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How the Attica prison uprising began – and why it still resonates today: NPR


In September 1971, inmates at Attica Prison in New York City revolted to protest the inhumane living conditions.

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How the Attica prison uprising began – and why it still resonates today: NPR

In September 1971, inmates at Attica Prison in New York City revolted to protest the inhumane living conditions.

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

Arthur Harrison, who was sentenced to five years in Attica in 1971, says black prisoners were treated particularly harshly. “It reminded me of things I used to hear about on the slave plantations,” he says. “They treated us like we weren’t human.”

On September 9, 1971, tensions erupted when more than 1,000 prisoners, including Harrison, revolted, taking 39 guards hostage and taking 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, both for the prisoners and the guards.

“There were sociopaths and psychopaths in the yard,” he says. “And it was this really weird dynamic that you have to be afraid of people in the yard, [and] you must be afraid of the police, who are on the aisles of the towers that surrounded the prison with guns, pointing guns at all the prisoners in the yard. ”

The stalemate in the prison has become a national drama as journalists and television cameras have been allowed to enter the prison yard as one of the prisoners’ demands.

Five days after its start, the uprising ended with a bloody assault by the police. Harrison was shot in the back of the arm and 39 prisoners and hostages were killed, all by law enforcement gunfire. After the smoke cleared, the prisoners were stripped naked and forced to crawl into a latrine, then run down a hallway between two rows of guards who beat them while running.

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

“Prison conditions have probably improved a bit [since 1971]. They’re getting more toilet paper now, “he said.” But there are two million people in jail … in the United States. Two million people won’t see the sky at night tonight. “

Interview highlights

On the guards forming “squads of morons” to beat the prisoners at night

Harrison: They came with four or five guys; they would throw a guy into a cell. You have no way to take four or five guys away from you unless you’re Superman or someone like that. Then they would beat you, drag you out of the cell and take you to the box where you would be beaten again.

How the Attica prison uprising began – and why it still resonates today: NPR

Arthur Harrison was a 21-year-old inmate at the time of the Attica uprising.

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How the Attica prison uprising began – and why it still resonates today: NPR

Arthur Harrison was a 21-year-old inmate at the time of the Attica uprising.

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Nelson: The conditions were just horrible and the guards were not trained at all. … Attica in New York is approximately 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 from outside was a change. There was George Jackson who preached change, and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. It was all happening at the same time.

How the uprising began

Nelson: Attica was divided into four sections and the hallways all came together at this place called “Times Square”, so Times Square was like the nerve center. And when the prisoners started to rebel, to revolt, they started knocking on the door of Times Square and on one of the doors. [had] a faulty solder in the door, and the door fell and broke, and the prisoners grabbed the guards there in Times Square. And then the prisoners controlled the prison – and it happened very quickly. And in some ways it was really because of this faulty soldering job that was done, we think, right from the time the prison was built.

On why they put the guards in prison uniform

Harrison: The point was that when someone tried to take over the prison with guns, like they did, they wouldn’t know who it was. [were] prisoners [or] which was a guard, so they would watch out for the shooting. There was a whole point there. They would not have come to blaze and shoot because they did not want to kill their comrades, but they still killed them.

On prisoners with 30 requests, including amnesty for the uprising

Nelson: The demands of the prisoners were really just to be treated like human beings, they were: to get more toilet paper, to get more visiting hours, things like that, things that could easily be accommodated. And at [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], to take prisoners, kidnap, everything. … The prisoners therefore asked for amnesty for everything that had 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 when it was finalized, that this officer died. No one wanted this to happen. And when it happened … we realized we could all be charged with murder.

On the violent takeover of the prison by the police

Nelson: It was truly a law enforcement riot. More than 500 law enforcement officers, state soldiers and former prison guards, whatever, stormed the prison with rifles, shotguns. And they were on the catwalks and the first tear gas was shot down on [the prisoners]. So it was all smoky and [law enforcement] couldn’t really see anything. They were just shooting at random 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 a New York state surveillance tape … of the riot, and it’s amazing how long they shot. It’s about nine minutes of direct fire in the yard.

How the Attica prison uprising began – and why it still resonates today: NPR

Stanley Nelson is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. His previous documentary films and series include Miles Davis: Birth of Cool, the murder of Emmett Till and Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre.

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How the Attica prison uprising began – and why it still resonates today: NPR

Stanley Nelson is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. His previous documentary films and series include Miles Davis: Birth of Cool, the murder of Emmett Till and Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre.

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Harrison: It was something I had never experienced before – burns to my lungs, eyes and everything because it was raining at the same time, you couldn’t breathe and you couldn’t see. … It was like a wild 4th of July. You hear firecrackers continuously, continuously, continuously. This is what the shots looked like.

Nelson: The helicopter continued to broadcast over and over, “Surrender with your hands up. You won’t get hurt. Surrender and you won’t be hurt.” But there was nowhere to go. Again, they were on the podiums, shooting. So no, there was no way to surrender, because there was no one to surrender to.

On the end of the uprising

Nelson: There was a scene of hundreds of dead and wounded lying on the ground, and law enforcement had taken full control of the prison. But it didn’t stop there. Then it was just a scene of various tortures. LD Barkley, who was one of the leaders, was wanted and murdered. The prisoners had to crawl in the latrines they had dug, in the human waste. They were told that if they looked up they would be killed.

Harrison: I’ve seen people get shot before, but not like this. People were lying on top of people and stuff, screaming in pain to be shot and [they] were not receiving any help. What kind of human being does that to another human being?

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

Nelson: The initial report was that the hostages had their throats cut and part of the reason this was initially thought was because the prisoners brought the guards into the yard and put knives in their throats, knives homemade to the throat. And they thought maybe that would stop the assault. … It was just a threat. When the attack actually occurred, it was discovered the next day that no guards had been slit at all, and the 10 guards who were killed were all shot dead. … 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 been cut their throats. So it was believed. The withdrawal is not understood in the same way as the first declaration. So, to this day, some people still believe that the hostages had their throats slit, although no hostages were slain at all.

On the $ 12 million settlement paid to prisoners

Nelson: There was a commission. Everyone testified. People’s statements were heard, but ultimately no one was prosecuted for the deaths in Attica. No one has been prosecuted for the torture that took place in Attica. The prisoners had a trial that lasted 25 years, and after 25 years they actually got a settlement of $ 12 million because of the abuse they suffered. … [Divided between the former prisoners] it’s not a ton of money. And as the former prisoners said in the movie, it wasn’t about the money. “Money cannot bring back the dead and bring back what has been taken from us.” To this day, they are 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.

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.