“If we can’t live as men, we sure as hell can die as men”
– Attica prisoner
Attica State prison in New York was designed and built to hold 1,200 prisoners. In 1971 there were 2,225 prisoners in Attica. Prisoners were allowed one shower a week and a roll of toilet paper per prisoner a month. Racism ran rampant in the US prison system and Attica was no exception. All of the guards at Attica were white, 63% of the prisoners were Black and Puerto Rican and the white guards were openly racist towards inmates, going as far as nicknaming their batons “nigger sticks”.
On September 9th fed up with the overcrowding, abuse and inhumane conditions the prisoners of Attica took over the prison and held the guards hostage. The prisoners quickly organized themselves and a committee was formed that drew up five demands as preconditions to end the takeover. The five demands broadened into “15 practical proposals” that formed the basis for negotiations. Their 5 demands and 15 practical proposals are listed below.
To the People of America:
The incident that has erupted here at Attica is not a result of the dastardly bushwhacking of the two prisoners Sept. 8, 1971, but of the unmitigated oppression wrought by the racist administration network of the prison, throughout the year. WE are MEN! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.
We will not compromise on any terms except those that are agreeable to us. We call upon all the conscientious citizens of America to assist us in putting an end to this situation that threatens not only our lives, but each and every citizen as well.
We have set forth demands that will bring closer to reality the demise of these prisons, institutions that serve no useful purpose to the People of America but to those who would enslave and exploit the People of America.
Our Demands Are Such:
1. We want complete amnesty, meaning freedom from any physical, mental, and legal reprisals.
2. We want now, speedy and safe transportation out of confinement, to a non-imperialistic country.
3. We demand that the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT intervene, so that we will be under direct FEDERAL JURISDICTION.
4. We demand the reconstruction of ATTICA PRISON to be done by inmates and/or inmate supervision.
5. We urgently demand immediate negotiation thru Wm. M. Kunstler, Attorney-at-Law, 588 Ninth Ave., NYC, Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve of Buffalo, the Solidarity Committee, Minister Farrakhan of MUHAMMAD SPEAKS, Palante, The Young Lords Party Paper, the Black Panther Party, Clarence Jones of the Amsterdam News, Tom Wicker of NY Times, Richard Roth of the Courier Express, the Fortune Society, David Anderson of the Urban League of Rochester, Blond-Eva Bond of NICAP, and Jim Ingram of Democrat Chronicle of Detroit, Michigan. We guarantee the safe passage of all people to and from this institution. We invite all the people to come here and witness this degradation, so that they can better know how to bring this degradation to an end.
—The Inmates of Attica Prison
THE 15 PRACTICAL PROPOSALS
1. Apply the New York State minimum wage law to all state institutions. STOP SLAVE LABOR.
2. Allow all New York State prisoners to be politically active, without intimidation or reprisals.
3. Give us true religious freedom.
4. End all censorship of newspapers, magazines, letters, and other publications coming from the publisher.
5. Allow all inmates, at their own expense, to communicate with anyone they please.
6. When an inmate reaches conditional release date, give him a full release without parole. 7. Cease administrative resentencing of inmates returned for parole violations.
8. Institute realistic rehabilitation programs for all inmates according to their offense and personal needs.
9. Educate all correctional officers to the needs of the inmates, i.e., understanding rather than punishment.
10. Give us a healthy diet, stop feeding us so much pork, and give us some fresh fruit daily.
11. Modernize the inmate education system.
12. Give us a doctor that will examine and treat all inmates that request treatment.
13. Have an institutional delegation comprised of one inmate from each company authorized to speak to the institution administration concerning grievances (QUARTERLY).
14. Give us less cell time and more recreation with better recreational equipment and facilities.
15. Remove inside walls, making one open yard, and no more segregation or punishment
The rebellion was quelled a few days later on September 13th, when governor Nelson Rockefeller, who refused to negotiate with the prisoners, decided to send in the State Police. The State Police dropped tear gas and went in with shotguns to take back the prison. In the aftermath 29 prisoners and ten hostages were killed nine of those hostages were killed by State Police gunfire. After Attica was retaken the State Troopers and prison guards went on a campaign of retribution systematically beating prisoners.
The Attica Rebellion was meant to change inhumane prison conditions in the US. That was 40 years ago. On July 1st of this year prisoners in Pelican Bay in California went on a hunger strike to improve the inhumane conditions that they suffer under. On July 21st the prisoners on hunger strike decided to end the action, opting to live to continue the fight for justice. You might be asking yourself the question ‘What does the Attica Rebellion from 40 years ago and the recent Pelican Bay Prison hunger strike have to do with me?’ The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky said “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
It could be that the reason we don’t know what Attica and Pelican Bay have to do with us is because we haven’t yet realized that what goes on inside the walls from Attica to Pelican Bay is the same thing that’s going on outside those walls in our communities. Maybe when we understand that the powers that control the lives of those inside a cell also control the lives of those of us outside a cell, we’ll understand that the struggle of and for those least among us, is the struggle that is the greatest. Maybe when we understand that, we’ll find a way to improve life both inside and outside the walls without a need for bloodshed or hunger.