Attica Prison Report
Inmates spent at least 14 hours each day in their cells. Cramped cells, bad food, inadequate medical care, minimal recreation, and lack of employment training contributed to a dehumanizing atmosphere.
As a result, citizens watching from the outside of the movement are further distanced from prisoners fighting for their rights. Because of the lack of relationship between prisoners and society, the master narrative of the prison reform movement is largely unacknowledged but, when it is discussed, discourse takes place through the perspective of government and political leaders. Unlike the portrayal of the prison reform movement as one of violence, the view related by the government, inmates employed many strategies of grassroots change taken from the civil rights movement and implemented in innovative ways unique to the prison reform movement. To fully explain the master narrative of the prison reform movement, one must first analyze the public memory of the movement and its motivations. As mentioned previously, the only truly well-known event in the movement is the Attica Riot. Inmates took control of the prison on September 8, 1971 in order to achieve negotiations with Corrections Commissioner of New York, Russell Oswald, and elicit reform in the prisons. The public’s perspective of the event would say prisoners were only angry because they were in jail, not realizing the grievances were concerning basic prison conditions. For example, in the thirty complaints proposed to Governor Nelson Rockefeller, there were simple requests, such as “adequate food, water, and shelter,” freedom of religion, and “increase [the amount of] fresh fruit.” After a few days of communication, Oswald, in conjunction with Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon, determined the riot and negotiations hurt the government’s reputation and subsequently sent an assault force to quell the supposed rioters. Afterward, the government stated that inmates slit their hostages’ throats and castrated them; however, after performing autopsies on the bodies, medical examiners determined the only violence of the riot stemmed from the assault force’s indiscriminate shooting of those inside the prison. Richard Clark, one of the leaders of the Attica Riot, said, “We are the only civilized men here,” referring to the violence of the assault force. Sadly, this act of concealing true events of the Attica Riot was not the only governmental action aimed to impede the prison reform movement.
Before Attica racism, poverty and abuses of power were central concepts in understanding the prison, and the nation's urban and political violence. National commissions of the late 1960's saw that we were moving toward two societies: one black and one white (Kerner Commission, 1968: 1).
There were many reasons for the buildup and eventual takeover of the prison from the prisoners and many mistakes were made in how it was handled and retaken. The governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller ordered the prison retaken by force if negotiations continued to fail between mediators or observers and the prison population.
Jackson, G. (1970) Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson,NY, Bantam Books.
Kerner Commission (1968) Report of the National Commission on Civil Disorders.
Lombardo, L. (1999) Collective Violence in Prisons: Psychosocial Dimensions and Ritualistic Transformations, in Summers, C. and Makkusen, E. (editors) Collective Violence: Harmful Behavior in Groups and Governments, Lanham, MD, Rowman and
McKay Commission, New York State Special Commission on Attica (1972) Attica, NY, Basic Books.
McNamara, R.S. (1995) In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Viet Nam, NY, Times Books.