Though it happened 30 years ago, Attica crystallizes many issues concerning criminal justice, race, and governmental accountability that are still troubling our society today. It goes down in history as the bloodiest uprising in an American penal institution. The four-day takeover began on September 9, 1971, at the Attica Correctional Facility, located in Attica, a town in Upstate New York.
1,281 inmates, mostly black, gained control of the prison, took 39 hostages, and issued 31 demands, primarily concerning improvements in inhumane prison conditions. Negotiations with State Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald lasted four days, and involved 33 observers with New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller tracking the stand-off from afar.
After negotiations stalled, 500 armed troopers stormed the prison. In the end, 29 hostages and 10 guards were killed, all by police fire. Brutal retaliations and a cover-up followed. Inmates who suffered physical torture and reprisals filed a class action suit against the state. After 26 years, the case was settled with a $12 million award to inmates and their attorneys. Now the hostages are asking New York State for equal recognition.
1) Race and class were commonly acknowledged as being at the heart of tensions within Attica in 1971, but the huge disparity between African American and white felons continues today, raising questions about the color-blindness of the judicial system
2) Attica became the well-spring for the prisoners’ rights movement and the catalyst for reform in such areas as religious freedom, censorship of letters and reading materials, medical care and diet, visiting rights, educational programs, and legal services.
3) Many of these reforms have eroded in the past decade as a “lock ’em mentality” came back into favor. Numerous educational and training programs have ceased, and in 1998, Gov. Pataki vetoed funding for Prisoners’ Legal Services. Attica changed the way hostage negotiations are conducted. In training films, it serves as a textbook example of excessive and unnecessary government force. Today a “wait ’em out” strategy prevails. As a result, no one has been killed in any prison rebellion since Attica.
4) Governmental accountability for wrongdoing is still a live issue with Attica. As guard Mike Smith states in the film, “I don’t know any other employer who could murder their employees and get away with it, except the government.” The State of New York has never offered help, compensation, or an apology to the hostages or their widows. Only last year was the civil action suit settled with the inmates, who were subjected to torture and brutal retaliations after the state regained control of the prison.
The saga continues even now. As a resulting of lobbying by the Forgotten Victims of Attica, Governor Pataki formed a commission this spring to look into their request for an apology, counseling, compensation, the release of sealed records, and the right to an annual memorial service in front of the prison.
Black August originated in the California penal system in the 1970s. Many significant events in the New African Nation’s struggle for justice and liberation have occurred in August. The commemoration of Black August particularly hails the advances and sacrifices of Black Freedom Fighters.
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