Attica Prison Uprising

Resource list.
Overview with links to articles, books, primers, films, and websites about the Attica Prison Uprising for the classroom.

  • Time Periods: People’s Movement: 1961 - 1974, 20th Century | Reading Levels: High School | Resource Types: Articles

Attica prisoners raise fists in support of demands made during prison uprising, Sept. 10, 1971.

From Sept. 9 to 13, 1971, prisoners took control of the Attica Correctional Facility in the most well-known prison uprising of the 20th century. They made a series of demands to prison administrators and held about 40 people as hostages. Their demands were included in a Manifesto that began:

We, the men of Attica Prison, have been committed to the New York State Department of Corrections by the people of society for the purpose of correcting what has been deemed as social errors in behaviour.

The program which we are submitted to under the façade of rehabilitation are relative to the ancient stupidity of pouring water on a drowning man, inasmuch as we are treated for our hostilities by our program administrators with their hostility as medication.

In our peaceful efforts to assemble in dissent as provided under this nation’s U.S. Constitution, we are in turn murdered, brutalized, and framed on various criminal charges because we seek the rights and privileges of all American People.

In our efforts to intellectually expand in keeping with the outside world, through all categories of news media, we are systematically restricted and punitively remanded to isolation status when we insist on our human rights to the wisdom of awareness. [See full Manifesto of Demands in Attica Prison Uprising 101: A Short Primer.]

Inmates of Attica state prison, right, negotiate with state prisons Comm. Russell Oswald, lower left, at the facility in Attica, NY, 9/10/1971.

As Howard Zinn explains in A People’s History of the United States:

The most direct effect of the George Jackson murder was the rebellion at Attica prison—a rebellion that came from long, deep grievances. . . . 54% of the inmates were black; 100% of the guards were white. 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.

After four days of fruitless negotiations, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered that the prison be retaken; 39 people were killed in a 15-minute assault by state police.

The New York State Special Commission on Attica (also known as the McKay Commission) appointed to investigate the uprising suggested: “With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”

The uprising did not come out of nowhere. In September 1971 at Attica prison, there were over 2,200 people locked up in dehumanizing conditions in a facility built to accommodate 1,600.

In 1970, there were 48,497 people in federal and state prisons in the U.S. By 2009, there were 1,613,740 individuals locked up in our federal and state prisons.

This exponential growth of the prison population means that the events of Attica are as relevant today as they were in 1971; perhaps even more so. There is a continued need to investigate the conditions of our prisons today and to advocate for an end to mass incarceration. [Adapted from the introduction to Attica Prison Uprising 101: A Short Primer.]

Key resources for learning about the Attica Prison Uprising:

Attica Prison Uprising 101: A Short Primer, produced by Project NIA. Click image for primer.

A Story of Attica (Short version of primer.) Click image for quick primer in PDF.

Eyes on the Prize features a segment on Attica with primary documents, interviews, and video.

Attica: a 1974 documentary film by Cindy Firestone.

Ghosts of Attica: a  2001 documentary by David Van Taylor and Brad Lichtenstein, narrated by Susan Sarandon.

Also, see excerpts on the Democracy Now! broadcast about Frank “Big Black” Smith, a prisoner who was tortured after the rebellion.

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