and current media chronicles that are forwarded through the U.S. Mail.

7. We Demand that industries be allowed to enter the institutions and employ inmates to work eight hours a day and fit into the category of workers for scale wages. The working conditions in prisons do not develop working incentives parallel to the many jobs in the outside society, and a paroled prisoner faces many contradictions of the job that add to his difficulty in adjusting. Those industries outside who desire to enter prisons should be allowed to enter for the purpose of employment placement.

8. We Demand that inmates be granted the right to join or form labor unions.

9. We Demand that inmates be granted the right to support their own families; at present, thousands of welfare recipients have to divide their checks to support their imprisoned relatives, who without outside support, cannot even buy toilet articles or food. Men working on scale wages could support themselves and families while in prison.

10. We Demand that correctional officers be prosecuted as a matter of law for any act of cruel and unusual punishment where it is not a matter of life and death.

11. We Demand that all institutions using inmate labour be made to conform with the state and federal minimum wage laws.

12. We Demand an end to the escalating practice of physical brutality being perpetrated upon the inmates of New York State prisons.

13. We Demand the appointment of three lawyers from the New York State Bar Association to full-time positions for the provision of legal assistance to inmates seeking post-conviction relief, and to act as a liaison between the administration and inmates for bringing inmates’ complaints to the attention of the administration.

14. We Demand the updating of industry working conditions to the standards provided for under New York State law.

15. We Demand the establishment of inmate worker’s insurance plan to provide compensation for work-related accidents.

16. We Demand the establishment of unionized vocational training programs comparable to that of the Federal Prison System which provides for union instructions, union pay scales, and union membership upon completion of the vocational training course.

17. We Demand annual accounting of the inmates Recreational Fund and formulation of an inmate committee to give inmates a voice as to how such funds are used.

18. We Demand that the present Parole Board appointed by the Governor be eradicated and replaced by the parole board elected by popular vote of the people. In a world where many crimes are punished by indeterminate sentences and where authority acts within secrecy and within vast discretion and given heavy weight to accusations by prison employees against inmates, inmates feel trapped unless they are willing to abandon their desire to be independent men.

19. We Demand that the state legislature create a full-time salaried board of overseers for the State Prisons. The board would be responsible for evaluating allegations made by inmates, their families, friends and lawyers against employers charged with acting inhumanely, illegally or unreasonably. The board should include people nominated by a psychological or psychiatric association, by the State Bar Association or by the Civil Liberties Union and by groups of concerned involved laymen.

20. We Demand an immediate end to the agitation of race relations by the prison administration of this State.

21. We Demand that the Dept. of Corrections furnish all prisoners with the services of ethnic counselors for the needed special services of the Brown and Black population of this prison.

22. We Demand an end to the discrimination in the judgment and quota of parole for Black and Brown people.

23. We Demand that all prisoners be present at the time their cells and property are being searched by the correctional officers of state prisons.

24. We Demand an end to the discrimination against prisoners when they appear before the Parole Board. Most prisoners are denied parole solely because of their prior records. Life sentences should not confine a man longer than 10 years as 7 years is the considered statute for a lifetime out of circulation, and if a man cannot be rehabilitated after a maximum of ten years of constructive programs, etc., then he belongs in a mental hygiene center, not a prison.

25. We Demand that better food be served to the inmates. The food is a gastronomical disaster. We also demand that drinking water be put on each table and that each inmate be allowed to take as much food as he wants and as much bread as he wants, instead of the severely limited portions and limited (4) slices of bread. Inmates wishing a pork-free diet should have one, since 85% of our diet is pork meat or pork-saturated food.

26. We Demand an end to the unsanitary conditions that exist in the mess hall: i.e., dirty trays, dirty utensils, stained drinking cups and an end to the practice of putting food on the table’s hours before eating time without any protective covering over it.

27. We Demand that there be one set of rules governing all prisons in this state instead of the present system where each warden makes rules for his institution as he sees fit.

49 years ago after sharing the list of demands with Russell Oswald, New York state’s commissioner of correctional services, and receiving no response, the uprising would unexpectedly begin. An article on the revolution 49 years ago from Teen Vogue (yes I know, weird to be sharing the site as a source) reads, “due to an antiquated security system, a group of prisoners found themselves trapped in a tunnel connecting their cells to the prison yard. Fearful and concerned about their safety because of a rumor that an inmate in another prison had been killed the night before, the Attica inmates stormed into action. It’s been reported that one prisoner attacked a guard first, and then several others joined in. They proceeded to storm down the prison hallway, broke through a defective gate that led to the central yard area, known as “Times Square,” acquired a set a master keys to the prison, and then nearly 1,300 inmates banded together to seize control of the compound while corrections officers scrambled for help, to no avail (the prison’s old phone system made it difficult to make more than one call at a time).” The incarcerated men took 39 guards and employees hostage for four days as a means toward having their voices heard. They negotiated with authorities the entire time and even believed they were coming to an agreement until one of the guards died from injuries he received from the men. After his death, the men threatened more death should the other guards/staff retaliate, and they added asylum to a nonimperialistic country and total amnesty for anything that happened during the uprising to their manifesto. On day four after negotiations between the imprisoned men and state officials stalled, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller approved a violent raid in which the National Guard dropped tear gas on all of the men, state troopers shot at anyone and everyone on the prison grounds, and guards torturing the rest of the living for the next day. In an article by The New Yorker, “the vengeful officers played Russian roulette with the inmates, and then forced them to drink the guards’ urine. One inmate, Frank (Big Black) Smith, who had been visible in the uprising, lay wounded on a table for many hours, made to clutch a football beneath his chin, and warned that if it dropped he would be killed. When he was released, he collapsed and the guards battered him repeatedly in the groin and anal region as he pleaded for mercy. Mike Smith and Don Noble, hostage and mutineer, were both shot and severely wounded in the takeover, though both survived.” Once the uprising ended 4 days and 49 years ago after its start, 10 guards and 29 incarcerated men were dead.

The Attica Prison Rebellion (here’s a whole book on it if you want to read more) 49 years ago—just as the Ware State Prison riots and many others in facilities today—exposed not only a failure of the State to address real concerns incarcerated people have about their lack of human rights, but also the abomination of incarceration as a whole. Wherever there are jails and prisons, there will be violence and pain and suffering. People all across America are and will be tortured in cages all in the name of “justice” and “safety” because locking people up makes most Americans feel like they’re protected from the “bad guys.” Instead of falling under this belief system, I believe abolition is the only way to ensure another Attica Prison Rebellion never happens again. How much better we would be off if we actually addressed the root causes of harm that sends people to jails and prisons and gave everyone the resources they need. In honor of the 49 years since the Attica men’s fight for liberation, I choose to engage with and struggle toward a world without Attica—or any—incarceration facility.

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