What began as an impromptu and uncoordinated eruption of violence in an upstate New York prison soon morphed into a hostage crisis and siege that gripped the nation and claimed the lives of 43 people.
The most famous prison riot
in American history took place at Attica Correctional Facility in New York's Wyoming County 50 years ago, spanning Sept. 8-13, 1971. In the popular narrative, Attica has persisted to this day as a symbol of prison brutality and state oppression. In reality it is most apt to stand as a byword for the bloody and disastrous consequences of excusing, placating, flattering, and emboldening violent criminals.
The situation was engendered by the policies and personnel of the state’s liberal, arch-RINO governor, Nelson Rockefeller. President Richard Nixon, a longtime rival of Rockefeller, was then trying to govern the “permissive society” America had become in the wake of the devastating criminal justice revolution wrought by the Warren Court.
The Attica riot is most accurately viewed as the crowning moment of the 1960s “new penology” failure. The riot and hostage siege occurred because violent felons had been fortified and encouraged by progressive and liberal concessions in the previous decade—while, by the same concessions, wardens and guards were fettered, shackled, enfeebled, and incapacitated.
Contrary to the prison brutality narrative, Attica’s inmates had been positively spoiled. In the fall of 1971, they had never been treated better, and they were in the midst of gaining further privileges, liberties, and amenities from Gov. Rockefeller and his new Department of Corrections commissioner, Russell Oswald. And, like any intelligent children whose disobedience and tantrums had been reinforced through permissive parental behavior, they followed by making more demands.
The incidence of similar prison riots across the country increased markedly in the late 1960s: there were 27 in 1970, up from five in 1967. Attica was only one of 37 different riots which occurred in 1971. The following year saw 48 riots. It is incontrovertible that the more that judges granted constitutional and civil rights to the incarcerated, the more riots those same judges imposed upon the wardens and guards.
On Thursday, Sept. 9, 1971, a rusty, faulty bolt at one Attica prison gate allowed the inmates to almost miraculously transform a routine riot into a hostage-sustained siege. After inmates attacked several guards in one section of the prison, the faulty gate enabled the chaos to spread to other areas like wildfire, with over half of Attica’s 2,200 inmates taking part.
In the space of just several hours massive damage and destruction was inflicted upon numerous structures and areas of the prison complex. Fires ignited by the inmates burned down or badly damaged the school, auditorium, workshops, metal shops, laundry facilities, and the commissary. Among other exploits of rampage, convicts vandalized and burned the auditorium that served as a chapel, where they opportunely wrenched pipes from its organ to deploy as truncheons. Gates, doors, windows, lights, and lock systems were battered, smashed, or wrecked. Parts of the plumbing system were wounded and impaired; electrical and telephone wiring was yanked out of the walls and torched in various areas of the complex. All this damage amounted to more than $4 million, or over $25 million in 2021 dollars, according to a 1972 estimate.
The inmates then began forming a coalition through which they established rules and composed a list of 28 demands for authorities, including that they not be held responsible for their deeds, or alternatively that they be transported to “a nonimperialistic country” as a form of amnesty abroad.
above: Inmates of Attica state prison negotiate with state prisons Commissioner Russell Oswald, lower left, during the uprising in September, 1971. (AP Photo, File)
Many of the 28 points contrived and demanded by the convicts were those Oswald himself had lobbied to obtain for all state prisoners prior to the riot, a fact Rockefeller pointed out in a post-riot hearing, as if it was an irony. Oswald had already begun to make significant changes—as all the well-informed convicts at Attica clearly knew. Even the liberal McKay Commission—the official state panel set to up review the incident—acknowledged this, observing that “the new Commissioner [Oswald] had liberalized rules and was promising new programs, new facilities, and a new attitude toward inmate problems.” The report
went on to say that the riots were also caused in part by these “rising expectations and improving conditions.”
Oswald pointedly reminded the convicts of these coming changes throughout his interactions with them during the hostage-siege negotiations. Yet, the progressive crusader Oswald—a Don Quixote-Sancho Panza rolled into one—was attempting to use and ultimately prolong the hostage situation to accomplish his own liberal prison reform agenda. Thus, the riot-cum-negotiations was actually the golden opportunity Oswald was waiting for to expedite his convict-appeasement agenda, which was grossly misnamed “rehabilitation” or “enlightened” prison reform.
This Neville Chamberlain of corrections had finally gotten the upper hand on those whom he deeply resented, the obstructive, “rightist” (Oswald’s word), and benighted Attica warden and guards, who had thwarted his progressive improvement and empowerment of violent offenders. It’s not surprising that Oswald had met stiff resistance. The guards would be the ones to personally and physically bear the brunt of his reforms.
It was Oswald’s appeasement of convicts, under Rockefeller’s aegis, and his general naiveté and ineptitude in crisis-management, that paved the way to the deaths of 11 guards and civilians. As Oswald himself summarized:
The rebel inmates fatally fractured the skull of one our corrections officers and brutally injured almost all of the forty-nine other corrections officers and civilian employees they took hostage.
But the guards had committed no brutal and violent crimes to deserve that fate. Their only sin was doing their low-status, low-wage, yet highly hazardous, more-dangerous-than-thankless job. Indeed, salaries of guards at Attica were so low that many of them also held part-time jobs in the small town to make ends meet. Outnumbered by convicts 40-to-1, some Attica guards such as Elmer Huehn, a hostage who made it out alive, felt so insecure that they even stopped carrying their wallets or wearing their watches to work in the months preceding the riot.
Yet even while the convict insurrection was unfolding, and before its bloody denouement on Sept. 13, 1971, the left was distorting and exploiting the sensational drama for maximum propaganda value.
This leftist-activist, progressive-ideology crusade culminated just five years ago courtesy of author Heather Ann Thompson. In 2016, Thompson, an identity-politics warrior and race-focused polemicist—which currently means a standard history professor—produced a Pulitzer Prize-winning volume to make sure that the convicts will get the last laugh yet again, and perhaps into eternity.
Her Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy
is impressively comprehensive and very bent upon codifying the legacy of the riot. But it is even more impressively warped and lopsided as an undisguised, rancorous assault upon “the State,” indirectly known as the law-abiding citizenry. To the Pulitzer committee, evidently, her legacy leftist politics counted much more than her meager investigative acumen, standards, or originality, for Thompson presented nothing new or substantial to change our view of any major incident that occurred in the September prison riot of 1971.
Minimal scrutiny is required to notice Thompson’s unswerving partiality and steadfast blindness to the other side of the story—a gross negligence that the Pulitzer committee succeeded in overlooking and rewarding. Typical is her chapter, “And the Beat Goes On,” for which she procured a bunch of uncorroborated juicy tales and sordid details from one source during a private conversation. Such a glaringly tendentious and lax practice does not meet even mediocre standards of scholarly evaluation, judgment, or objectivity.
It also seems the concept of cross-examining would be a revelation to her. In the case of one controversial episode, Thompson pronounces some New York state trooper accounts as “outright lies.” Could she, or a member of the Pulitzer committee, identify even one instance where she applies such a categorical judgment to a convict’s statement? In Thompson’s woke cosmos, the benefit of doubt in any factual dispute is always to be granted to felons at the expense of members of government, law enforcement, or corrections departments.
As any painstaking (or non-Pulitzer) reader of her endnotes discovers, Thompson is the apostolic successor of the fanatical convict-advocate Elizabeth Fink, engineer of the Attica Brothers Legal Defense, who also represented a member of the Black Panthers. This “Fink Panther” was the left-wing lawyer most instrumental in the 1992 win of a multi-million-dollar lawsuit for one of the riot’s commandos.
above: Attorney Elizabeth Fink poses in the Greater Upstate Law Project offices in downtown Rochester, New York, surrounded by the hundreds of claims by former Attica inmates made against the prison. (Shawn Dowd/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle-USA TODAY NETWORK)
Inspired by Fink, and extending her advocacy well beyond courts, Thompson’s well-rigged deck of a narrative converts the convicts from merely opportunist and resourceful felons into “political prisoners,” pathetic and luckless victims of systems; heroes in a revolt against whichever -ism one chooses.
In other words, Thompson represents the Attica convicts precisely as they, the astute and manipulative criminals, would choose to represent themselves; to wit, as martyrs in a righteous cause. As some of the felons cunningly spun it, they were engaged in a struggle against racist and capitalist oppression and inhumane, fascist dehumanization. If only their victims in their own neighborhoods or on the streets knew that they were raped, murdered, or robbed in order to end racism and overthrow capitalism!
Over 75 percent of the Attica inmates in September 1971 were recidivists, and almost half had already been imprisoned at least once. Almost 25 percent of them were there for murder or other homicide. Of the 1,085 convicts released from the prison in the year of the riot, 1971, fewer than 20 percent had completed their entire sentences.
Terribly inconvenient for Attica race-hustling and -ism-izing types like Thompson were the solemn and applause-inducing declarations by some of the riotous insurgents themselves: “There are no white inmates, no black inmates, no Puerto Rican inmates. There are only inmates.” They were all oppressed, the inmates reported. To the utter chagrin of racism-mongering con artists, it would appear that Attica was actually a color-blind Auschwitz, at best.
Indeed, the issue of racism was about as relevant to the Attica riot as it was to the shootings at Kent State the previous year. But Thompson has done her unlevel best to prop up a stale, facile, and fallacious conceit, the debacle of September 1971, as one of black-and-white “prison brutality” and dehumanizing “state oppression.” In the crude manner of a Procrustes, she posits and insinuates race and “social justice” issues whenever colorable…except when the words “pig” or “honky” are heard loud and clear.
If the convicts were “dehumanized” by being placed in prison, the guards suffered a comparably degrading transformation. Throughout the hostage siege there were menacing crowds outside the prison chanting: “Kill the pigs, kill the pigs.” While the inmate leaders were obviously too shrewd to harm their bargaining chips, they did let three of their fellow convicts get murdered by other convicts in ghastly and gruesome fashion during the three-day siege. All three happened to be white. There were also some particularly heinous gang-rapes that occurred while the convicts governed one section of the penitentiary during the standoff. Who deserves the most sympathy from posterity for having been trapped in that unruly and perilous prison in September 1971, the guards or the inmates?
Once we retire the left’s rusty cookie-cutters, we can see very clearly that the riot at Attica in September 1971 did not happen “because ordinary men, poor men, disfranchised men, and men of color had simply had enough of being treated as less than human,” as Thompson asserts. Quite to the contrary.
In light of its timing and historical context, Attica must be remembered as part of broader American catastrophe caused by the appeasement and empowerment of criminals. The legitimate authority and disciplinary power of penitentiary administrators and corrections officers was eviscerated and rendered them and their civilian colleagues seriously vulnerable. At the same time, liberalizing penal reforms made convicts astoundingly more refractory, impenitent, and brazen in daily defiance of prison rules. Indeed, journalist Tom Wicker from a paper reflexively sympathetic to convicts and critical of police, The New York Times, made the shocking observation that “to some extent, the inmates’ rancor may have been staged, or false.”
As it transpired, dozens of convicts’ lives were the considerable cost of Oswald’s liberally misconceived reforming. All the casualties and deaths of inmates, guards, and civilians during the rescue and restoration of order on Sept. 13, 1971, were ultimately the consequence of the decisions and actions of the convicts. By not accepting very substantial concessions and by refusing to compromise or modify their own demands, they backed Oswald and Rockefeller into a corner.
Law enforcement personnel, mainly state troopers, would be merely the instrument of last resort that the convicts themselves had chosen for resolving the situation and terminating the hostage-nourished siege—which they otherwise intended to continue even after many of their proposals had been accepted.
But if blame for the deaths and injuries sustained during the Attica siege are to be assigned to anyone besides the convicts, it is clearly to Rockefeller and Oswald, for they had declined to act promptly and forcefully when the riot erupted. Instead, they delayed, appeased, and fortified the convicts by legitimizing them as equals during negotiations and granting them multiple days of empowering media coverage.
Each day of delay would boost the defiant spirit of the convicts; each day of delay would exact more carnage. It was the classic appeasement script enacted countless times in human history: avoid shedding a drop of blood now at the price of spilling buckets of it later. In the last analysis, the guards of Attica were marched into terror, brutality, and slaughter by the proponents of permissivism and penological progressivism.
Attica was a colossal and resplendent conquest and triumph for criminals, which shines bright to this very day, a half-century later. The convicts succeeded in occupying a large section of the prison, won, kept, and cashed-in on hostages, and were granted lavish negotiations on their own prescribed terms as if they were delegates of a sovereign state. They enjoyed martyrdom-enhancing media coverage, which they shaped and manipulated. They assembled their own self-devised and personally selected lobbying organization—the “citizens observer committee” replete with leftist radicals, lawyers like William Kunstler of Chicago Seven notoriety, as well as Black Panther Bobby Seale and members of the Young Lords Chicago-based street gang.
Furthermore, the convicts obtained acceptance of almost all of their 28 demands and garnered subsequent reforms by the state legislature. These changes were recommended by a committee appointed to study state prisons and endorsed by Oswald and Rockefeller. A few decades later, these convicts also received millions of dollars in lawsuits during the Pataki administration.
Attica was a devastating debacle and national tragedy for everyone but the convicts. And for 50 years the very worst losers and most pitiable, yet least lamented and honored of all the victims, have been the guards and civilian personnel who were beaten, mauled, and killed.
If Neville Chamberlain at Munich in September 1938 still stands as the monumental demonstration of the folly of the policy of appeasement as applied to genocidal dictators, then Oswald at Attica in September 1971 is worthy to be regarded as a monumental demonstration of the folly of the policy of appeasement as applied to violent felons. Attica ought to be remembered first and foremost as the reckless endangerment and callous slaughter of guards achieved by the progressive penological appeasement imposed on the states by the Warren Court, and practiced vigorously in the Empire State by Nelson Rockefeller and Russell Oswald.