September 9, 1971 saw the beginning of one of the most memorable protests in history–the Attica prison uprising. The protest (or riot)–in which inmates took control of the supermax for four days before state police swarmed the yard, killing 39–brought unprecedented attention to prisoner rights. Now, those in the reform community are still drawing lessons from the riot 40 years later:
- During a commemoration of the riot at New York’s Riverside Church, Cornell West, professor of religion and African America studies at Princeton University, praised the rioters and told the crowd “the kind of courage that these brothers had in 1971 is in short supply.”
- The Nation points out that over the last 40 years, the conditions that in part spurred the Attica rebellion, have actually gotten worse–or at least, exist on a larger scale. Particularly the issue of overcrowding: at Attica, “the record now shows that over 2,200 inmates, 63 percent of whom were black or Latino, were held in a facility meant to hold 1,200 and patrolled by 383 guards.”
- Clarence B. Jones, who was at Attica during the riot as an official observer, says the riot was less of a culmination of the violence of the 1960s, but a harbinger of things to come: “In retrospect, the drifting cloud of teargas that ended the siege and started the bloodshed was a kind of smoke signal, pointing the way to dangerous trends in our very concept of justice: an incarceration society that punishes rather than rehabilitates and a new form of segregation.”
- And the Rochester Democrat-Chronicle reminds us that the full lessons of Attica remain unknown–many of the official records from the riot are still under seal, inaccessible to the public.
For more on the uprising and ensuing lawsuits, check out the 2001 documentary, “Ghosts of Attica.”