The Lingering Injustice of Attica
By HEATHER ANN THOMPSON
FORTY years ago today, more than 1,000 inmates at Attica Correctional Facility began a major civil and human rights protest — an uprising that is barely mentioned in textbooks but nevertheless was one of the most important rebellions in American history.
A forbidding institution that opened in 1931, Attica, roughly midway between
The guards were white men from small towns in upstate
Over five days, Americans sat glued to their televisions as this uprising unfolded. They watched in surprise as inmates elected representatives from each cellblock to negotiate on their behalf. They watched in disbelief as these same inmates protected the guards and civilian employees they had taken hostage.
They also saw the inmates request the presence of official “observers” to ensure productive and peaceful interactions with the state. These eventually included the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker; the radical lawyer William M. Kunstler; politicians like Arthur O. Eve, John R. Dunne and Herman Badillo; and ministers as well as activists.
As the rebellion wore on, and the lawn around
Several observers begged the governor to come to
On the morning of Sept. 13, 1971, he gave the green light for helicopters to rise suddenly over
Incredibly, state officials claimed that the inmates, not the troopers, had killed the hostages. Meanwhile, scores of inmates who had survived the assault were tortured. Enraged troopers, and not a few correctional officers, forced these men, many of whom had been shot multiple times, to crawl naked across shattered glass and to run a gantlet as fists, gun butts and nightsticks rained down on their bodies. Investigators from the state police, the very entity that had led the assault, were then asked to determine what had gone wrong — all but guaranteeing that only inmates, not troopers, would face charges. Public opinion toward the inmates, once sympathetic, gradually turned against them.
The hostages were also treated miserably. The state offered families of dead hostages small checks, which they cashed to tide them over in this difficult time, but it did not tell them that taking this money meant forgoing their right to sue the state for sizable damages.
Much of the nation, however, never heard this history. Had it not been for the legal fight waged by inmates to hold the state accountable, and the testimony provided later by surviving hostages and their families, there might have been no official record of these brutal acts.
In 1997, the inmates were awarded damages for the many violations of their civil rights and, though the state fought that judgment, in 2000 it had to pay out a settlement of $8 million. In 2005, the state reached a settlement with the guards and other workers for $12 million. The vast majority of the inmates and guards got far less than they deserved.
Despite having to pay damages, 40 years later, the State of
We have all paid a very high price for the state’s lies and half-truths and its refusal to investigate and prosecute its own. The portrayal of prisoners as incorrigible animals contributed to a distrust of prisoners; the erosion of hard-won prison reforms; and the modern era of mass incarceration. Not coincidentally, it was Rockefeller who, in 1973, signed the law establishing mandatory prison terms for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs, which became a model for similar legislation elsewhere.
Heather Ann Thompson, an associate professor of history at Temple University, is writing a book on the
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs