If you have an interest and the intestinal fortitude, I encourage you to experience Attica, the documentary. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson brings the Attica massacre to the big screen using video footage never before seen publicly that helps to fill in the gaps of the prison uprising that kicked off in 1971. Attica is available for free viewing on YouTube until the end of Black History Month.
Fifty years later, the Attica prison massacre remains the bloodiest in U.S. history. In fifteen minutes, a blaze of bullets were fired by prison guards, state troopers and national guardsmen. I’m always amazed that there weren’t more casualties; it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Before the smoke cleared, thirty-nine lay dead, hundreds injured and many more traumatized for life. This is the human toll it took to break open the prisoners’ rights movement and simultaneously create the blueprint for the imminent prison industrial complex.
During the Attica standoff, everyone played their role. The organizing of the prisoners was incredible, from building latrines to setting up medical units. We saw the brilliance of certain leaders come through and knew their leadership would be avenged. Young brothers like LD Barkley - days away from being released - was summarily executed by the state after regaining control of the yard and inmates had surrendered.
The mainstream media told their lies to ensure public sentiment would not side with the prisoners. The airways conveyed that inmates had done all kind of horrific things to the guards, like slitting their throats when, in fact, a special patrol of prisoners was responsible for keeping the hostages safe during the entire time of the siege. Autopsies would later reveal that all victims, both prisoners and guards, died by bullets from the state law-less enforcement.
Then there were the politicians. A politically ambitious Governor Rockefeller was in regular communication with then President Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon. They never intended to negotiate in good faith, seeking to project the most vivid picture of who could be hardest on criminals, aka Black prisoners.
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Attica inmates had righteous demands like getting medical treatment, receiving more than one roll of toilet paper per month, ending the unbridled brutality by guards, getting more visiting hours. These were the same demands echoing in archaic penal institutions across the country at that time. Sadistic guards, intolerable conditions, inhumane practices - the ingredients of an uprising in AnyPrison USA.
In Missouri, we had our own Attica prison. Like most states in the 1970s, there was only one penitentiary - the Big House. Ours was the Missouri State Penitentiary (aka Misery, Suffering, Pain) because of the notorious savagery by guards and a warden who actively engaged in the brutality of inmates. I was a young organizer with a coalition that helped to fight for the rights and dignity of prisoners and their families. My activism led to my being banned from the premises until the mid-1980s when the penal system hired its first African American director. He lasted a New York minute but our organizing went on.
In 1970 there were almost 50,000 people in state and federal prisons. From Ronald Reagan’s so-called war on drugs to Bill Clinton’s crime bill and beyond, the stage was set to build a monster system that currently contains two million people at an annual cost of nearly $200 billion. This astronomic figure is based on the operating costs of mass incarceration plus policing and courts. And let’s not forget the cost paid by families to support their loved ones in prison.
Now prisoners may get more toilet paper or can see loved ones in a bright and colorful room instead of behind mesh. The sadistic guards, intolerable environment and inhumane practices are still essential elements of the oppressive prison system. Psychological torture, verbal abuse and physical brutality happen away from the ever-gazing eyes of surveillance cameras.
Almost every issue lifted up through the Attica demands is alive and well in 2022. There needs to be serious scrutiny of U.S. prisons from bottom to top, back to front. For a system that’s sucking billions of taxpayers’ dollars from meeting human needs, it gets very little scrutiny and scant government interventions.
The prison rights movement is a sleeping giant when you think about the number of people who’ve been touched directly or indirectly by mass incarceration. The prison abolitionist movement must use the interests and emotions coming from the Attica documentary to infuse new energy into an old struggle.