ATTICA. When Attica State Prison in New York opened in the 1930s, it promised improvements over the old "silent system," which had previously been used at New York prisons like Sing Sing. In time, however, Attica became a Spartan facility in which conditions were unusually harsh and discipline exceptionally brutal. In 1971, inmates captured control of a major part of the institution, took hostages, and issued a list of proposals for reform. The prisoners demanded better food and medical care, safeguards for religious practices, and higher wages for prison jobs. They also sought amnesty for any criminal offenses they had committed incident to the disturbance. The inmates released several guards, one of whom had been severely injured and later died of his wounds. The commissioner of corrections, Russell G. Oswald, agreed to consider the prisoners' demands and appointed a special committee of state employees, politicians, reporters, and others to facilitate negotiations. In succeeding days, the tense situation at Attica captured headlines across the nation. At one point, inmates exhibited hostages with knives to their throats. The commissioner responded favorably to some demands, but refused to guarantee amnesty.
On the morning of the fifth day, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the prison retaken by force. State authorities later explained that they believed "revolutionaries" had planned the initial action and that hostages were being executed or castrated. Helicopters dropped canisters of tear gas. Hundreds of guards and riot police stormed the facility, shooting indiscriminately. They wounded more than eighty inmates and killed twenty-nine. In the chaos, they also inadvertently shot ten hostages to death. When the institution was secure, the officers forced inmates to strip naked and lie on their faces in the mud. They beat or shot inmates who raised their heads. Some officers tormented inmates with racial epithets and threats of castration. Other officers formed a gauntlet and clubbed naked prisoners as they ran through it. National television carried images of the spectacle.
State authorities charged numerous prisoners with criminal offenses allegedly committed during the five-day episode. Yet most of the charges were ultimately abandoned. In 1976, Governor Hugh Carey issued a blanket pardon for everyone and ordered the records concerning
Attica sealed for fifty years. A congressional committee condemned the violent nature of the assault and the savage treatment of inmates that followed. A special New York commission concluded that the inmates had not planned the uprising, but had acted spontaneously out of hostility born of poor living conditions. More than a thousand inmates sued state officials over the abuse they had suffered. After years of litigation, the prisoners won an $8 million settlement.
The events at Attica left deep psychological scars. For some, Attica demonstrated the many failures of American penal policy, especially the disastrous consequences of confining large numbers of prisoners under severe discipline in primitive, crowded quarters.
New York State Special Commission on Attica. Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica. New York: Bantam, 1972.
Oswald, Russell G. Attica: My Story. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.
Wicker, Tom. A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt. 2d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
See also Prisons and Prison Reform ; Riots .
At·tic / ˈatik/ • adj. of or relating to Athens or Attica, or the dialect of Greek spoken there in ancient times.• n. the dialect of Greek used by the ancient Athenians, the chief literary form of classical Greek.
Attica ★★★ 1980
Tense depiction of the infamous Attica prison takeover in 1971 and the subsequent bloodbath as state troops were called in. Although edited due to the searing commentary by Nelson Rockefeller, it remains powerful and thought-provoking. Adapted from the Tom Wicker bestseller “A Time to Die.” 97m/C VHS . George Grizzard, Charles Durning, Anthony Zerbe, Roger E. Mosley; D: Marvin J. Chomsky. TV
Attic salt refined, delicate, poignant wit; recorded from the mid 18th century, the phrase is a translation of Latin sal Atticum.
at·tic / ˈatik/ • n. a space or room just below the roof of a building.