Precedents

Sept. 9, 1971: Attica Prison Revolt Begins


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Photo by AP Photo/Bob Schultz

Opened in 1931, New York’s Attica prison was among the last of the fortress-style “big houses” built in the U.S.—and by the ’70s, big trouble was brewing behind its 30-foot wall. With 380 guards, all but one of whom were white, imposing an onerous daily regimen of degradation and humiliation on more than 2,000 inmates, nearly two-thirds of them black and Puerto Rican, some form of confrontation seemed sure to come.

Tensions boiled over on Sept. 9, 1971; by day’s end some 1,200 inmates held 40 hostages and roughly a quarter of the prison. A four-day standoff ensued: Several observers, including attorney William Kunstler, Bronx Rep. Herman Badillo and writer Tom Wicker, were enlisted to assist negotiations, which broke off over the captors’ insistence on full amnesty for actions taken during the revolt. After an ultimatum was issued the morning of the 13th, an assault squad unleashed a lethal barrage of gunfire that left 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead and more than 80 others severely wounded.

Afterword, Badillo turned to Wicker and said he didn’t “know what the hurry was—there’s always time to die.” Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who had ordered the attack, praised the state police for their “superb job” in retaking the prison. Few shared that assessment.

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