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Have We Learned Nothing About Prisons?

by Keith Edgerton on Sep 9, 1997

Keith Edgerton

Today is the 26th anniversary of the horrific conclusion of the worst prison uprising in American history. And we’ve learned little from it.

In the 1970s, the mention of Attica, the New York state prison where the uprising occurred, would have drawn immediate recognition. During a bank hostage standoff in the 1975 movie, “Dog Day Afternoon,” frustrated robber Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) incites a crowd of Brooklyn spectators against the police outside by shouting “Attica, Attica, Attica, Attica.” The mere word packed a powerful punch for the angry mob and for those who saw the movie.

Now that’s all forgotten.

One of America’s most notorious penitentiaries, Attica was a powder keg of the cumulative frustrations of the 1960s. After a four-day inmate takeover by prison inmates beginning on September 9, 1971, an army of New York State police and National Guardsmen stormed the prison and killed 39 prisoners and hostages. The nation was transfixed and horrified.

Unfortunately, if Sonny shouted “Attica” today he would probably get blank stares. It’s a safe bet that most Americans born after 1970 never have heard the word. It’s equally clear that little has happened since 1971 to alter prison conditions. In fact, conditions in them have grown worse.

Last year we had more than one million individuals incarcerated in jails and prison systems nationally. We have the second highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, trailing only Russia. The prison industry has become big business: billions of dollars are being spent on new prisons, many of them run for profit by private business concerns. Those billions are not being spent on education, reducing the deficit, cleaning up the environment, or feeding the hungry. A disproportionate number of those behind bars are from minority populations. Brutality and racism — the causes of Attica’s troubles — still thrive in the nation’s prisons.

One can say that because the very conditions that caused the Attica uprising still exist.

In 1971 the predominately nonwhite inmate population in the Attica Correctional Institution faced conditions that were abominable. Corruption was rampant and staff brutality the norm. After promises of reforms were not implemented, a small group of prisoners led an uprising by taking 43 hostages.

Some of the prisoners’ demands were outrageous–“speedy and safe transportation out of confinement to a Non-Imperialistic country.” Some were for simple justice and reform, such as the creation of “realistic, effective rehabilitation programs for all inmates according to their offense and personal needs.”

The sticking point became general amnesty for the instigators, something that Nelson Rockefeller, the state’s Republican governor, would not consider. Negotiations reached an impasse when Rockefeller insisted that “law and order,” the fashionable right-wing buzz-words, prevail.

So on September 13, with gas, helicopters, and machine guns blazing, police and National Guardsmen stormed the prison, indiscriminately killing both hostages and inmates.  It took all of four minutes. 

In the aftermath of the disaster, prison administrations across the country took steps to ensure that there would be no more Atticas. They did not try to alter the conditions that caused the tragedy. Those conditions exist today.

Physical reprisals and crackdowns on inmate reading material became common. Television replaced reading as the preferred source of news and ideas. And inmate educational programs were sharply reduced as a result of public clamor over “inmate coddling.”

Our prisons today are governed in response to Attica.  They are different inside, but no better. Overcrowded dead-ends, their inmates fester.

History may not repeat itself, but the way we’re handling our prison populations, the future surely holds more Atticas.


Keith Edgerton is an assistant professor of history at Montana State University in Billings and a writer for the History News Service.