Fifty years ago, the prisoners of Attica Correctional Facility rose up in rebellion, outraged by inhumane treatment.
What followed was, by turns, remarkable, horrific and contemptible.
For four days, the prisoners negotiated with the Department of Corrections for, among other things, better food, medical care and access to personal hygiene products (prisoners were only allocated a single roll of toilet paper per month).
On the morning of the fifth day, Sept. 13, 1971, 300 state troopers indiscriminately opened fire on the inmates and their hostages, killing 39 people. While a spokesman for the Department of Corrections told the assembled media that prisoners had slit the throats of the dead, autopsies concluded that all 39 people died of gunshot wounds: 10 prison guards and 29 inmates.
- Attorney Joe Heath on the immediate aftermath of the Attica Rebellion
- Remembering Attica: A look back at the worst prison uprising in U.S. history
- Remembering Attica: Prison guard's murder 50 years ago prompts daughter to write her late father's story
- Remembering Attica: Hostage's son shares memories of riot, impact on his family
The subsequent cover-up of the slaughter by state police was aided by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz. It wasn’t until 1985, when special prosecutor Malcolm Bell published what was originally titled “The Turkey Shoot: Tracking the Attica Cover-up," that most of America learned the truth: that the troopers acted with homicidal intent.
None of the troopers involved were ever indicted.
In her definitive history of the Attica rebellion, historian and public intellectual Heather Ann Thompson gives voice to those who took part in the subsequent 45-year fight for justice, including former prisoners, attorneys, prison guards and others.
In 2017, professor Thompson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy." She spoke with Capital Tonight about the rebellion and the legal documents related to it that New York state has yet to make public.
“The State of New York still has all of the files, hundreds and hundreds of boxes from all the legal cases that they defended, that prisoners filed, all the criminal cases they filed against prisoners and not against any of the state troopers. Thousands and thousands of pages of documents that we need to have opened,” Thompson said. “We need to have an apology from the State of New York to all of the citizens of New York.”
Thompson told Capital Tonight the files in question were paid for by taxpayers, as were the subsequent investigations into the tragedy.
“We are owed, I think, what happened here,” she said.