By Phin Upham
The prison riots that occurred at the Attica prison facility in 1971 were an extremely important moment in prisoner’s rights. Prisoners were demanding better living conditions and certain political rights. The riot itself was triggered after the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin. Jackson had staged a dramatic escape attempt in which he’d used a concealed pistol to gain control over a prison in a momentary coup. He was shot dead during the attempt, which angered the residents of Attica.
On the ground at Attica, an inmate had been confined to solitary. Company 5 was protesting his confinement, and the confinement of others, when they were able to free the inmate. The guards realized that the confined inmate had been set free, so they diverted the prisoners to their cells after breakfast instead of in the yard for fresh air. This angered the prisoners, who complained and quickly began rioting.
All told, 1,000 inmates were able to successfully hold Attica prison for four days. Authorities agreed to 28 of the demands made by prisoners, excluding the demand for amnesty for having engineered the takeover. It was then state Governor Nelson Rockefeller who ordered troopers to retake the prison. When all was finished, 43 people were dead. Most were inmates, but ten correctional officers and civilians were killed in the conflict.
Rockefeller took a firm stance toward the riot, never visiting the scene and describing the prisoners as cold-blooded killers. The prison rebellion remains a controversial moment in New York and American history, with many interpretations with credibility.