Inmates held 39 employees and guards hostage for four days

Inmates held 39 employees and guards hostage for four days
Inmates held 39 employees and guards hostage for four days
Khushbu Kumari

By September 9, 1971, inmates at New York's Attica Correctional Center took control of the prison and took the guards hostage.

Inmates took control of the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, beginning on September 9, 1971. Later that day, state police retook most of the prison, but 1,281 convicts occupied a training ground called the D Yard, where they held 39 prison guards and employees hostage for four days.

After negotiations stalled, state police and prison officials launched a disastrous raid on September 13, in which 10 hostages and 29 inmates were killed in a hail of indiscriminate gunfire, while 89 others were seriously injured.

By the summer of 1971, the state prison in Attica, New York, was on the verge of exploding. Inmates were frustrated by chronic overcrowding, letter censorship, and living conditions that limited them to one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper per month.

Some Attica inmates began to perceive themselves as political prisoners rather than convicted criminals.

On the morning of September 9, the outbreak occurred when inmates on their way to breakfast overpowered their guards and stormed a prison gallery in a spontaneous uprising. They went through a faulty gate and into a central area known as Times Square, which gave them access to all the cell blocks.

Many of the prison's 2,200 inmates joined the riot, and inmates rampaged through the facility, beating guards, acquiring makeshift weapons, and burning the prison chapel.

One guard, William Quinn, was severely beaten and thrown out of a second story window. Two days later, he died in a hospital from his injuries.

Using tear gas and machine guns, state police regained control of three of the four cell blocks from inmates without loss of life. By 10:30 a.m., inmates were in control of only the D Yard, a large open exercise field surrounded by 35-foot walls and dominated by gun towers.

39 hostages, mostly guards and a few other prison employees, were blindfolded and held in a tight circle, prisoners armed with clubs and knives closely guarding the hostages.

The leaders of the uprising drew up a list of demands , which included better living conditions, more religious freedom, an end to mail censorship, and greater telephone privileges. Meanwhile, hundreds of state troopers poured into Attica, and New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller called in the National Guard.

In tense negotiations, New York Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald agreed to honor inmates' demands for better living conditions. However, the talks stalled when the prisoners called for amnesty for everyone at the D Yard, along with safe conduct to a “non-imperialist country” for anyone who wanted it.

Observers pleaded with Governor Rockefeller to go to Attica as a show of good faith, but he refused, instead ordering the prison retaken by force.

On the rainy morning of Monday, September 13, an ultimatum was read to the inmates, asking them to surrender. They responded by putting knives to the hostages' throats. At 9:46 a.m., helicopters flew over the yard and dropped tear gas as state police and corrections officers stormed in with guns .

Police fired 3,000 rounds into the haze of tear gas, killing 29 inmates and 10 hostages and injuring 89.

An emergency medical technician recalled seeing an injured prisoner, lying on the ground, shot several times in the head by a state police officer. Another prisoner was shot seven times and then ordered to crawl on the ground. When he didn't move fast enough, an officer kicked him.

After the bloody raid, authorities said inmates had killed the slain hostages by slitting their throats. One hostage was said to have been castrated, however autopsies showed these charges to be false and all 10 hostages had been shot dead by police. The attempted cover-up increased public condemnation of the raid and prompted a congressional investigation.

The Attica uprising was the worst prison riot in US history. A total of 43 people were killed, including the 39 killed in the raid, guard William Quinn, and three inmates killed by other prisoners early in the riot.

In the week after its conclusion, the police waged brutal reprisals against the prisoners, forcing them through a series of batons and crawling naked over broken glass, among other torture. The many injured inmates received poor medical treatment, if any.

In 1974, attorneys representing the 1,281 inmates filed a $2.8 billion class action lawsuit against prison and state officials.

It took 18 years before the lawsuit went to trial, and five more years to reach the damages phase, delays that were the fault of a trial judge who opposed the case.

In January 2000, the state of New York and current and former inmates reached an $8 million settlement , which was divided unequally among about 500 inmates, depending on the severity of their suffering during the raid and the weeks that followed.

The families of the slain correctional officers forfeited their right to sue by accepting modest death benefit checks sent to them by the state. The surviving hostages also lost their right to sue by collecting their paychecks. Both groups testify that they were not informed of their legal rights by state officials and were denied compensation New York should have paid them.

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