16: Attica Inmates
Complete text of "The 31 Demands Raised by the Attica Brothers of September 9, 1971".
List of demands given by rioting inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility.
Featured in The Ghosts of Attica documentary (2001), broadcast on Court TV; available online at http://www.courttv.com/onair/shows/mugshots/indepth/attica/31_demands.html
On September 9, 1971, a minor disciplinary action against two inmates for fighting at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York erupted into a full-scale riot. More than 1,200 inmates were involved, and around forty prison guards were taken as hostages. The riot at Attica came after a summer of tension and unrest at the prison. The prison was overcrowded—there were more than 2,250 prisoners in a facility intended for 1,600—and racial tensions persisted. Approximately 54 percent of the inmates were African American, and nearly 10 percent were Puerto Rican, but all the guards, except for one Puerto Rican, were white.
"25. Institute a 30-day maximum for segregation arising out of any one offense. Every effort should be geared toward restoring the individual to regular housing as soon as possible, consistent with safety regulations."
As inmates took control of the prison, they organized a negotiating team to compile demands to be presented to prison administrators. Both prisoners and administrators agreed to allow several public figures to assist in the negotiations. They included representatives from such political activist groups as the Black Panther Party, a militant group founded in 1966 to protect inner city residents from police brutality; the Black Muslims, members of the Nation of Islam, a religious group led by Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975) who advocated black separatism from white America; and the Young Lords, an organization started in 1969 to represent the Puerto Rican community. Others included Dr. Benjamin Spock (1903–1998) and attorney William Kunstler (1919–1995), who was director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) during the time of the riot. The representatives were briefed on the inmates' demands and the hostage situation.
Talks began between inmate representatives and prison authorities concerning "The 31 Demands Raised by the Attica Brothers of September 9, 1971." Twenty-eight of the items were approved, but authorities refused the inmates' most pressing demand: inmates wanted complete amnesty, or freedom from prosecution, for the participants in the riot. Meanwhile, the Attica riot dominated the news and helped encourage greater interest in prison conditions and the rights of prisoners. Debates began over whether the conditions at Attica violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution concerning cruel and unusual punishment. The Eighth Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights (1791), the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution (1789). The Eighth Amendment reads: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."
Things to remember while reading "The 31 Demands Raised by the Attica Brothers of September 9, 1971":
- The prison population at Attica included a large number of African American and Latino inmates. As protests for civil rights, equality, and an end to the Vietnam War (1954–75) heated up during the 1960s, some political prisoners, including members of the Black Panther Party and supporters of the Nation of Islam, were inmates at Attica. Many African American prisoners were enraged by the killings of Fred Hampton, a Black Panther leader shot by Chicago police in December 1969, and George Jackson, a man who fought injustice in the prison system but was killed in a California prison less than three weeks before the Attica riot.
- Earlier in 1971, prisoners at Attica had organized and demanded reforms in prison conditions. In July, inmates sent a list of their complaints to prison authorities. Tensions rose as no response came of their efforts to improve the facility.
"The 31 Demands Raised by the Attica Brothers of September 9, 1971"
- Provide adequate food, water, and shelter for all inmates.
- Grant complete administrative amnesty to all persons associated with this matter.
- Inmates shall be permitted to return to their cells or other suitable accommodations or shelter under their own power. The observer committee shall monitor the implementation of this operation.
- Recommend the application of the New York State Minimum Wage Law standards to all work done by inmates. Every effort will be made to make the records of payments available to inmates.
- Establish by October 1 a permanent ombudsman service for the facility, staffed by appropriate persons from the neighboring communities.
- Allow all New York State prisoners to be politically active without intimidation or reprisal [punishment].
- All true religious freedom.
- End all censorship of newspapers, magazines, and other publications from publishers unless it is determined by qualified authority, which includes the ombudsman, that the literature in question presents a clear and present danger to the safety and security of the institution. Institution [illegible] only of letters.
- Allow all inmates, at their own expense, to communicate with anyone they please.
- Institute realistic and effective rehabilitation programs for inmates according to their offense and personal needs.
- Modernize the inmate education system, including the establishment of a Latin [Spanish language] library.
- Provide an effective narcotics treatment program for all prisoners requesting such treatment.
- Provide or allow adequate legal assistance to all inmates requesting it, or permit them to use inmate legal assistance of their choice in any proceeding whatsoever. In all such proceedings, inmates shall be entitled to appropriate due process of law.
- Reduce cell time, increase recreation time, and provide better recreation facilities and equipment, hopefully by November 1, 1971.
- Provide a healthy diet, reduce the number of pork dishes, increase fresh fruit daily.
- Provide adequate medical treatment for every inmate. Engage either a Spanish-speaking doctor or interpreters who will accompany Spanish-speaking inmates to medical interviews.
- Establish an inmate grievance [complaint] commission, comprised of one elected inmate from each company, which is authorized to speak to the administration concerning grievances and develop other procedures for inmate participation in the operation and decision-making processes of the institution.
- Investigate the alleged expropriation [claiming and taking] of inmate funds and the use of profits from the metal and other shops.
- Institute a program for the recruitment and employment of a significant number of Black and Spanish officers.
- The State Commission of Correctional Service will recommend that the penal [punishing] law be changed to cease administrative resentencing of inmates returned for parole violation.
- Recommend that Menechino hearings be held promptly and fairly. (This concerns the right of prisoners to be represented legally on parole-violation charges.)
- Recommend necessary legislation and more adequate funds to expand work-release programs.
- End approved lists for correspondents and visitors.
- Remove visitation screens as soon as possible.
- Institute a 30-day maximum for segregation [separation from others] arising out of any one offense. Every effort should be geared toward restoring the individual to regular housing as soon as possible, consistent with safety regulations.
- Paroled inmates shall not be charged with parole violations for moving traffic violations or driving without a license unconnected with any other crimes.
- Permit access to outside dentists and doctors at the inmates' own expense within the Institution where possible and consistent with scheduling problems, medical diagnosis, and health needs.
- It is expressly understood that members of the observer committee will be permitted into the institution on a reasonable basis to determine whether all of the above provisions are being effectively carried out. If questions of adequacy are raised, the matter will be brought to the attention of the Commission of Correctional Services for clearance.
- Removal of Vincent Mancusi as Superintendent of Attica State Prison.
- We want complete amnesty meaning freedom for all and from all physical, mental, and legal reprisals.
- We want now, speedy and safe transportation out of confinement, to a non-imperialistic country.
What happened next …
Negotiations focused on amnesty and prison conditions. The prison administration agreed to twenty-eight of the inmates' requests, including an end to the censorship of reading materials, a right to be active politically, a more nutritious diet, an expansion of library programs, more recreational opportunities, and religious freedom. New York State Corrections Commissioner Russell C. Oswald refused to consider amnesty for the protesting prisoners. Since one of the prison guards injured during the takeover died during the negotiations, the inmates could be charged with murder. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (1908–1979) refused to go to the prison or speak with the inmates. After four days of negotiations, he authorized a raid on the prison.
On September 13, a helicopter dropped tear gas into the prison yard. Tear gas is an irritating substance that is used to break up large crowds. The facility was then stormed by state police, sheriffs' deputies, and correctional officers, while other officers fired into the prison yard from roof tops and other high points. The furious attack lasted a little more than ten minutes. Twenty-nine inmates and ten hostages were killed in the attack. The hostage deaths were originally blamed on inmates, but investigations later made it clear that the hostages had been killed by gunshots from the police and prison guards as they retook the prison yard. Investigations also
Frank "Big Black" Smith Remembers
During the Attica riot, inmate Frank "Big Black" Smith (1933–2004) was the prisoners' head of security. He was beaten and tortured after the raid by police and prison guards. Released from prison in 1973, Smith became a key figure in legal proceedings against the state of New York. The following excerpt is from an interview with Smith in The Ghosts of Attica (2001) documentary.
Why did Attica happen? …
Attica was about wants and needs. Attica was a lot about class and a lot about race…. [C]orrections called the white inmates to get ice for their Kool-Aid or their drinks, then they'd call the blacks. It wasn't just, "Alright, ice time!" Corrections had that kind of separation. The football teams had separation. The jobs, there was separation. Basically, the white inmates had the white-collar jobs: working in the package room, around the warden or assistant warden. The labor part of prison was basically for minority people in 1971 … Basically, 80 to 90 percent of the people in Attica State Prison were, and are, coming out of the New York City area. You put that urban attitude and class of people with corrections officers and their upstate rural attitudes, class, and behavior, and you automatically create a conflict.
During Attica's four-day takeover, you were named chief of security. At the start, you were [non-political]. What changed you?
…. You need to address the human behavior thing, how you react and interact as a human being. You're not going to accomplish that if the corrections officers don't have any of that themselves, if all they do is look down on you with no humane concern and call you some form of an animal. So you can't have all the programs for the inmates and not have any kind of training for the keeper.
Society is so aggravated with crime and the punishment of crime, they don't see the revolving door. A person goes in, and he or she is going to come out. Something in between that has to be put in place. Rehabilitation and reform have to become a force, because prison doesn't know what to do. All they know is how to turn the key and lock the door. You have to do meaningful things while you're there: job training, rehabilitation, heavy drug treatment, broad educational programs. The average person who goes there doesn't have a high school diploma. It should be mandatory to get a high school diploma. If someone goes there and does drugs or some kind of addiction, it should be mandatory that they get into a program. It should be mandatory that when they come out that they continue the program…. There are no educational programs anymore, no life skill programs, ortrainingforjobs…. They figure it's better to have more prisons than more educational programs…. A lot of [prisons] have double bunks, and they have young kids in state prison with adults. That's a big problem.
Why should people care about Attica today?
Attica is not just an isolated prison. Attica is attitudes and behavior, crime and punishment, education. It's about communication, it's about alleviating racism as much as we can, it's about the criminal justice system. It's about how the police can do what they want to when they want to do it…. Attica is all of us.
revealed that several inmates had been beaten and tortured by police and prison guards following the raid. One of the tortured inmates was Frank "Big Black" Smith, head of security for the Attica inmates.
An official investigation by the district attorney—the chief law enforcement official elected in a district to represent the state—found that there had been excessive use of force on the part of the troopers in retaking the prison. By 1976 most of the inmates had been found not guilty, pardoned, or had their charges dismissed. No prison or police officials were ever brought to trial by the state.
New York State officials were criticized for the prison conditions that had contributed to the riot and for their subsequent attack on the rioters. Attica became symbolic of the dangerous conditions found in many prisons and the often harsh restrictions on the religious and political freedom of inmates. Several prison reform efforts began following the Attica riot, but in most cases they were abandoned because of budget limitations and growing prison populations, which grew by 88 percent from 1970 to 1981. Indeed, poor prison conditions and overcrowding were considered more of a problem at the end of the 1970s than they were at the time of the Attica riot. Two decades later, with more than 2 million people behind bars in the early twenty-first century, the United States had the world's largest prison population.
A lawsuit against the State of New York on behalf of prisoners abused during the retaking of the prison was finally settled in 2000, nearly twenty-nine years after the Attica riot. The State of New York agreed to a $12 million settlement, $8 million for 1,280 inmates who had been beaten, and $4 million for lawyers who had represented them during twenty-five years of legal proceedings.
Did you know …
- In 1971 Attica inmates were allowed one roll of toilet paper per man per month and one shower per week. Black Muslims were not permitted to hold religious services, and any assembly in the prison yard of more than three Muslims was punishable by solitary confinement. Pork, a meat that members of several religious groups do not eat, was part of the main dish in most noon and evening meals. The prison library did not have newspapers. Some prisoners subscribed to magazines, journals, and newspapers with their own money, but prison officials routinely screened the incoming periodicals and cut out anything having to do with prisons or prisoners' rights.
- Among the group of citizen-observers allowed by inmates and administrators into the prison during the hostage crisis was New York Times columnist Tom Wicker. He wrote: "The racial harmony that prevailed among the prisoners—it was absolutely astonishing… That prison yard was the first place I have ever seen where there was no racism." However, the New York Times newspaper incorrectly reported that during the raid on Attica, all of the hostages were brutally killed by inmates. Evidence soon showed that the hostages were killed by bullets from the more than two thousand rounds of ammunition fired during the ten- to fifteen-minute raid on Attica.
- Many new prisons were built during the 1980s and 1990s. Two-thirds of new prisons were located in rural areas, like Attica, as a way to create economic growth and jobs. The rural locations, however, are largely populated by whites. Locals take jobs in prisons that often have a majority non-white inmate population that primarily comes from urban locales. In 1995, for example, the inmate population at Attica was 80 percent black and Latino, but only 28 of a total staff of 854 were people of color.
Consider the following …
- Reread the demands of the Attica inmates. Make a list of those that seem reasonable and those that you believe need further consideration. Write an essay about the demands that seem reasonable, and present arguments about why other demands are less reasonable. Write the conclusion from the position of a prison administrator, summarizing why some demands are acceptable and others are not.
- What was the greatest concern of Attica inmates in their demands? In a two-part essay, consider whether that concern should be understood and acted on. In the second part, reconsider whether that concern should be understood and acted on knowing that the alternative is a raid on the facility that could lead to many deaths.
For More Information
Bell, Malcolm. The Turkey Shoot: Tracking the Attica Cover-Up. New York: Random House, 1985.
Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. New York: Bantam, 1990.
Wicker, Tom. A Time to Die. New York: Quadrangle, 1975.
"Attica Revisited: A Talking History Project." Talking History. http://www.talkinghistory.org/attica/ (accessed on June 17, 2006).
"Interview with Frank 'Big Black' Smith" (1991). CourtTV.com. http://www.courttv.com/onair/shows/mugshots/indepth/attica/interview.html (accessed on June 17, 2006).
"The 31 Demands Raised by the Attica Brothers of September 9, 1971." CourtTV.com. http://www.courttv.com/onair/shows/mugshots/indepth/attica/31_demands.html (accessed on June 17, 2006).
Amnesty: Freedom from prosecution.
Observer committee: A group approved by both prisoners and authorities.
Ombudsman service: A neutral party that takes complaints from inmates and transfers grievances to the proper authorities.
Due process of law: The right to a fair and public trial, an unbiased jury, and to speak in one's own defense.
Parole: The conditional release of a prisoner before the end of his or her prison term.
Non-imperialistic country: A nation that does not dominate other nations.