An aerial shot of incarcerated people in D Yard at Attica Correctional Facility before the deadly police assault. Black and white photo.

Why the Attica Prison Uprising Still Matters Today

On September 9, 1971, the men incarcerated in New York’s Attica State Prison fought back against the carceral system, seizing control of the facility. The Attica Uprising was the largest prison rebellion in United States history and highlighted the inhumane conditions imposed on incarcerated people. These issues are just as relevant today as they were in the 1970s. September 13 is the anniversary of the government’s murderous repression of the Attica Uprising and an occasion to support incarcerated activists struggling for justice today (History). 

Conditions at Attica State Prison were brutal. Mail was censored, and non-English letters were automatically discarded. There were no Muslim chaplains since the prison system didn’t recognize Islam as a legitimate religion (NYTimes). Prisoners received one roll of toilet paper a month. “Goon squads” of guards rushed into cells to beat people senseless, with incarcerated Black men treated especially poorly. “It reminded me of things I used to hear about on plantations in slavery. They treated us like we weren’t human,” recalls Arthur Harrison (NPR). 


• Support Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the largest prisoner-led organization in the U.S.

• Support the efforts of the Sentencing ProjectVera, and Critical Resistance to end mass incarceration.

• Consider: What human rights do you think every person should have? Do they include things like adequate food and shelter, freedom of speech, and freedom from government abuse? Now consider groups of people like those who are incarcerated or unhoused. Does your government guarantee or abuse their human rights? How would you characterize a regime that violates the human rights of those living under it? Would such a government admit to its citizens that it violates their human rights, or would it instead point only to human rights violations in other countries? 

Those incarcerated at Attica knew that the Black Panther Party and Young Lords were organizing and fighting back against racism. They read Malcolm X, assassinated five years before, who said, “If birth made you American, you wouldn’t need any [civil rights] legislation… No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of Americanism.” They knew that the government had murdered incarcerated revolutionary George Jackson just weeks earlier and saw the conditions at Attica were part of a larger racist structure. So, on September 9, Arthur Harrison was one of 1,000 people who spontaneously fought back against the prison system, taking 39 guards as hostages (NPR). 

The leaders of the Attica Uprising demanded humanitarian reforms like adequate food, legal assistance, religious freedom, and safe travel to a “non-imperialist country.” The state agreed to 28 demands. But the billionaire governor of New York State, Nelson Rockefeller, also called hundreds of state police to the prison and mobilized the National Guard (ForbesHistoryNYTimes). 

The military, FBI, CIA, and President Richard Nixon were immediately involved. Rockefeller and Nixon feared the Attica rebellion would spark a national “Black uprising.” The government decided to call off negotiations and storm the prison by force. Aware that this would result in a “massacre,” they wanted to send a bloody warning to activists and marginalized communities around the country—the “Angela Davis crowd,” as Nixon put it (History).  

Fifty-two years ago today, New York State attacked Attica State Prison. Police and correctional officers indiscriminately fired 3,000 rounds through clouds of tear gas dropped by a National Guard helicopter. Government forces murdered 10 of the hostages—their own coworkers—while mowing down dozens of rebels. (The government pressured the coroner to falsely report that the hostages were castrated and executed by the incarcerated rebels; he refused.) Those wounded or attempting to surrender were summarily executed by police. As Nixon and Rockefeller planned, the prison was retaken in a horrifying show of force. In the days that followed, victorious prison guards brutally tortured survivors, forcing them to crawl naked through broken glass (HistoryTeen Vogue). 

None of the government forces that put down the Attica Uprising with sadistic torture and indiscriminate murder were ever charged with a crime. Many of the prison reforms that the government agreed to were never implemented. But it’s because of the courage of those who fought back in the Attica Uprising that incarcerated people in New York State today have access to non-Christian chaplains, law libraries, and fruit (NYTimes). 

But conditions in prisons and jails across the United States remain intolerable. Today, six times as many people are incarcerated in the United States as there were during the Attica Uprising (Sentencing Project). Incarcerated activists continue to organize from inside prison, building resistance under the most oppressive conditions imaginable. In 2018, incarcerated organizers launched a prison strike across 17 states on the anniversary of George Jackson’s murder (AAIHS). Thousands of people went on strike in Alabama prisons last year (The Guardian). There’s no way to be a consistent anti-racist without supporting those fighting against prison brutality. As Jackson wrote: 

Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here, that people are dying who could be saved, that generations more will die or live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act” (HiaW). 


• On September 13, 1971, the government put down the Attica prison uprising, murdering 10 of their own in the process. 

• Today, there are six times as many people incarcerated in the United States as there were in 1971. 

• Incarcerated activists are organizing in prisons across the country but need support from those of us on the outside.

1200 830 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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