1971 Twenty-five Years Ago

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On September 13 a force of nearly fifteen hundred state and local police, corrections officers, and National Guardsmen stormed New York’s Attica State Correctional Facility, forty miles east of Buffalo. Holed up inside were about a thousand inmates who had taken over Cellblock D to protest a variety of restrictive rules and policies.

In the immediate aftermath of the inmates’ takeover four days before, early developments had been encouraging. Officials agreed to most of the prisoners’ demands were dropped. Observers reported that the more than thirty guards and employees taken hostage were being treated well. But two days into the occupation, a guard who had been injured in the initial struggle died; some reports said that he had been thrown from a second-story window.

From then on, positions hardened. Inmates refused to budge from their demand for complete amnesty, which state officials would not consider. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller declined requests to come to Attica and direct negotiations in person. After another two days, the troopers moved in.

The result was horrific. By the time the prison was secured, thirty-nine men lay dead or mortally wounded—ten of them hostages, the rest inmates. The toll was the greatest in any prison riot in American history. The next day’s news brought another shocker. The dead hostages had not had their throats cut by inmates, as initially reported; instead they had died of gunshot wounds—friendly fire from their intended rescuers.

As the families of the victims buried their dead, politicians of all stripes rushed to deflect the blame onto their favorite targets. Commissions and committees beyond number rehashed the tragedy and came up with approaches that might have worked better—safely so, since the outcome could hardly have been worse. Some urged greater freedom for prisoners, while others said the uprising showed they had too much freedom already. In the quartercentury since Attica, many penological reforms have been enacted. A complete solution to the problem, however, inevitably conflicts with the ineradicable penchant of convicts to revolt and public reluctance to spend money on improving prison conditions.