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How the Attica prison uprising started — and why it still resonates today

In September 1971, prisoners at Attica prison in update New York revolted in protest of inhumane living conditions.
In September 1971, prisoners at Attica prison in update New York revolted in protest of inhumane living conditions.

Fifty years ago, Attica maximum security prison in upstate New York was infamous for its harsh conditions. Prisoners were issued one roll of toilet paper each month. Asking for more meant risking a beatdown.

Arthur Harrison, who was sentenced to five years in Attica in 1971, says Black prisoners were treated especially severely. "It reminded me of the things I used to hear about on plantations in slavery," he says. "They treated us like we weren't human."

On Sept. 9, 1971, tensions boiled over as more than 1,000 prisoners, including Harrison, revolted, seizing 39 guards as hostages and gaining control of the prison. Documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson tells the story of the uprising in his new film, Attica.

Nelson describes the takeover as a terrifying event — for both prisoners and guards.

"There were sociopaths and psychopaths in the yard," he says. "And it was this really strange dynamic that you have to be scared of the people in the yard, [and] you've got to be scared of law enforcement, which are on the walkways in the towers that surrounded the prison with guns, aiming guns down on all the prisoners in the yard."

The standoff in the prison became a national drama as reporters and TV cameras were allowed inside the prison yard as one of the prisoners' demands.

Five days after it started, the uprising ended in a bloody assault by law enforcement. Harrison was shot in the back of his arm, and 39 prisoners and hostages were killed, all by law enforcement gunfire. After the smoke cleared, prisoners were stripped naked and forced to crawl through a latrine and then to run down a hall between two rows of guards who beat them as they ran.

Nelson says the story of the Attica prison revolt is one about race, class, power and prison reform — themes that remain resonant today.

"Conditions in prisons have probably gotten a little better [since 1971]. They get more toilet paper now," he says. "But there's two million people in prison ... in the United States. Two million people will not see the sky at night tonight."

Interview highlights

On guards forming "goon squads" to beat the prisoners at night

Harrison: They would come in with four or five guys; they would rush a guy in a cell. You have no way of keeping four or five guys off you unless you were Superman or somebody like that. Then they would beat you down, drag you out the cell and take you to the box where you would get beaten again.

Arthur Harrison was a 21-year-old inmate at the time of the Attica revolt.
/ Showtime/Firelight
Arthur Harrison was a 21-year-old inmate at the time of the Attica revolt.

Nelson: The conditions were just horrible, and the guards were not trained at all. ... Attica in New York is about 250 miles from New York City. And it's in a very rural community and the only jobs there would be dairy farming or working in the prison, and the community was all white. ... But also, at the same time, coming in from the outside was change. There was George Jackson who was preaching change, and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. That was all happening at the same time.

On how the uprising began

Nelson: Attica was divided into four sections, and the hallways all met at this place called "Times Square," so Times Square was like the center hub. And when the prisoners started to rebel, started to riot, they started banging on the gate at Times Square and one of the gates [had] a faulty weld in the gate, and the gate came down and broke, and the prisoners seized the guards there at Times Square. And so then the prisoners controlled the prison — and it happened really quickly. And in some ways, it was really because of this faulty welding job that was done, we think, from when the prison was first built.

On why they put the guards in prison uniforms

Harrison: The point for that was when someone would try to retake the prison with guns, like they did, they wouldn't know who the [were] prisoners [or] which one was a guard, so they would be careful about the shooting. There was a whole point of that. They wouldn't have come in blazing and shooting because they didn't want to kill their comrades, but they killed them anyway.

On the prisoners having 30 demands, including amnesty for the uprising

Nelson: The prisoners' demands were really just to be treated as human beings, they were: getting more toilet paper, getting more visiting hours, things like that, things that could easily be met. And to [prison commissioner Russell] Oswald's credit, he very quickly agreed to 28 of the 30 demands. The one demand that everything hinged on was amnesty, because the prisoners wanted amnesty, not for the crimes that they had committed outside of prison that got them there. They wanted amnesty for anything that was done in the rebellion, because there was a real fear that all of the prisoners would be tried en masse for everything — for destroying property, for injuring [guard Billy Quinn], for taking prisoners, kidnapping, everything. ... So the prisoners were asking for amnesty for anything that happened during the riot.

Harrison: [After Billy Quinn's death, we] became more fearful because that's why the brothers wanted the so-called amnesty bill. Because we were hearing things, not knowing things when that got finalized, that this officer died. No one wanted that to happen. And when it happened ... we realized we all could be charged with murder.

On law enforcement's violent retaking of the prison

Nelson: It was really a law enforcement riot. Over 500 law enforcement agents, state troopers and ex-prison guards, whatever, stormed the prison with rifles, shotguns. And they were up on the catwalks and first tear gas was shot down on [the prisoners]. So it was all smoky and [law enforcement] really couldn't see anything. They were just firing down randomly at the prisoners. Again, I want to reiterate that they couldn't see what they were doing, so they just fired over and over again. There's one New York state surveillance tape ... of the riot, and it's unbelievable how long they were firing. It's about nine minutes of straight shooting down into the yard.

Stanley Nelson is an Emmy Award-winning documentarian. His previous films and documentary series include <em>Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, The Murder of Emmett Till</em> and <em>Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre</em>.
/ Showtime/Firelight
Stanley Nelson is an Emmy Award-winning documentarian. His previous films and documentary series include Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, The Murder of Emmett Till and Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre.

Harrison: It was something I never experienced before — burning of your lungs, your eyes and everything like that because it was raining at the same time, you couldn't breathe and you couldn't see. ... It was like a wild Fourth of July. You hear firecrackers continuously, continuously, continuously. That's what the gunshots were like.

Nelson: The helicopter kept broadcasting over and over again, "Surrender with your hands up. You will not be harmed. Surrender and you will not be harmed." But there was nowhere to surrender to. Again, they were up on the catwalks, just firing down. So no, there was no way to surrender, because there was nobody to surrender to.

On how the uprising ended

Nelson: There was a scene of hundreds of dead and wounded lying on the ground, and the law enforcement had completely taken over the prison. But it didn't stop there. Then it just was a scene of various tortures. L.D. Barkley, who was one of the leaders, was sought out and murdered. The prisoners were made to crawl through the latrines that they had dug, through human waste. They were told that if they lifted their heads, they would be killed.

I've seen people getting shot at before, but not like this. People were laying on top of people and stuff, hollering from the pain of being shot and [they] weren't getting no help. What kind of human being does that to another human being?

Harrison: I've seen people getting shot at before, but not like this. People were laying on top of people and stuff, hollering from the pain of being shot and [they] weren't getting no help. What kind of human being does that to another human being?

On the original reports that incorrectly said that the 10 guards killed had their throats slit

Nelson: The original report was that the hostages had had their throats cut and that part of the reason why that was thought at first was because prisoners brought the guards out into the yard and put knives to their throat, homemade knives to their throat. And they thought that maybe that would stop the assault. ... It was just a threat. When the attack actually happened, it was found out the next day that no guards had gotten their throats slit at all, and the 10 guards that were killed were all killed by gunfire. ... I think the medical examiner actually said [the truth] the next day. But what happened was that the first report on the news was that they had their throats slit. So that was believed. The retraction is not heard in the same way as the first statement. So to this day, some people still believe that the hostages' throats were slit, although no hostages' throats were slit at all.

On the $12 million settlement paid to the prisoners

Nelson: There was a commission. Everybody testified. People's statements were heard, but in the end, nobody was prosecuted for the deaths in Attica. No one was prosecuted for the torture that happened at Attica. The prisoners had a lawsuit that went on for 25 years, and after 25 years, they actually got a $12 million settlement because of the abuse that they had suffered. ... [Divided between the former prisoners] it's not a ton of money. And as the former prisoners have said in the film, it wasn't about money. "Money can't bring back the dead and bring back what was taken from us." To this day, they're clearly still traumatized by what happened 50 years ago.

Lauren Krenzel and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.