Forty years ago today, a four-day uprising at the Attica state prison ended in a bloodshed when "tear gas was dropped into the yard and New York State Police troopers opened fire non-stop for two minutes into the smoke." Ten hostages were killed and 29 inmates were killed in what was the prisoners' quest for better living conditions, such as "Apply the New York State minimum wage law to all state institutions. STOP SLAVE LABOR," "When an inmate reaches conditional release date, give him a full release without parole," "Educate all correctional officers to the needs of the inmates, i.e., understanding rather than punishment," and "Give us a healthy diet, stop feeding us so much pork, and give us some fresh fruit daily."
On September 9, 1971, thirteen prisoners rebelled and took over the prison, holding dozens of guards hostage. After the state police intervened, then Governor Nelson Rockefeller bragged about the operation to President Nixon. From the NY Times:
At the time, it appeared that State Police sharpshooters who had fired on the prison yard had killed mostly inmates, not some of the prison guards who had been held hostage inside. And because the inmates were black and the guards white, the governor and the president seemed to suggest, the American public would undoubtedly endorse the state’s assault on Attica.
“They did a fabulous job,” Rockefeller told Nixon. “It really was a beautiful operation.”
In a follow-up conversation the next day, as grimmer details began to emerge about the assault, in which 29 inmates and 10 hostages were killed, a more subdued Rockefeller acknowledged that his initial boast about the sharpshooters’ precision was premature.
“Well you know, this is one of those things,” Rockefeller said. “You can’t have sharpshooters picking off the prisoners when the hostages are there with them, at a distance with tear gas, without maybe having a few accidents.”
“Well, you saved a lot of guards,” Nixon replied. “That was worth it.”
The Times adds that a state commission ultimately "found that the riot was driven by black inmates unwilling to bow to the 'petty humiliations and racism that characterize prison life' and that guards inflicted brutal reprisals after the prison was retaken."
Civil rights attorney William Kunstler, who famously defended a prisoner accused of killing a guard during the uprising, was the prisoners' negotiator. Here's a clip from the documentary, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, directed by his daughters Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler.
Sarah Kunstler said of the anniversary, "The prison population of the United States has grown exponentially in the 40 years since the Attica rebellion and massacre. At the time of Attica the American prison population was around 300,000—today it is over 2.4 million and growing."
More about the Attica uprising at Attica for All of Us.