Event at Riverside Church marks the anniversary and calls for changes in the nation's prisons.
On Sept. 13. 1971, helicopters flew over a 40-foot prison wall and dropped tear gas into the crowd before state police opened fire into the thick, smoked-filled air. When the smoke cleared, 39 lifeless bodies, as well as many severely injured individuals, lay stretched out on the concrete prison yard floor.
This is just a brief description of what took place during the now-infamous Attica prison riots, when New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state troopers to retake the 80-year-old prison. Just four days earlier, approximately 1,000 prisoners had banned together and overtook Attica, holding 42 correctional officers and civilian staff hostage.
Forty years later, more than 1,000 people gathered at New York City’s Riverside Church to commemorate the event, and to call for immediate attention to mass incarceration and poor prison conditions in the United States. Dr. Cornel West, poet Amiri Baraka and some of Attica’s survivors were present for the delivery of a speech outlining the prisoners' demands that was written by L.D. Barkley, one of the leaders of the rebellion, and performed by Gbenga Akinnagbe of The Wire.
Al Hajji Sharif was a prisoner in Attica back in 1971 and had participated in the riot. He is one of the surviving members who attended the event. ”The development of the riot was something that happened because of the suffering of the people there” said Sharif.
Before the riot occurred, Attica's prisoners were subjected to extremely uncomfortable and, some would say, inhumane, conditions. Muslims were not permitted to hold religious services, and any assembly of one or more Muslims in the prison yard was punishable by solitary confinement. Pork was served regularly for lunch and dinner, an affront to the dietary restrictions of Muslim inmates. Prisoners doing excessively hard labor earned 56 cents a day. Inmates were given one roll of toilet paper per month, one bar of soap per month, one shower a week, and healthcare was allegedly administered by two incompetent and sadistic doctors. No newspapers were available in the prison library, and prisoners with periodical subscriptions regularly received them with entire sections removed. There were no educational or vocational programs, as well. Attica prison was designed to hold 1,200 prisoners but squeezed in 2,225 prisoners by the time of the uprising. Fifty-four percent of those prisoners were black and all of the guards were white.
The inmates unsuccessfully negotiated with then-Correctional Service Commissioner Russell G. Oswald, and later, with a team of observers from the New York Times, The Michigan Times, the state senator, civil rights lawyers and Minister Louis Farrakhan, for improved conditions at the prison. A meeting with Gov. Rockefeller was also requested, but he refused to meet with the prisoners. Instead, he gave the go-ahead for the state troopers to retake the prison by force.
The results: When the uprising was over, at least 39 people were dead, including ten correctional officers and civilian employees. In addition, while 28 of the prisoners’ demands were met, their primary request for amnesty from criminal prosecution was denied and the prison's superintendent was not removed per the prisoners' demands.
“The sad thing is that the kind of courage these brothers had in 1971 is in short supply,” said Cornel West of the famed prison uprising.
(Photo: Brian C./Reuters)