On 9/11 we remember another tragedy in America- The largest prison revolt in American history and the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.
The Attica prison riot in New York. I was a young graduate student working part time with a group of paraprofessional therapists from Reality House in NYC when Attica blew. The prisons in NY were all located in rural NY and for many of these towns it was the only industry for miles. The inmates were almost entirely Africa American and Hispanics; some suggest 85% of the remainder were drug-selling hippies. No white supremacist with swastika tattoos back then - the Black Panthers, Mau Mau's, Five Percenters, Young Lords, Nation of Islam, Muslim Nation and other groups were exceedingly powerful.
There was considerable disagreement as to what caused the rivolt:
- One was overcrowding. A facility designed to hold 1,200 inmates contained 2,225 inmates.
- While the inmates were 85% Black and Hispanic, all the 383 guards were white with miniature American flags on their batons called "n-word sticks."
- Many guards were open racists and viewed the inmates as animals.
- All these maximum security prisons were located in rural NYand much of the all white towns relied on these prisons for their economic existence.
- All the inmates were poor inner-city men.
- George Jackson, a black radical activist, was killed weeks before by a prison guard in San Quentin Prison.
While all the above contributed to the revolt, I believe that the fuse that ignited the revolt resulted from prison transfers. Every so-called Correctional Facility is a fragile ecological system. Consider this question: How do 100 or so guards on duty keep peace and control over 2,000 angry people whose lives are ruined and who live in despair? They don't. It's not the prison guards who control the inmates; it's the inmate leaders who do and the guards need these leaders to maintain control. These inmate leaders run their section of the prison like the neighborhood mafia. They gain power by having access to goods and information that are either in short supply or illegal. They may have potatoes to make vodka, they may work in the warden's office and they know when searches for contraband will take place; they may have access to young boys, pornography, drugs, cigarettes, etc. These inmate leaders have a hierarchical system of lieutenants and they have an investment in making certain that the system does not break down. If a revolt or a fight occurs, they will stamp it out; they want a conservative system and the guards look the other way.
So what happened at Attica? Commissioner Oswald decided to transfer all the black militants from others prisons to Attica. These prisoners considered themselves political prisoners. They were oppressed, lived in poverty and were victims of a long history of racism and discrimination. They saw their prison as a forced labor camp. They saw themselves as being forced to work for Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the grandchild of the king of the robber barons, in prison sweat shops, making license plates, mattresses, and shoes for $1.40 a day.
On 9/11/71 about half the prison population took 33 guards hostage and began negotiations for better living conditions.
The next day prisoners announced there could be a peaceful resolution to the conflict if Rockefeller would meet with them. He refused and on 9/13 he sent the National Guard, state troopers and deputized prison guards armed with automatic weapons, shot guns and tear gas to re-take the prison by armed force. They fired tear gas and then opened fire nonstop into the smoke and after 15 minutes when the smoke cleared 39 people lay dead including 10 guards. Hundreds laid wounded on the 55-acre grounds.
It was a murderous assault that never should have happened.
I worked for two years after the revolt flying upstate to these rural prisons twice a week with the job of determining who should be released from prison. These were inmates sentenced under the infamous Rockefeller Narcotics Law to maximum security prison for selling as little as two ounces of weed.
I found all of the inmates I interviewed "Ready to be Released."