FORTY years ago today, more than 1,000 inmates at Attica Correctional Facility began a major civil and human rights protest — an uprising that is barely mentioned in textbooks but nevertheless was one of the most important rebellions in American history.
A forbidding institution that opened in 1931, Attica, roughly midway between Buffalo and Rochester, was overcrowded and governed by rigid and often capricious penal practices.
The guards were white men from small towns in upstate New York; the prisoners were mostly urban African-Americans and Puerto Ricans. They wanted decent medical care so that an inmate like Angel Martinez, 21, could receive treatment for his debilitating polio. They wanted more humane parole so that a man like L. D. Barkley, also 21, wouldn’t be locked up in a maximum security facility like Attica for driving without a license. They also wanted less discriminatory policies so that black inmates like Richard X. Clark wouldn’t be given the worst jobs, while white prisoners were given the best. These men first tried writing to state officials, but their pleas for reform were largely ignored. Eventually, they erupted.
Over five days, Americans sat glued to their televisions as this uprising unfolded. They watched in surprise as inmates elected representatives from each cellblock to negotiate on their behalf. They watched in disbelief as these same inmates protected the guards and civilian employees they had taken hostage.
They also saw the inmates request the presence of official “observers” to ensure productive and peaceful interactions with the state. These eventually included the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker; the radical lawyer William M. Kunstler; politicians like Arthur O. Eve, John R. Dunne and Herman Badillo; and ministers as well as activists.
As the rebellion wore on, and the lawn around Attica filled with hundreds of heavily armed state troopers, these observers worried that Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, having already refused to grant amnesty to the inmates if they surrendered, would turn to force. This, they knew, would result in a massacre.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Sunday, September 11, 2011