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September 9, 2016 Prison Labor Strike: History of Attica

A guide to help with researching and provide information regarding the national prison labor strike that took place starting September 9, 2016

What Were the Attica Prison Riots?

The Attica Prison Riots started on the morning of September 9, 1971. The cause of the riots was not directly related to the conditions in Attica, but from a fear of retaliation by guards to an incident that had happened the day before. Prisoners were locked in a tunnel, believing that guards were coming to beat them began to fight the guards that were locked in the tunnel with them. When other prisoners began to realize what was happening in the tunnel, they armed themselves with 2x4s, and anything that was available. By the time prisoners in the tunnel broke out, the other prisoners had taken over the prison, as well as hostages. One guard was killed in the riot.

While the conditions that inmates were living in were not the originating cause of the riots, they augmented the cause of the riots. Earlier in the year a list of demands was presented to Governor Rockefeller and Commissioner Oswald calling for changes to Attica. A month later a hunger strike began. Changes were promised by the Commissioner but under the guise of “needing time to implement them.”

One of the initial requests by prisoners was for observers to come to Attica while negotiations were happening. The observers that were invited ranged from Attorney Bill Kunstler, Tom Wicker from the New York Times, Huey P Newton of the Black Panthers and multiple state senators. The observers were also charged with being intermediaries for the negotiations.

The Practical Demands put forth by the Prisoners on Friday September 10th, ask for basic Human Rights held under the UN Universal Declaration: Freedom to information, Freedom to Communicate (at this point they were only able to write to family members), Freedom of Political Engagement, Freedom of Religion, the application of NY State Minimum wage laws to labor, and medical treatment.

On September 13th New York State Troopers, and National Guardsmen took back Attica. They stormed the prison heavily armed and shot indiscriminately. At the end 42 people were shot and killed - 33 prisoners and 9 hostages. The initial reports of the hostages’ were reported as having died from slashes to the neck. The later reports corrected that all hostages had been shot to death, indicating that they were killed by State Troopers and National Guardsmen. 

News Coverage As It Was Occurring

These articles were published as the Attica Prison Riot was occuring.

The New York Times' Machine allows you to browse actual papers from 1851-2002. It is available only to subscribers. If you are not a subscriber check with your institution's library or your public library to see if they are subscribers.

Attica Curriculum

This Attica Primer put together by Project Nia is encompassing without being overwhelming and presents the history of the Attica Prison Riots in comprehensible manner. It covers the prison riot, the events leading up to, as well as interviews afterwards and a bibliography of additional resources. This Primer was put together after discovering there was was no curriculum information about Attica. 

Project Nia works towards ending youth incarceration.

Criminal Injustice: Death & Politics at Attica

Criminal Injustice Death and Politics at Attica is a documentary by Chris Christopher and David Marshall aired on PBS in 2012. It was Emmy Nominated. 

Below is the description from Blue Sky Project who helped produce the documentary: 

Forty years after the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War, the dead remain buried along with the truth. Until now. Based on interviews with eyewitnesses who just now are telling their stories, as well as access to newly discovered documents, the film sheds new light on exactly what happened at Attica between September 9-13, 1971. Criminal Injustice raises compelling new questions about the 39 deaths at Attica, White House involvement, and the corrupting influence of Nelson Rockefeller's political aspirations before, during, and long after the deadly retaking of the prison. Former hostage Michael Smith said that “the cover up started as soon as the shooting stopped.” This film reveals that the truth actually may have been concealed long before that

Books About the Attica Prison Riots