Lessons from Attica: From Prisoner Rebellion to Mass Incarceration and Back

Heather Ann

The Power structure led by Nelson Rockefeller, wanted to show to the world and certainly to the rebellious forces within his own country – with the advice and consent and affirmation of Richard Nixon – what the price is for rebelling. And so, they created this assault force, which was there to murder everybody.1
-- Elizabeth M. Fink, Attica attorney

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, by 2011 the United States was confining “more than 2.4 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.”2 These high levels of imprisonment were not distributed evenly across racial and class boundaries. Overwhelmingly it was the nation’s poorest populations – and disproportionately its black and brown poor – who found themselves locked away in some sort of penal facility or accountable to some sort of state or federal justice agency.

The severe race and class disproportionality of US incarceration rates was not confined to states in the South – a region notorious for its history of racism and abuses of the poor. To be sure, in states such as Alabama the situation was grim, with 3.5 African Americans locked up for every one white in 2011. It was even worse in Louisiana, where that ratio was 4.7 to 1. Way up north in Pennsylvania, however, the disparity was 9.2:1, in Wisconsin it was 10.6:1, and in Connecticut it was a staggering 12:1.3 As important, this ugly moment in the history of the American criminal justice system did not merely impact poor adults of color to a newly brutal extent. By 2011 61,423 children were in custody in one of America’s myriad juvenile as well as adult penal institutions; more than 2,500 of these kids had been given a life sentence without any possibility of parole; and again these were disproportionately poor kids of color. Also, again, the North was actually worse than the South when it came to particularly targeting black and brown folks in the justice system. The majority of the children in the country who have been sentenced to life without parole come from five states – California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Pennsylvania4 -- only one of which is in the South.

Needless to say, the social and economic costs of this country’s internationally unparalleled and historically unprecedented embrace of such a massive and punitive carceral state have been staggering. Not only has the act of imprisoning so many Americans cost billions of dollars of public funds that previously were slated for necessities such as public education, but the fallout from such high rates of incarceration has also been devastating to the nation’s already most-fragile communities.5 As study after study and countless personal testimonies have made clear, mass incarceration has eroded families and destroyed entire neighborhoods, it has orphaned several generations of children, it has rendered many thousands of people permanently unemployable, and it has even eroded our very democracy.6

Although we know a great deal about how devastating the turn to mass incarceration has been, however, we still know remarkably little about how we got here. Indeed, because we have failed to examine the past with sufficient care and attention, not only are the origins of this current crisis unclear, but we have little knowledge from the past that might help us to build a different and more just future. There are two very specific things about our current state of affairs that we have failed to understand. First, we have not fully appreciated the extent to which those who were imprisoned in much earlier decades of the 20th century knew very well that this ugly present that we find ourselves in was not only possible, but probable if the incarcerated themselves did not work hard to stave it off. Indeed it was this insight that drove one of the most important movements of the 1960s and 1970s: the Prisoner Rights Movement. Second, we have failed to see the extent to which state officials—from the local to the federal level—were also well aware of what was at stake in the 1960s and 1970s. They knew that if they were to have any hope of achieving full control over the US criminal justice system, they would have to crush that same prisoner rights movement. Indeed, in order for those in power to create the enormous, profit-generating, and socially devastating penal system that they ultimately did, they first had to commit themselves to stopping any resistance to such a system in its tracks. This they did, in horrific fashion, at Attica. And yet, history also shows us that the state did not in fact succeed in completely squelching the humanity of the incarcerated, and did not in fact manage to shut down all resistance. And thus, today, state desires to have full control in this nation’s criminal justice system remain vulnerable. A dawning new prisoner rights movement remains the state’s Achilles Heel.


When African Americans set out en masse to secure greater equality and to demand better treatment in America’s cities and workplaces in the 1960s and 70s, they also began mobilizing in the nation’s prisons. Since its very inception the US criminal justice system had disproportionately targeted African Americans. Indeed, because whites actively changed laws in order to facilitate policing black spaces in the South after the Civil War, and because they so determinedly propagated ideas about innate black criminality in the North as well, the criminal justice system has forever been a place to reinforce white authority.7 So penal spaces were sites of rebellion not just in the post-WW II period – when the Black Freedom Struggle most gained momentum – but throughout American history.8

Prisons became key locations of black resistance in no small part because the worst of the nation’s racism and racial abuses played out within them, and also because during the Civil Rights Era so many African Americans ended up in prison simply for being rebels on the outside.9 Throughout the 1960s, for example, Parchman Farm in Mississippi was filled with Freedom Fighters10 as were several prisons in the North such as Green Haven in upstate New York that held Martin Sostre. Sostre had owned a radical black bookstore in Buffalo, New York that came under particular scrutiny by the police after the city erupted in rebellion in July of 1967. Sostre’s bookstore had been a vital place for discussion and political exchange for Buffalo’s black community, and police suspected that the plan to begin an urban insurrection had perhaps been hatched in that space. Sostre’s outspoken anti-oppression ideas quickly netted him particular personal scrutiny which eventually translated into criminal charges for everything from the possession of narcotics to arson and rioting. These charges, in turn, landed him a decades- long sentence in a notorious New York state prison.11 Similar to Sostre, whose severe sentence stemmed, ultimately, from a jury finding him guilty of possessing $15 worth of heroin, another man, George Jackson, found himself incarcerated in California for stealing $71 from his friend’s father’s gas station. On the advice of his court-appointed attorney Jackson agreed to plead guilty, but was stunned then to see that the judge had handed him an indeterminate sentence of one year to life for this petty theft. If he behaved, kept his head down, and played by the rules he would get out in one year, the judge explained. If he did not, however, he would spend his life behind bars. Given the conditions he faced within the prison, Jackson found it impossible to keep quiet, though, and, as a result, as the decade of the 1960s came to a close and the 1970s began, he was still serving time. The more years he spent locked behind bars for that $71, the more bitter Jackson grew, and the more militant and outspoken he became about all that was wrong with America’s prisons.

Black women were as disproportionately targeted by the police as were black men, and thus they too crowded America’s many penal facilities in this period. In the South women such as Joan Little found themselves locked up and facing the death penalty—in her case after having killed the white man who had raped her. The fact that her resistance to rape had resulted in this charge not only galvanized her to speak out against the American justice system from behind prison walls, but also helped to spark international activism on her behalf.12 In the North it was black women such as Assata Olugbala Shakur who got locked up—in her case as well after being accused of killing a white man. It mattered that Shakur was a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) as well as the Black Liberation Army (BLA) because these two organizations were under severe scrutiny by numerous branches of law enforcement which routinely tried to discredit them. Between 1973 and 1977 as law enforcement tried to infiltrate and dismantle the BPP and BLA, state prosecutors tried equally hard to imprison Shakur on several occasions. Time and again they were thwarted. In three trials, for example, a jury acquitted her, and in three other trials the charges against here were dismissed. Ultimately, however, the state succeeded in convicting her of killing a white state trooper and, like Little, she was moved without ceremony into a maximum state penal facility.13

Whether one was locked up behind bars because one was an activist, or whether one’s experience with blatant racism and inhumane treatment behind bars was itself politicizing, by the mid-1960s black and brown prisoners had turned America’s penal facilities into important civil rights battlegrounds. In key ways the battles within prison were not much different from those playing out on city streets. For example, whether one was locked up in a state prison or confined to a poor urban neighborhood, men and women of color routinely found it necessary to stand up to the brutal treatment regularly meted out by law enforcement as well as to demand better living conditions. However, the prisoner rights movement was about something else as well. It understood that what was at stake inside America’s prisons was even greater than what was at stake on the outside in America’s poorest and most marginalized neighborhoods. To be sure, the state desired to have complete and utter control over the overwhelmingly black and brown population confined to both of these spaces. But in prisons, where those confined had little claim on citizenship let alone a legal promise of civil rights, such state desires could actually be realized if they were not, at every step of the way, put in check.

Indeed, the incarcerated knew first hand that if prison officials had their way, there would be no limitations on how long they could lock men and women in solitary confinement. What is more, the state would have complete control over what men and women on the inside could read and would be allowed to write. It even would be able to exploit the labor of the incarcerated at will and without restriction. In short, unchecked, state officials would run prisons like plantations. Those locked up would be forced to work for no pay, they would not be allowed to read or write, and, should they resist, they would be punished—either by being locked away from all other human contact indefinitely or by being physically abused.

This was already too close to the prison experience that black and brown people found themselves facing in the 1960s and 70s. One could either submit to this prison reality, knowing that things could grow far worse, or one could resist. Thousands of men and women in prisons across the nation chose the latter option. They understood better than most the truth of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s observation that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”14 They recognized what was really at stake should the state be able to do whatever it liked with the incarcerated. The fallout everywhere could be catastrophic. And, so, over the course of the 1960s and 70s, these many imprisoned men and women resisted mightily and, in doing so, succeeded in placing some serious checks on official desires for complete social and economic control of the US criminal justice system.

Martin Sostre, for example, successfully challenged the New York State prison officials’ desire to punish prisoners indefinitely in solitary confinement when they didn’t like their actions or their political views. In one particularly powerful case he filed, Sostre v. Rockefeller, the Court agreed without equivocation that “that punitive segregation under the conditions to which plaintiff was subjected at Green Haven” was not only “physically harsh, [and] destructive of morale,” but was also “dehumanizing in the sense that it is needlessly degrading, and dangerous to the maintenance of sanity when continued for more than a short period of time which should certainly not exceed 15 days.”15 In short, Sostre had managed “a resounding defeat for the establishment who will now find it exceedingly difficult to torture with impunity the thousands of captive black (and white) political prisoners illegally held in their concentration camps.”16

And while Martin Sostre was fighting the state’s desire to punish prisoners with impunity, George Jackson was actively resisting state desires to control prisoners’ knowledge and thoughts by cutting them off from reading and writing. Jackson regularly fought prison administrators’ attempts to limit his access to books and to prevent him from sharing his own writings with the outside world. Ultimately, he succeeded in spending much of his decade-long confinement poring through texts ranging from St. Augustine and Ricardo, to Marx, Engels and Mao while also teaching himself Spanish and trying to learn Swahili, Arabic and Chinese as well.17 What is more, he succeeded in reaching the nation with his caustic written critiques of the racial oppression he found in California’s prison system. Indeed, to the dismay of prison officials, Jackson managed to get a collection of his letters, musings, and correspondence published in a powerful volume entitled Soledad Brother: The Prison Writings of George Jackson. This book not only became a bestseller in the free world, but also found its way into prison cells across the country.18

As important as individual activists like Sostre and Jackson were, however, what really kept America’s prison officials from realizing ultimate control over black and brown bodies were the myriad collective actions—the powerful rebellions against state exploitation and abuse that were waged by groups of prisoners throughout the 1960s and 70s. It was a collective of hundreds of black prisoners, for example, that resisted state efforts to force them to labor for a pittance in a major Virginia State Penitentiary in 1968.19 Over 300 men locked in California’s Folsom Prison also stood together one Wednesday in November of 1970 to protest not only being forced to labor for slave wages, but also the myriad ways in which racial discrimination dominated at this facility.19 Calling Folsom prison “one of the most classic institutions of authoritarian inhumanity,” these men demanded, among other things, “Man’s right to knowledge and the free use thereof,” as well as their right to “scale wages” and their right to “form or join labor unions.”21 Meanwhile North Carolina’s prisoners had also banded together to demand union rights, forming a powerful labor organization called the North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, and fought state officials all the way to the US Supreme Court to have it recognized. Prisoners at New York’s Auburn Prison had also launched a major work stoppage and protest in the fall of 1970 and they too continued their fight for years thereafter.22

Arguably, in no other collective struggle did America’s prisoners so audaciously and effectively challenge state prerogatives to manage prisons without regard to humanity than at the Attica State Correctional Facility in upstate New York in the fall of 1971. The Attica uprising of 1971 made clear just how much black and brown prisoners of this period recognized the draconian potential of the US prison system, and just how serious they were about keeping that potential at bay. And, without question, the state knew exactly what was at stake in their struggle.

The Attica rebellion began officially on September 9, 1971. That morning, when skinny 21-year-old L.D. Barkley walked determinedly to the negotiating table at the corner of Attica’s riot-torn D Yard, and looked out at the ragtag assemblage of men before him, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Barkley had come to this maximum state facility in bucolic upstate New York only a few months earlier on a parole violation – he had been caught driving without a license. Now he stood in front of over 1200 anxious men who had taken control of this prison mere hours earlier.

Attica’s inmates had exploded that morning because of numerous long held and intensely felt grievances. These ranged from substandard medical care to inadequate food, clothing, and heat. They were reacting as well to serious censorship in the prison and to their inability to get a decent wage in the metal shop. They also were tired of the abusive and racially discriminatory treatment they endured from not a few of Attica’s guards. For a long time such frustrations merely bubbled under the surface. They would be voiced in the prison’s yards, and they led not a few men to join the Black Panther Party or other groups such as the Five Percenters. It led still others to write various critiques of the way in which Attica operated—such as Sam Melville’s mini-treatise “Anatomy of the Laundry,” on just how exploited were the Attica inmates who washed the prison clothes. Copies of his short exposé could soon be found in many an Attica cell.23 Had Attica’s inmates known that this prison netted the state of New York almost $1.2 million in sales in 1969-70, they would have been even more outraged.24

They knew enough about the ways in which they were exploited, however, to erupt in an all-out strike of 450 men on July 29, 1970. At first it was only B Block inmates who refused to work in response to their delegates being keeplocked, but then, when the warden chose to lock down that entire cell block, the next day “almost all the inmates in the metal shop refused to work and the commissioner, Paul McGinnis, was called.” Thanks to the activism of Attica’s metal shop workers, those who had been making a mere 6¢ were soon making 25¢, and the maximum allowable hourly rate rose from 29¢ to an unheard of $1 per day.25

As crucial as this victory was – showing what collective action could accomplish – there were so many problems at Attica still to address. Notably, Attica’s almost 2400 inmates tried time and again first to get their concerns addressed through “proper” and official channels. They knew the risks of rebellion and hoped against hope to effect change without having to put themselves in even greater jeopardy. They had written to at least one state senator and, by August of 1971, had sent numerous letters to the Department of Corrections including to the Commissioner himself.

One most important letter was penned by a five-man committee calling itself the Attica Liberation Front. “Dear Sir,” the letter to the new Commissioner of Corrections, Russell Oswald, began, “Enclosed is a copy of our manifesto of demands. We find it is necessary to forward you said copy in order for you to be aware of our needs and the need for prison re-form. We hope that your department don't cause us any hardships in the future because we are informing you of prison conditions. We are doing this in a democratic manner; and we do hope that you will aid us.”26 Lest it not be taken seriously, however, the Attica Liberation Faction (Donald Noble, Peter Butler, Frank Lott, Carle Jones-El and Herbert Blyden) also included a very clear manifesto of specific changes they hoped to see implemented. “We the inmates of Attica Prison have come to recognize,” it began, “that because of our posture as prisoners and branded characters as alleged criminals, the administration and prison employees no longer consider or respect us as human beings but rather as domesticated animals selected to do their bidding and slave labor and furnished as a personal whipping dog for their sadistic psychopathic hate.” It then followed with a list of twenty-eight demands for reform that covered everything from the disappointments of parole, to religious freedom for Muslims in the prison, to the poor working and living conditions that all of the inmates suffered.27 The five men writing as the Attica Liberation Front closed by reminding Oswald, however, that they were still trying hard to play by the rules. “These demands are being presented to you. There is no strike of any kind to protest these demands. We are trying to do this in a democratic fashion.”28

And, still, no concrete changes were witnessed in the dark and gloomy corridors of this archaic structure of confinement. Thus, it didn’t take long for frustration to bubble over. Significantly it was a clash between a guard and a black inmate on the evening of September 8, 1971 that led to the all-out explosion of inmate anger the next morning. Unsurprisingly, the first few hours of the Attica riot were sheer chaos, but then a core group of Attica’s inmates, some who had long been politically active, others who were becoming politicized by the hour, saw how dangerous the situation was fast becoming and decided to try to establish some order. Only after these men insisted that all of the inmates congregate in D Yard, and after they arranged protection for the 42 guard hostages that those inmates had grabbed in the initial takeover, did it occur to any of them that a perfect opportunity had presented itself to bring the outside world’s attention to what life behind bars was really like.

Notably, the more orderly things became in Attica’s D yard, the more alarmed state officials became. Not only had inmates gotten themselves organized enough to ask for television cameras in the yard so that their concerns could be broadcast around the country and the world, but they had also requested the presence of several high profile and politically controversial “observers” to keep an eye on the negotiations should the state agree to talk this out. They called for everyone from Huey Newton and Minister Farrakhan to the sympathetic judge in the Sostre case, Constance B. Motley, to come help them negotiate their demands with the state. Those particular individuals did not come, but plenty of Left and liberal luminaries did—everyone from Bobby Seale’s famous lawyer William Kunstler to Representative Herman Badillo to Young Lords Party leader Jose Parti to columnist Tom Wicker of the New York Times.

Having such media attention trained on them did in fact lead state officials to days of serious negotiations which, at least initially, appeared would address the inmates’ grievances. But soon it became clear that the state would not budge on the one demand that inmates and observers alike saw as most crucial: amnesty from physical, administrative, and legal reprisals. The state’s recalcitrance on this issue deeply alarmed Attica’s many observers in particular because they could see that the grass around Attica was becoming jammed with State troopers, county sheriffs and off-duty prison guards—all of whom had been passing out weapons for days and were demanding to get inside to end the rebellion their way—with force.

In a desperate move, observer Tom Wicker, and three others, decided to appeal to the governor himself, Nelson Rockefeller, and ask him to come to Attica so that, in lieu of amnesty, the inmates would feel reassured that they at least would not be harmed if they surrendered. As importantly, the observers hoped, the governor would see that a bloodbath was certain if he decided to retake the prison by force. But Rockefeller had no intention of coming to Attica and he refused every plea to change his mind. The now desperate Attica observers then decided to appeal directly to the American people, hoping that they could persuade Rockefeller to change his mind. Pulling no punches they told the American public:

The committee of observers in Attica prison is now convinced a massacre of prisoners and guards may take place in this institution. For the sake of common humanity, we call on every person who hears these words to implore the Governor of this state to come to Attica to consult with the observer committee, so we can spend time and not lives in an attempt to resolve the issues before us. Send the following telegram immediately to Governor Nelson Rockefeller in New York City: “Please go to Attica to meet with the observers committee.29

But no amount of public pressure could move Rockefeller. In fact, he had already given his troopers word that they were to take Attica by force the very next day.

On the morning of September 13, inmates were huddling in their makeshift tents just working to keep warm and dry as a chilly rain fell over D Yard. Then, at about 9:30 a.m., and seemingly out of nowhere, came the sounds of helicopters revving up nearby. Needless to say, sheer panic set in. And as the sounds from the choppers grew louder, Attica’s inmates made one last-ditch effort to dissuade the State from retaking the prison—they decided to take hostages up onto the four catwalks that overlooked the prisons four exercise yards, and to surround each with a group of inmates who would very obviously be wielding homemade knives or spears. The hope of inmates and guards alike was that troopers would retreat once they realized that coming in would mean killing their own. As Big Black explained, “I felt and we, if I can say that, felt that that would be the safest place for the hostages to be, because we felt, me and we, that if they were going to come in, there must be some kind of strategy.”30 Attica leader Richard X Clark agreed. “At no time was there any plan to execute the hostages”; the goal was to remind state officials that they too had every incentive to send the observers back in and to keep on negotiating.31

But the nearly 600 New York State troopers who now had their chance to take this prison by force were undeterred. At exactly 9:46 on September 13, state officials first sent a helicopter in over Attica which engulfed D Yard with a thick cloud of CN and CS tear gas—actually a white substance that clung to everyone’s eyes and noses making them nauseous and unable to see clearly. And it was while inmates and hostages alike were stumbling around blindly and retching as they tripped over themselves and each other that the troopers began their raid on the yard armed with state-issue guns, their own personal weapons, and a seemingly endless supply of ammunition, including bullets outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

For ten solid minutes the sounds of gunfire deafened all who were anywhere near the prison. And, incredibly, as over 2,000 rounds of ammunition continued to rain down on the men diving for safety in the enclosure of D yard, a disembodied voice on a megaphone in one of the helicopters hovering over D yard repeatedly intoned, “surrender with your hands up and you won’t be harmed…surrender with your hands up and you won’t be harmed….”32 Worse, it soon became clear to everyone in the yard that troopers were literally shooting men at whim—even those who had clearly given up and were begging for mercy. To the shock of prisoners like José Quiñones, they weren’t even sparing the hostages. He himself watched in horror “a State trooper walk up to a civilian, the metal shop foreman, and shoot him fatally in the head.”33

Less than a quarter of an hour after the assault had begun, the prison was bathed in blood. 39 people lay dead or dying, including 10 hostages, and hundreds of others were severely wounded. But rather than accept this as the disaster that it clearly was, the State of New York, quite remarkably, reported that something altogether different had happened. Officials stood outside of Attica after the assault, looked straight into the TV cameras, and stated that the hostages had each died because inmates had slit their throats.34 Worse, they said, one guard had actually been castrated and the inmate who did it shoved that guard’s testicles into his own mouth. Indeed, corroborated one official, he had seen this with his very own eyes.35

Upon hearing this alleged “eyewitness” account, even the previously sympathetic observers were shocked and horrified. And so was the President of the United States himself after Governor Rockefeller called Nixon personally on the afternoon of the 13th and reiterated the same gory tale. Most tragically, even though this “official” version of what had gone so wrong at Attica was eventually retracted, it is what made the front page of hundreds of newspapers across the country—from the esteemed New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to the Washington Post, to countless small-town papers.36 And in that moment, state officials had won a crucial victory over prisoners by suggesting to the nation that any sympathy it might have for the plight of America’s incarcerated was seriously misplaced.

State officials did not rest merely with defeating the Attica rebellion with gunfire and then blaming the resulting death and destruction on the prisoners. As soon as they had full control of the facility, they also allowed state troopers and correction officers to torture the now naked and wounded men there for days, again sending a crystal clear message that the state, not the incarcerated, would set policy in the US criminal justice system. Attica inmate Frank “Big Black” Smith learned this first-hand and most brutally. Big Black was the Attica Brother that prison officials had claimed castrated an Attica hostage. And responding to this claim, on the day that they retook the prison, troopers forced Black to lie on his back, naked, for hours while they burned him with cigarettes, played Russian roulette at his head, spit on him and threatened that if the football they had placed under his chin dropped, they would kill him. As he remembered his ordeal “They beat me in my testicles and they burned me with cigarettes and they dropped hot shells on me. And they put a football up under my throat and they kept telling me that if it would drop, they was going to kill me. And I really felt, you know, after seeing so many people shot for no apparent reason, that they really were going to do this.”37

Indeed, as it turns out, the shooting spree on the 13th of September was only the beginning of the nightmare for the surrendering inmates. For hours and days after state order had been fully restored, troopers and COs forced men with multiple gunshot wounds and shattered limbs to crawl naked towards the door of cell block A, then forced them to run barefoot through the shards of jagged glass that littered the entrance and, once they managed to make it through that narrow enclosure, then made them run a gauntlet in which trooper clubs, fists, and gun butts rained down on their bodies.38 Thereafter these severely injured and profusely bleeding inmates were thrown into empty 5X8 concrete cells in groups of three and four whereupon troopers threatened these naked and injured men with their lives every time they tried to move or cry out. Despite the fact that doctors and med students kept arriving at Attica offering to help the inmates, officials kept turning them away and inmates lay in these cells for days without any medical care whatsoever for their countless bullet wounds, deep lacerations and broken bones.39

Ultimately scores of men were permanently disabled from their trooper-inflicted injuries. As one horrified National Guardsman tried to report to the Justice Department to no avail, he had witnessed a correction officer dumping a wounded inmate from his stretcher onto the floor whereupon the guard then told this man “to move and go down the walkway from Times Square towards C Block,” but he was too hurt to move which infuriated this same guard. As the “prisoner just [lay] there on the floor,” O’Day saw the guard take out “a Phillips Head Screwdriver” and then, while “this prisoner was lying on his back with his knees up in the air and the guard reached down in the genital area of the rectum and poked this man four or five times and told him to get moving.”40 The cost of rebellion at Attica had been high because the stakes were staggeringly high. Politicians from Rockefeller in New York’s state house to Nixon and Agnew in the White House were acutely aware that their right to treat the incarcerated in any way they saw fit was under attack and, as important, they saw the rebellion at Attica as the tip of the iceberg when it came to blacks demanding a say in their own lives everywhere. As Rockefeller saw it, “the highly-organized, revolutionary tactics of militants” threatened not only prisons but society itself.41 Agnew agreed. Not only had Rockefeller taken “necessary steps to end the confrontation at Attica,” but he did so because their rebellion “represents not simply an assault on human sensibility, but an insult to reason.”42 And for Nixon, it was crucial that no one “temporize on this thing.” Clearly, he told his aides, “we have got to be tough on this, you know what this is, the Angela Davis crowd involved…the Negroes…”43

And, of course, neither state nor federal officials had at all temporized when it came to the prisoner rights rebellion sweeping the nation. Not only had they allowed a massacre at Attica, but even before Attica, guards had shot George Jackson to death while locking other black and brown prison militants – from David Ruiz in Texas to Dhoruba al-Mujahid bin Wahad in New York to Mumia Abu Jamal in Pennsylvania – into solitary confinement to prevent them from speaking out and organizing on the inside.44

Indeed so clear were state officials on their need to contain the prisoner rights movement, that in the wake of Attica they tried to construct so-called “maxi maxi” prisons specifically to thwart any militant challenge to their authority. According to media reports, Oswald proposed isolating up to 500 of [the] state’s 16,000 inmates to forestall rebellions” in so-called maxi-maxi facilities. In short, he argued, “I fear that with our present body of knowledge, there are certain individuals we are unable to work with in the open institution who need segregation and intensive help.”45 As Fred Ferretti of the New York Times explained further, Oswald was recommending this so that “the ‘more militant people, the aggressive people’ … would be concentrated ‘so they won’t spread their poison’ to other inmates.” Other Department of Correctional Services staff in New York State such as Harold Butler, agreed with Oswald and indeed were quite confident that “in the atmosphere that existed in the wake of Attica,… ‘we will be able to do it.’”46 Ultimately such “maxi maxi” facilities were not constructed. But in the wake of the Attica rebellion, and the repressive take-down of the prisoner rights movement writ large, state governments began constructing something very close -- “supermax” prisons which served the same purpose of isolating any prisoner who might pose a threat to the way administrators wanted to run the prisons.

Equally important, in the wake of Attica, businesses also worked with prison officials to eliminate several decades’ worth of hard-won legal regulations on the use of prison labor. In fact, within two decades after troopers had so viciously put down that rebellion, not only were private companies able once again to utilize inmates to make their goods for a pittance—indeed accessing prisoner labor as they had not been able to do legally since the era of convict leasing – but, because they then also passed something called the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, they soon made it almost impossible for any man or woman who felt exploited in prison to fight back legally.47 And, of course, in the wake of Attica scores of state as well as federal laws were made newly punitive and sentences for breaking these laws were made longer and longer. In fact, it was only two years after he had ordered the assault on Attica that New York’s governor, Nelson Rockefeller, called for the nation’s first set of harsh drug laws and drug sentences—which then would be duplicated around the country, leading directly to record rates of imprisonment.48

In short, the prerequisite for mass incarceration in America was a literal and psychological crushing of this country’s prisoner rights movement. The black and brown prisoners who filled the nation’s penal facilities in the 1960s and 70s had known well that only their vigilance, their determined activism, would keep the prisons from being run like slave plantations. They knew how close prisons already were to operating just like those antebellum institutions, and therefore how important it was to resist an even more repressive penal future. The state and federal officials who ran the prisons also knew this. Knowing what the stakes were at Attica, they shut it down brutally and bloodily.

And, yet, recent events make clear that their victory at Attica was not total. Even the world’s most punitive and massive carceral state is neither secure nor permanent. What most state officials failed to understand then, and still fail to recognize, is that prisoners are human beings and that, as such, they will always resist being treated like animals. To be sure, state efforts to break the back of prisoner rights activism were, in the short run, highly effective. By placing the intellectual leaders of the movement, as well as its most committed activists, such as Martin Sostre or Mumia Abu Jamal in solitary, by killing others like George Jackson or L.D. Barkley, and by outlawing prison labor unions as well as clamping down on what the incarcerated could read and write behind prison walls, they weakened the movement mightily. But recently, the movement has begun to rebuild. From Georgia where prisoners launched a massive strike to protest the exploitation they suffered, to California’s Pelican Bay where men in solitary began a massive hunger strike, to Ohio where men on death row have launched yet another hunger strike, to Pennsylvania where folks and on the inside and outside worked together to get Mumia Abu Jamal off death row, state officials are once again being put in check.

Still, there are powerful lessons that rebellions such as that of Attica can teach us. When people come together they can, indeed, bring an entire criminal justice system to its knees and demand to be treated as human beings. But state repression also knows few boundaries and has little regard for what it might cost to regain its control. And, thus, as the battle to humanize today’s carceral system begins, the rebellions that erupt will need to be witnessed not only by local observers, but by an international and documentary presence. Instead of troopers alone surrounding a given facility as a protest unfolds within it, thousands of people—ordinary people and particularly the parents and children of those inside—must surround it. And, next time, all citizens, not just the activists and rebels amongst us, must be made aware of the real costs of the state having Carte Blanche to make criminal justice policy. Everyone must understand that what happens in our nation’s prisons happens, ultimately, to all of us. In short, this time, it can’t be a prisoners’ rebellion alone—it must be a people’s rebellion.


1. Interview with Elizabeth M. Fink. “The Attica Rebellion: A 29-minute radio documentary about the origins of the modern anti-prison movement.” The Freedom Archives. http://www.freedomarchives.org/audio_samples/Mp3_files/GJ.Attica/Attica%20Final.mp3

2. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie. A Prison Policy Initiative briefing. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie.html

3. For data on state data on racial disparities in incarceration rates, see The Sentencing Project: Interactive Map. http://www.sentencingproject.org/map/map.cfm

4. “Facts about Life Without Parole for Children.” Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. http://fairsentencingofyouth.org/what-is-jlwop/

5. “Education vs prison costs.” CNN Money. http://www.money.cnn.com/infographic/economy/education-vs-prison-costs/; National Research Council. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2014. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=18613

6. My own writings on this subject include: “Undoing our Distorted Democracy: Weighing in on American Justice Policy in the 2016 Election and Beyond,” blog post, National Council for Crime and Delinquency; “How Prisons Have Changed the Balance of Power in America” (The Atlantic. October 7, 2013.); “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline and Transformation in Postwar American History” (Journal of American History, December 2010); “Downsizing the Carceral State: The Policy Implications of Prisoner Guard Unions” (Criminology and Public Policy, August 2011); “Rethinking Working Class Struggle through the Lens of the Carceral State: Toward a Labor History of Inmates and Guards” (Labor: Working Class Studies of the Americas, Fall 2011); “Criminalizing Kids: The Overlooked Reason for Failing Schools” (Dissent, October 2011); and “The Prison Industrial Complex: A Growth Industry in a Shrinking Economy” (New Labor Forum, Fall 2012)

7. There is an enormous literature on this but for some particularly powerful treatments see Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Doubleday, 2008); Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2010); Kali Gross, Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910 (Duke University Press, 2006); Cheryl Hicks, Talk With You Like a Woman: Urban Reform, Criminal Justice, and African American Women in New York, 1890-1935 (University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Robert Perkinson, Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (Metropolitan Books, 2010); Mary Ellen Curtin, Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama, 1865-1900 (University Press of Virginia, 2000); Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: the Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South. (Verso, 1996); Karin Shapiro, A New South Rebellion: The Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields, 1871-1896. (University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Talitha LaFlouria, Convict Women and Their Quest for Humanity: Examining Patterns of Race, Class, and Gender in Georgia's Convict Lease and Chain Gang Systems, 1865-1917” (PhD Dissertation, Howard University, 2009); Sarah Haley, “Like I Was a Man”: Chain Gangs, Gender, and the Domestic Carceral Sphere in Jim Crow Georgia” Signs. Vol. 39, No. 1, Women, Gender, and Prison: National and Global Perspectives (Autumn 2013), pp. 53-77.

8. Heather Ann Thompson, “Black Activism Behind Bars: Toward a Rewriting of the African American Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century United States.” Forthcoming.

9. For a comprehensive history of the American prisoner rights movement—why it came of age when it did and what it accomplished, see Daniel Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (UNC Press, 2014). Also see: Robert Chase, “Civil Rights on the Cellblock: Race, Reform, and Violence in Texas Prisons and the Nation, 1945-1990” (PhD Dissertation, Maryland, 2009)

10. David Oshinsky, “Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. (Free Press Paperbacks, 1997)

11. Warren L. Schaich and Diane S. Hope. “The Prison Letters of Martin Sostre: Documents of Resistance.” Journal of Black Studies Vol. 7, No. 3 (Mar., 1977), pp. 281-300

12. Reston, James Jr. The Innocence of Joan Little: A Southern Mystery. New York Times Books. 1977; Fred Harwell, A True Deliverance: The Joan Little Case (1980); Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance. Also see forthcoming book on the 1970s Free Joan Little Movement by historian Christina Greene.

13. Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography (2001).

14. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead or Prison Life in Siberia. Project Gutenburg. Introduction by Julius Bramont, Edited by Ernest Rhys. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37536/37536-h/37536-h.htm

15. Decision of Justice Constance B. Motley. (T. 300, 317-320). 312 F.Supp. 863 (1970). Martin Sostre, Plaintiff, v. Nelson A. Rockefeller, Paul D. McGinnis, Vincent Mancusi and Harold W. Follette, Defendants. US District Court, S.D. New York. May 14, 1970.

16. As quoted in Gerald J. Gross, “The Case of Martin Sostre,” March 23, 1972. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1972/mar/23/the-case-of-martin-sostre/

17. Tad Szulc, “George Jackson Radicalizes the Brothers in Soledad and San Quentin.” New York Times, August 1, 1971.

18. George Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Writings of George Jackson. (New York: Coward, McCann), 1970

19. “Virginia Prison Strike Ends,” New York Times, July 19, 1968. For more on the labor history of inmates see: Heather Thompson, “Rethinking Working Class Struggle through the Lens of the Carceral State” (note 6) and Susan Blankenship. “Revisiting the Democratic Possibilities of Prisoners’ Labor Unions.” Studies in Law, Politics and Society: Crime & Punishment, Perspectives from the Humanities, (December 2005)

20. “Folsom Prison Strike Worsens.” Lodi-News Sentinel. November 5, 1970

21. The Folsom Prisoners Manifesto of Demands and Anti-Repression Platform. November 3, 1970. Freedom hollender Archives. http://www.freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/DOC510_scans/Folsom_Manifesto/ 510.folsom.manifesto.11.3.1970.pdf

22. Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Union. 433 U.S. 119 (1977). Series 1: North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union (1972-1977).In the T. J. Reddy Papers, 1967-1985. Manuscript Collection,79. Special Collections. Atkins Library. University of North Carolina at Charlotte. For more on the Auburn uprising see: “The Hidden Society: Annual Report-Senate Committee on Crime and Correction.” 1970, 12. Also, for an eyewitness account by a participant in this Auburn riot see: Interview with Mariano Dalou Gonzalez by Michael D. Ryan, in the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, Special Collections, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 7-8.

23. Samuel Melville, “Anatomy of the Laundry.” Archives. Attica State Correctional Facility. Also see Samuel Melville, Letters, 151-152 and testimony of Larry Boone, p. 147. McKay Transcript.

24. Testimony of David Addison. April 17 1972.  p. 93. McKay transcript.

25. Testimony of David Addison. Peak PERIOD 94. McKay transcript. . In fact McGinnis would eventually go even further than this. By 1971 the Department of Corrections had implemented a uniform pay schedule in all correctional facilities and a 5 percent cap on commissary profits.

26. Letter from Attica Liberation Faction to Russell Oswald. As read by David Addison, McKay Transcript, 95.

27. As members of the McKay Commission later noted about this first attempt by Attica’s prisoners to effect reform by writing to Oswald, “The inmates made no protest of their innocence; they did not demand their release; and they did not attack the larger society as responsible for their previous criminality…. Their demands centered largely on improvement of the conditions of their imprisonment, not the end of that imprisonment itself. Among other things, they demanded legal representation before the Parole Board; improvement in medical care, visiting facilities, food and sanitary conditions in the mess hall, personal hygiene, clothing, recreational facilities, and working conditions in the shops; a uniform set of rules in all prisons; adjustment of commissary prices; and an end to the segregation of prisoners from the mainline population because of their political beliefs." See Attica The official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica (Praeger Publishers), 1972. Photographic section copyright 1972 Bantam Books, Inc.

28. Letter from: Attica Liberation Faction to Russell Oswald. As read by David Addison, McKay Transcript, 97.

29. As quoted in Tom Wicker, A Time to Die, 208.

30. Akil Al-Jundi et. al. vs. Estate of Nelson A. Rockefeller, Russell Oswald, John Monahan, Vincent Mancusi and Karl Pfeil. Jury Trial. 10-22-91, testimony of Frank Big Black Smith, in Deferred Joint Appendix Volume I of VI, Herbert X Blyden, et al. Plaintiffs; Big Black, Also Known As Frank Smith, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. John S. Keller, as Administrator of the Estate of John Monahan; Kurt G. Oswald, as Administrator of the Estate of Russell G. Oswald; Vincent Mancusi, Defendants, Karl Pfeil, Defendant-Appellant; on Appeal from the US District Court for the Western District of New York, 24.

31. Clark, The Brothers Attica, 121.

32. As quoted in “File Memo” from Case: People v. Richey (discovery). In the personal collection of Elizabeth Fink. Confidential Memo. “Events at Attica: September 8-13, 1971,” 50.

33. Appendix 1. Category One Claimants. Akil Al-Jundi, on Behalf of Himself and all others Similarly Situated; V. Vincent Mancusi et al., Defendants. 75-Cv-132. Decision and Order US District Court, Western District of New York, 88

34. Memo. To: The Governor. From: Harry W. Albright, Jr and Eliot N. Vestner, Jr. Subject: The Throat Slitting Story and Atrocity Stories. Appendix 2 to “Confidential Memo.”

35. Arthur Eve’s notes on the day-by-day events of the riot. In the Tom Wicker Papers, #5102, p. 5. This assertion was made not only at the time but also, later, in testimony before the Pepper Commission. See: Court of Claims. Claim no. 54684. Elizabeth M. Hardie, individually and as administrator of Estate of Elmer G. Hardie, claimant, against The State of New York, defendant. Also: Claim no 54555. Lynda Jones, individually and as administrator of Estate of Herbert W. Jones, Jr. against The State of New York, defendant. Testimony of Oswald, June 5, 1979, 122.

36. “Death Penalty Possible in Slaying of Hostages,” New York Times, September 14, 1971; Stephen Isaacs, “Attica Prison Retaken, 37 Slain,” Washington Post, September 14, 1971.

37. Transcript: A Nation of Law? (1968-1971)

38. “National Guard and Medical Workers: Report on Interviews,” 9. John Stainthorp, Attica Brothers Legal Defense. 1.8.75. Personal Archives of Elizabeth Fink.

39. “Black Doctors Ask to See Attica Medical Facilities,” New York Times, September 15, 1971.

40. See US Department of Justice, FBI Memo. Buffalo, NY, March 24, 1972. Re Unknown victims, Attica, Summary punishment, Civil rights, FOIPA no. 1014547-001. September 28, 2008.

41. Draft of speech to be given in Albany, NY on Friday September 24, 1971. 300p at the New York State Bar Association. Dedication of New Center. NAR. Research Group 15. Series 33: Speeches. Box 85 Folder 3471

42. Spiro T. Agnew, “The ‘Root Causes’ of Attica,” New York Times, September 17, 1971.

43. Nixon Tape: rmn_e571a. The Miller Center for Public Affairs. University of Virginia. http://web2.millercenter.org/rmn/audiovisual/whrecordings/

44. See Joy James. Imprisoned Intellectuals: America's Political Prisoners Write on Life, Liberation, and Rebellion (2003); Mumia Abu-Jamal and John Edgar Wideman, Live from Death Row (1996); Mumia Abu-Jamal and Marc Lamont Hill, The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America (2011).

45. Michael T. Kaufman, “Oswald Seeking Facility to House Hostile Convicts,” New York Times, September 29, 1971.

46. Fred Ferretti, “Facility for Militants Urged,” New York Times. September 23, 1971.

47. The Prison litigation Reform Act (PLRA). http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/1997e

48. Julilly Kohler-Haussman, "The Attila the Hun law": New York's Rockefeller drug laws and the making of a punitive state,” Journal of Social History 44(1) (2010): 71-95.