"Just because we were prisoners didn't mean we were less than human."
-Daniel Sheppherd, former Attica inmate
The impacts of a tragedy like that which took place at the Attica Correctional Facility remain significant 50 years after the uprising and slaughter that ensued. The causal factors for the actions of both the State Troopers and the revolting inmates continue to merit substantial analytical attention if we are to avoid future eruptions of violence within the penal system and beyond. Let me introduce some of the assessments and information presented in the extraordinary documentary, “Attica,” directed and produced by Stanley Nelson. Additional background facts were provided by dedicated historian Heather Ann Thompson, author of “Blood in the Water,” (2016) will help in contextualizing this ongoing quest for deeper understandings.
Nelson introduces several high-intensity individuals who describe the dehumanizing situations which they endured as inmates at the Attica maximum security facility. One problem which contributed to their sense of being mistreated was that their allotments for toilet paper permitted them to get only one role per month. This necessitated the tearing of each "sheet" in half, and even then, as the end of the month approached, they'd have to use pages from books in their cells or clean themselves manually.
Keep in mind that this prison population was fairly youthful. Thompson describes the Attica prisoners as, for the most part, "young, urban, undereducated and African American or Puerto Rican." Also, she notes that more than two-thirds of them had been incarcerated prior to their terms in Attica.
To add to the difficulties, the guards rarely spoke to the inmates. Rather, they conveyed their commands (like "walk" and "stop") by hitting the floor or the cell bars with their batons. In addition, mail was often delayed and bedsheets were not cleaned regularly. While any one of these things, on its own, may not seem of great consequence, when combined with substandard levels of nutrition and periods of significant heat or bone chilling cold, we can deduce that the situation was volatile. Also, in the closing phase of the seige, when some of the inmates pressed knife blades against the guard-hostages' throats — a move described as a "bluff" by one of the former prisoners interviewed in the film, one can see how those men in the yard could be perceived by the men with guns as "barbarians," even though this wasn't the case.
"Attica is the ghost that has never stopped haunting its survivors, including both the inmates and the families of the deceased guards and prison personnel," it’s written in "A Time For Truth," a report issued by an advocacy group, the Forgotten Victims Of Attica.
Eventually, state authorities agreed to pay $20 million to the traumatized families of the hostages; Dee Quinn Miller, daughter of William Quinn, the guard who had been brutally beaten in the initial stage of the uprising (and died a few days thereafter) said "the victory felt hollow." There'd been no official admission of culpability on the part of the state, and there was an ongoing coverup of what had taken place.
Quinn-Miller, interviewed several times in the film, as well as in Thompson's book, isn't, by any means, the only significant individual to raise substantive questions about the mode of operation of officials of the state. Mary Valone, whose father, Carl, was one of the hostages killed when Troopers reclaimed D-Yard , said in the course of an interview that, in an earlier meeting between hostage’s family members and prison officials, she and her cohorts felt that the officials "dismissed their concerns."
On another note, the judge, Michael Telesca, responsible for deliberations regarding the class action suit by Attica inmates, was glad that the state agreed to provide a settlement of $12 million. In a break with precedent, Telesca invited all the plaintiffs to come to his courtroom and describe what had happened to them. The judge later declared, "It was the most fulfilling thing I ever did." The judge also noted that out of the many former inmates who spoke to him, the one who "impressed him most profoundly" was Frank "Big Black" Smith, who was tortured in a very disturbing way in a scene near the end of the documentary.
One of the cognitive jolts that filmmaker Nelson's film provides takes place in the aftermath of the Troopers retaking control. A news report notes that all the hostages had been killed, and the official police report is cited as the source. The cause of death is stated as slit throats. Then, on the next day, and in the following scene, we see the local coroner stating to newsmen that none of the hostages had their throats cut. The cause of death for all of them was high-caliber bullets, which were found in their upper body.
In any case, let me close, at least for now, with a comment from Mike Rotkin, who was an Ithaca activist who once invited me for dinner at his apartment, where three of the guests included Cesar Chavez and two other organizers for the United Farm Workers.
"There have been a lot of changes in the California prison since Attica, including, most notably, a citizen initiative that responded to [California’s] overcrowded prisons by releasing many non-violent inmates early, usually on probation." Rotkin notes that the program has been, for the most part, successful. He served as Mayor of Santa Cruz for many years, and continues to teach in the Community Service Education program at UCSC.
“Attica” is currently available to stream on Hulu Premium.