The United States of Attica

The United States of Attica

Fifty years ago, in September of 1971, a revolution took place that would change the course of criminal justice in the American prison system as we know it. It would go down in history as the day that an act of desperation from the prisoners of Attica would serve as a wake up call about the conditions that prisoners all over America are subjected to. It is no secret that the conditions of prisons in the past were horrendous. Formerly incarcerated Tyrone Larkins spoke out about his experiences when he referred to Attica as “the roughest place I’ve ever seen in my life”. As a prisoner, you were stripped of your human rights and as a black prisoner, you never had any to begin with.

Attica Prison was infamously known as the most secure prison in New York, Wyoming. Consequently, it was also the most brutal. As a former convict of Attica Joseph Hayden expressed, “Attica was a stark place. You only had an hour a day of recreation and the rest of the time, it was something out of the 1870s.” Prisoners of Attica spent 14 hours a day in their cell and the rest in forced labor to support a country that”,“for a disturbing number of minorities there”, had falsely incarcerated them.Two-thirds of the population of the inmates at Attica were either African American or Hispanic. In contrast, all except one of the police officers were white. This led to tension and a power complex between the officers and the prisoners of Attica.
It was a day like any other when the riot at Attica broke out. Repressed feelings of injustice were strong among the inmates of Attica. A policeman was killed during the takeover, but according to the surviving prisoners, it was not intentional. Allegedly, the takeover wasn’t planned. In the heat of the moment a few prisoners attacked a police guard and held the rest of the prison hostage, inciting a riot. The prisoners of Attica who initiated the riot then proceeded to set the rest of their inmates free. They stood with the 2,200 inmates of Attica and demanded basic human rights.

L.D. Barkley, who’s now known as the leader of the Attica uprising, was a young man whose life was unnecessarily cut short. The surviving inmates of Attica prison spoke highly of him. Roger Chapman would later express “Barkley and I used to read. I gave him law books. I tried to get him involved in law. He was an excellent reader. He would read; he would have an appetite for reading that was tremendous. He would come and get books from me to read, and then we’d sit down and discuss it. Being that he was young and inexperienced, books — I tried to explain to him — were just an outline of life. You had to actually live life; you couldn’t live like out of a book. The book gives you the diagram for life, the outline, and you fill in the rest for yourself. . . .

LD Barkley was the spokesman for the riot at Attica.

“And he was eager to get back outside, to go in the community and work in the community. He felt that he could help younger children.”

The United States of Attica
L.D. Barkley, second from the right, and other Attica rebellion leaders negotiating with prison officials, Sept. 1971

The four-day riot at Attica ended when hundreds of police officers stormed the prisons. 43 people died that day, 29 inmates, and 10 hostages at the hands of those expected to uphold justice. 43 people died when they shouldn’t have. 43 people died in a demonstration that could have ended peacefully if the government had handled it properly.

The officers emerged from this blood bath to proceed to lie to the world. They claimed that all the hostages had died at the hands of the prisoners; this was later disproved otherwise. When this information was revealed the world was outraged.

Some were even inspired by this to speak about criminal injustice. Faith Ringgold falls into that category. From 1971 to 1972, he would go on to create a poster that would commemorate the history of violence in the United States. Deeply swayed by the events that transpired at the riot of Attica he created a red, green, and black map symbolizing the history of violence all across America. The colors symbolized the scope of a pistol, and the poster went on to become one of the most famous political posters in America.

The prisoners of Attica were brave. To be able to speak out against injustice in a time where everyone was consistently trying to silence you is not easy. This year will be the 50th year anniversary since the uprising at Attica. Their families still mourn, their pain still matters. Words are the most powerful tools that we all possess and it is heartwarming to see that people to this day still advocate for the prisoners who were so violently silenced.

The conditions at Attica now are worse than they were 50 years ago.