40 Years After the Attica Prison Uprising: Celebrating the Heroic Courage of Prisoners Who Risked Their Lives for Justice

In September of 1971, one of the bloodiest prison riots in the history of the United States took place at Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York. The uprising was brought on by prisoners living in terrible conditions who wanted to fix a broken system of justice.

The prisoners negotiated with state officials and called for improving their living conditions and the implementation of educational programs. But in seeking positive changes for those that lived in the darkness of Attica, they were met with cruel and unusual resistance by their keepers. Soon after their negotiations failed, National Guard troops and state police stormed Attica on orders by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller. On September 13, when the five-day prison rebellion was over, 39 individuals were dead (29 prisoners and 10 civilians).

To many, the uprising at Attica was the start of an American movement that sought to bring to light the horrible conditions of imprisonment and to confront the growing prison-industrial complex. Surprisingly many of the horrid conditions that existed back then still plague the present prison system today as seen by the recent hunger strikes in Georgia and California protesting dehumanizing conditions.

I gained a personal experience of these conditions when I entered the system in 1985 to serve a 15-to-life sentence for a drug crime at Sing Sing Correctional facility. My first stop was the maximum security reception and classification unit at Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, New York. The guards marched us off the bus and through a massive steel door in the center of a lethal electric fence surrounding the prison compound. Coils of razor wire wrapped and looped through the top of the fence, banishing the thought of escape. We were led through a series of gates and checkpoints and into a building, where we were packed like cattle into room for processing.

Ten prison guards sat behind gray iron desks and summoned us individually to approach. Each prisoner was told to place his bag of belongings on the desk. The guard dumped the contents and examined them. Just about everything was tossed into the garbage. One prisoner complained when a guard chucked his love letters into the trash; when he didn't let up, the guard pulled a pin on his radio and sat back in his chair while the distraught prisoner continued to complain. "You got no right," the prisoner said. "Those letters are from my wife, man! You can't throw them out." He shut up when he saw what was coming through the double-doors; a dozen guards in helmets and body armor, wielding clubs. "Fuckin' goon squad," whispered the guy behind me. "Racist bastards," said another. The complaining prisoner held up his hands in surrender but it was too late. The goon squad went right for him, tackling him to the floor. They beat him down to a bloody pulp and dragged him away. The guard who had summoned the goon squad smirked and paused to look at the rest of us before he called, "Next!"

This Friday, September 9th, a thousand people will gather at historic Riverside Church in Harlem to commemorate the 40th anniversary of what has come to be known as the Attica prison uprising. The organization "Attica is All of Us" will remember the unjust conditions that spurred the Attica uprising. It will also serve as a call to bring attention to the alarming rate of incarceration in the United States, the highest in the world, still with conditions similar to those that brought on the tragedy of Attica riot. Event organizer Sarah Kunstler, whose late father, civil rights attorney William Kunstler served as an observer at Attica, said: "The prison population of the United States has grown exponentially in the 40 years since the Attica rebellion and massacre. At the time of Attica the American prison population was around 300,000 - today it is over 2.4 million and growing."

Speakers will include survivors, scholars and activists, including Cornel West, who invites us to recognize that "this occasion celebrates the heroic courage and sacrificial love of the Attica prisoners in the name of justice."

"Attica is All of Us" will be held on Friday September 9, 2011 at 7 p.m. in the Nave of Riverside Church in Harlem. The event is free and open to the public. For more information:  http://atticaisallofus.org/


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