On September 9, 1971, in response to brutal living conditions and oppressive policies, prisoners rose up and took control of New York’s Attica prison. The prisoners held more than 30 prison staff hostage, taking care to protect them from additional harm, while prisoner representatives sought to negotiate with state leaders. They protested the horrific conditions in which the prisoners were forced to live. They protested the lack of educational programs and basic medical care. And they demanded change.
After four days of heated negotiations, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered state police to retake the prison. Amid teargas and an indiscriminate barrage of bullets, 29 prisoners and 10 staff members were killed.
This pivotal event acted as a catalyst for the modern prisoners’ rights movement and led to the formation of the ACLU National Prison Project (NPP). Forty years later, many victories have been won, but much work remains to be done.
At the time of the Attica uprising there were slightly more than 200,000 people held in prisons and jails across the United States. Today, that number is more than 10 times higher, at an alarming 2.3 million. As many as 100,000 prisoners are being held in solitary confinement and more than 3,200 prisoners are on death row.
Forty years ago the Attica prison was at nearly twice its capacity, housing 2,225 prisoners rather than the 1,200 it was designed for. Prisoners lived in squalid conditions and were denied even the most basic medical care.
Since that time, the NPP has won major victories in the areas of overcrowding, access to medical and mental health care, and First Amendment rights, among many others. However, many prisons are slow to comply with court orders, and new abuses occur every day. The NPP continues to fight on behalf of prisoners and is currently working to bring equal rights to prisoners with HIV in Alabama, to improve deficient jail health care in Arizona, and to protect prisoners from guard brutality in California.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Attica uprising — a day that provides us with the opportunity to reflect, to acknowledge progress and to forge ahead. Because while women prisoners are still shackled in childbirth, while prisoners are left to face a hurricane defenseless and behind bars and while prisoners in solitary confinement must starve themselves to be heard, the fight must continue.