You might have heard someone yell “Attica!” or even looked up the Wikipedia page after that one season of Orange is the New Black, but what exactly was Attica and how did it become the battle cry of the disenfranchised? It turns out prison riots can get pretty ugly, so you should probably stop invoking it when McDonald’s screws up your order.

Racism at Attica

Attica, New York

(Andre Carrotflower/Wikimedia Commons)

Attica, New York is a rural community where the only real job prospects in 1971 were dairy farming or working at the prison, so it’s no surprise that all of the guards were white. The prisoner population, on the other hand, was 65% men of color, mostly black men, so it’s probably safe to believe them when they say at least some of those random beatings were racially motivated.

Other Uprisings

1970 was a prison rioty year. Just in New York, the Manhattan House of Detention and Auburn Correctional Facility were the sites of similar (if much less severe) uprisings. In fact, some prisoners from Auburn were transferred to Attica in the aftermath, so whispers of “You know how we handled this back there…” likely planted the seeds of berserkery.

Joshing and Noshing

Prison hall

(Matthew Ansley/Unsplash)

On the day before the uprising, two guys who’d been joking around in the prison yard were beaten and taken to solitary, so the other prisoners were already pretty mad on September 9, 1971, when one of the guards responsible ordered them back to their cells after breakfast. He may not have asked very nicely, as the prisoners reacted by declaring an ass-kicking.


After some assault and arson, the prisoners actually lost control of most of the prison when state police showed up about an hour later. They only held onto one prison yard, where they’d taken somewhere between 38 and 42 blindfolded prison employees hostage, which was really the important part.



(Eugene Chystiakov/Unsplash)

Shortly after taking their hostages, the prisoners of Attica issued a list of 30 demands. They ranged from the mundane (better visiting conditions, more toilet paper) to the high minded (legal representation, fair wages and working conditions) to the comical (food that isn’t “a gastronomical disaster,” negotiation through reporters) to the somewhat unreasonable (passage to a “non-imperialist” country for those who didn’t feel like being in prison anymore).



(Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

The New York commissioner of corrections surprisingly agreed immediately to 28 of the prisoners’ demands. They had a little more trouble, however, convincing him of the overseas vacation thing as well as amnesty for all participants for their role in the uprising. That was pretty important because…

Storming the Prison

Governor Nelson Rockefeller

(Ricardo Thomas/Wikimedia Commons)

Another person who didn’t come was the governor, who instead simply ordered the police, after four days of failed negotiations, to drop some tear gas and start shooting up the place. A total of 39 people were killed in the attack, including 10 hostages, who had been dressed as prisoners with the hope that police wouldn’t shoot if they couldn’t tell who was who. Suffice it to say they were wrong.

No One Slit Anyone’s Throat

In the aftermath of the carnage, authorities claimed that the prisoners had slit their hostages’ throats, hoping to turn public opinion against them. While the prisoners did hold the hostages at knifepoint in a last-ditch bid for control after they were ordered to surrender just before the raid, autopsies of the dead hostages confirmed that they had all, in fact, been killed by the police.

Punishment After the Riot

If things were bad in Attica before Attica, they got even worse in the immediate aftermath of the riot. For a week, prisoners were forced to crawl naked through broken glass and literal shit in the latrines they’d dug and “run down a hall between two rows of guards who beat them as they ran,” among myriad indignities. They definitely didn’t get that better medical care they asked for.


Dog Day Afternoon

(Warner Bros.)

Attica became the subject of numerous books and documentaries, but it was most famously invoked by Al Pacino’s bank-robbing Dog Day Afternoon character, who chants “Attica!” at police officers who, it must be said, were in no way limiting his ability to wipe his ass.



(Tingey Injury Law Firm/Unsplash)

The prisoners decidedly did not receive amnesty for their role in the riots -- 62 of them were indicted on more than 1,200 counts of various crimes. Within a few years, however, a new governor pardoned seven of them and commuted the sentence of another, and in 2000, they settled a lawsuit against prison and state officials for $8 million. It wasn’t much divided among more than 500 plaintiffs, but much like the prison conditions, it would apparently have to do.

Top image: Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons

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