Criminal Justice

50 Years After Attica, Prisons Are Still the Problem No One Wants To See

The men of Attica said they had "set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization" of U.S. prisoners. For all the horror and bloodshed, not much has changed.


On September 9, 1971, Elliott "L.D." Barkley stepped forward to speak on behalf of the 1,281 inmates who had seized control that day of Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Reading the statement of his fellow incarcerated men, Barkley said that they had "set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States."

During the initial chaos of the revolt, which started in a confused panic rather than a well-planned mutiny, a mob of incarcerated men fatally injured one of the guards and took 39 other prison staffers hostage. Some of the Attica inmates' demands were impossible for state officials to swallow, such as amnesty from prosecution and the resignation of the warden, but most of the rest were related to the atrocious medical care, political and religious repression, and racism that had led to years of rising tensions inside the prison.

Four days later, and 50 years ago today, as negotiations floundered and the Attica inmates took eight hostages onto a catwalk at knifepoint, roughly 550 New York law enforcement officers retook the prison by force, firing wide-arc buckshot indiscriminately into a fog of tear gas. "The bullets were coming like rain," one hostage remembered. The officers killed 29 Attica inmates and 10 hostages.

This was part of a string of violent episodes in U.S. prisons in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Several weeks prior, black radical George Jackson was killed during an armed escape attempt in California, leading to a hunger strike at Attica. A year after Attica, inmates at the D.C. jail—a century-old building that the American Civil Liberties Union described as "a filthy example of man's inhumanity to man"—took 12 staffers hostage

But Attica was the bloodiest, most dramatic event in the history of U.S. prisons, and it has been lodged in the American consciousness, potent and divisive, ever since. Even the language surrounding the event is fraught. For example, whether to call it a "riot." Heather Ann Thompson's Blood in the Water, a masterful history of the incident and the decades-long state cover-up that ensued, calls it the "Attica uprising."

What's beyond dispute or semantic arguments, though, is that the state of New York tried to hide the fact that state troopers killed 10 hostages and tortured the surviving inmates in the aftermath.

Government officials initially claimed that the hostages' throats had been slit, a lie that major news outlets dutifully repeated. The local forensic examiner was pressured to alter his findings that the hostages been shot. His refusal to do so led to professional retaliation, death threats, intimidation from law enforcement, and claims that he was a radical leftist. (In reality, he'd voted for Richard Nixon.) State troopers even visited funeral homes to try to pressure morticians into claiming the bodies had no bullet holes.

The state government then worked for decades to hide and destroy evidence of wanton violence and retaliation, and to undermine lawsuits not only by Attica inmates but by the families of hostages who were killed. It sent measly worker's compensation checks to slain hostages' widows, knowing full well that if they cashed the checks, it would bar them from bringing civil lawsuits in the future.

Conditions at Attica and other U.S. prisons improved somewhat after the massacre. The New York Times reported a year later that most of the Attica rebellion's demands had been met. On a broader scale, federal judges in the 1970s and '80s began to exercise more oversight over decrepit prisons. But those new programs and privileges disappeared again in the "tough on crime" era.

And despite a Supreme Court ruling in 1976 finding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits "deliberate indifference" to incarcerated people's medical needs, the truth is that barbaric indifference is the fundamental quality of American prisons and jails, and neither the Supreme Court or all of the bloodshed and horror of Attica could change that.

Last year, I reported on several deaths due to alleged medical neglect at Aliceville Federal Correctional Institution, a federal women's prison in Alabama. While I was investigating that story, I came across the case of a woman incarcerated there who had been suffering from an untreated uterine fibroid that weighs roughly 15 pounds. She had been waiting in pain for outside treatment since an Aliceville physician first diagnosed the fibroid in 2016. According to a federal judge, the fibroid "causes 'visible protrusions' from [her] abdomen and causes her pain, uterine bleeding, anemia, infection, and fevers." 

The last time I emailed with this woman, in July, she said she had still not received treatment.

Earlier this year, I received a letter from a woman incarcerated in Lowell Correctional Institution, a Florida state prison, asking for help in getting her 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for opioid trafficking reduced. She was 62 years old, and it was her first offense. She died while the letter was in transit. She'd had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lung ailments that led to difficulty breathing, but she said she couldn't get any treatment.

Lowell is the same prison where guards broke the neck of a woman with mental illness, resulting in a $4.6 million lawsuit settlement. The Justice Department has since put Florida on notice that the conditions at Lowell are so bad that they violate the Constitution. Federal investigators found that "sexual abuse of women prisoners by Lowell corrections officers and staff is severe and prevalent throughout the prison." So far, the Florida Department of Corrections has denied and disputed the Justice Department's findings.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division also sued Alabama last year over its gore-soaked prison system, after issuing two reports detailing constitutional failures to protect inmates from violence and sexual assaults.

At Mississippi's infamous Parchman prison, ProPublica reports, the drinking ‌water‌ ‌has violated the Safe Drinking Water Act dozens of times, ‌and‌ the Environmental Protection Agency has cited the ‌prison's sewage‌ ‌system‌ for three years for violating the Clean Water Act. The Justice Department has also launched an investigation into gruesome violence and wretched facilities in Mississippi prisons, following a string of deaths and years of deteriorating conditions.

In San Diego, video recently emerged in a lawsuit showing that a jail deputy watched an incarcerated woman on methamphetamines gouge out her own eyes, one by one, without intervening.

The Indiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed Eighth Amendment lawsuits today on behalf of three prison inmates who allege that they were forced to live in pitch-black isolation cells, where they were shocked by live wires hanging from broken lights. The men also say they were exposed to rain and snow by broken windows that were eventually covered in sheet metal.

Fifty years ago today, Elliott Barkley—21 years old and just days away from his release—was shot and killed. An autopsy report said he had been struck in the back and killed by a tumbling .270 slug, possibly a ricochet, during the retaking of Attica. But several witnesses, including New York state assemblyman Arthur Eve, said Barkley had been alive an hour after the inmates had surrendered.

Prisons are the problem no one wants to see. Fifty years after Attica, we seem to have buried the truth about them better than any ass-covering bureaucrat could have hoped for.

NEXT: Boris Johnson Taxes the Young To Pay for the Old

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  1. “upstate New York” – isn’t Attica in far Western NY?

    “a lie that major news outlets dutifully repeated.” – Nah, bruh, couldn’t be they are journalists, man.

    1. “a lie that major news outlets dutifully repeated.”

      And that was with a Republican NY governor! Things have changed.

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    2. People in NYC think upstate NY means West Chester County. The Finger Lakes? NYC resident never geard of them. The finger is something you show to other drivers. Albany serves NYC, period. The rest of NY State would be better off as a separate state.

  2. I admit, I did some federal time years ago for a non violent offense. I pled because I would have lost at trial, the court system is rigged in the prosecution favor.
    Prison guards are the most sociopathic, corrupt people alive. The job itself attracts individuals who are morally bereft of soul or consciousness.
    One day, they removed everyone from the block, and tossed all the calls. When we were allowed to return, I found a letter my mother sent me torn In half. For no reason, just to be mean. It was the last letter she sent me, as she passed away shortly after that. You can’t complain, because then you are labeled, and become a target for more abuse from the guards.
    And where do you think the contraband comes from?

    1. Tossed all the cells.

    2. That stinks. I’ve got a few friends who have done time. What you say is no surprise. Jail and prison teach people how to live in prison. Nothing more. Doesn’t help society. All it does it give unforgivable assholes an excuse to do unforgivable things while claiming to be the good guys.

      1. I dated a girl for a short time who was a “corrections officer.”

        The highlight of her day was to stop into every bar in town, look for recently released people (who all had bar-restrictions, it’s boilerplate) and shame them into leaving.

        Power. The most corrupt systems in the world function because people with power would rather have power than do the right thing.

        1. And that of course is why we need more rules, regulations, and more and bigger well-funded government programs. Cuz bureaucracy requires bureaucrats who love to snap any whip you give them and will happily slit your throat to keep that job. What could be more fun?

          1. Hey, if they manage us hard enough we will never do anything wrong.

    3. “Not much difference between those that walk the walls, and those inside ’em.”

  3. For example, whether to call it a “riot.” Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, a masterful history of the incident and the decades-long state cover-up that ensued, calls it the “Attica uprising.”

    And mostly peaceful. Like that date rape, I mean, intimate moment, Thompson needs to have.

  4. OK, so how unpleasant should prison be?

    We should be very careful about deciding who deserves prison time, but then what? If time behind bars is relatively easy, why would potential law breakers worry about prison?

    Or maybe outsource the whole thing to Amazon. I hear that working in the fulfillment centers is worse than prison.

    1. Being in prison is unpleasant. Despite people telling you they will write every week, the letters come further and further apart. You are forgotten about. I lost loved ones, wasn’t able to attend my brother’s funeral. It’s a lonely place. I made a few friends, sure, but I didn’t become a gang member, something easier said than done. Boredom. And more boredom. What wasn’t neccessary was taunting by high school dropouts with a percieved sence of authority and a perverse sence of justice. We had a saying,
      “We’re here because we’re being punished, not to be punished.”

      1. I’m glad you’ve rehabilitated, Bob. Lots don’t.

        We lock up a ton of people we’ve no business doing it to, and let skate free, a bunch of people who should be there. Getting worse, too.

  5. “And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.” ― Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn , The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

    1. Americans are now pussies. They know we will not fight back.
      We no longer have anyone who would say “give me liberty, or give me death”.

  6. Fifty Years After Attica, Prisons Are Still the Problem No One Wants To See

    Nobody wants to see prison, but why do people keep doing the shit that’s going to send them there? That’s the problem.

  7. “While I was investigating that story, I came across the case of a woman incarcerated there who had been suffering from an untreated uterine fibroid that weighs roughly 15 pounds. She had been waiting in pain for outside treatment since an Aliceville physician first diagnosed the fibroid in 2016.”

    She should have renounced her citizenship, and become an illegal alien. Then she would have received immediate top tier medical care. She also would likely be released from prison on her own recognizance.

  8. Good news the progs cut ot the middle man and declared that everyone should be a prisoner in their own homes

  9. I don’t think anyone under 45, maybe 50, knows what Attica was. Hell, even older people. I have jokingly yelled “Attica, Attica!” only to get blank stares.

    Also it’s a bit amusing that you care about prisoners medical problems, while if they weren’t in prison, they probably wouldn’t get treated either, because they couldn’t afford it. But that’s okay!

  10. Psssstt! I heard prisons are bad places because prisons are full of bad people.

  11. Penal reform might grow some wings if it were coupled with giving freedom to people convicted of “Victimless Capitalist Acts Between Consenting Adults” and at least full financial restitution to victims of actual crime.

    People who work at my store have gone months and even years without bonuses because $1.5 Million Dollars goes out of our store doors without getting purchased.

    Just the other day, a glass door of ours got smashed when one of these perpetrators of small-scale looting ran against it trying to escape the town’s finest. Both he and one Officer were bloodied pretty badly.

    Where do people who own, work, and shop in this store go to get back nice things?

  12. You may want to look up on Wikipedia this concept being batted around on the Antifa/BLM/Wokeist Left called “Transformative Justice.” As with everything else Orwellian coming from The Left, it is a contradiction in terms.

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