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September 9, 1971, Inmates Riot & Seize Attica, New York Prison - Today In Crime History

On this day, September 9, in 1971 over one thousand prisoners at the state prison in Attica, NY started a riot that would last four days.  The riot began with the killing of a corrections officer, then the rioters took about 40 prison employees hostage.  Inmates actually seized control of the maximum security facility. 

In the summer of 1971, the state prison in Attica, New York, which was designed to house 1,200 inmates was actually housing 2,225 inmates. Inmates were frustrated with the chronic overcrowding and living conditions that limited them to one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper each month.

On the morning of September 9, a spontaneous eruption began when inmates on the way to breakfast overpowered correctional officers and stormed down a prison gallery in a riot. They broke through a faulty gate and into a central area known as Times Square, which gave them access and control of all cellblocks.  Prisoners rampaged through the prison beating correctional officers, acquiring homemade weapons, taking hostages and burning down the prison chapel. Three inmates were killed in what appeared to be cases of “prison justice.”  One correctional officer was beaten and thrown out a second-story window. Two days later, he died in a hospital from his injuries.

Using tear gas and firearms, state police regained control of three of the four cellblocks held by the rioters.  Inmates were left in control of one large open exercise field surrounded by 35-foot walls, overlooked by gun towers.  Thirty-nine hostages, mostly correctional officers and a few other prison employees, were blindfolded and held in a tight circle.  Prisoners armed with knives and clubs guarded the hostages closely.

Riot leaders put together a list of demands, including improved living conditions, greater religious freedom, an end to mail censorship, and expanded phone privileges.  In tense negotiations, prison officials agreed to honor many of the inmates' demands for improved living conditions. Negotiations, however, broke down when the prisoners called for amnesty for everyone in the recreation yard, along with safe passage to a "non-imperialist country" for anyone who desired it.

New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered State Police to retake the prison yard by force.  On September 13, an ultimatum was delivered to the inmates, calling on them to surrender. The prisoners responded by putting knives against their hostages' throats.   Helicopters flew over the recreation yard, dropping tear gas as state police and correction officers stormed in with guns blazing.  Law enforcment fired more than 3,000 rounds into the tear gas haze, killing 29 inmates, 10 of the hostages and wounding 89 other individuals.

After the raid, authorities claimed that the prisoners had killed the slain hostages by slitting their throats. One hostage was said to have been castrated. Autopsies, however, showed that these charges were false and that all 10 hostages had been shot to death by law enforcement. The attempted cover-up increased public condemnation of the raid.  The Attica riot and its bloody conclusion increased public awareness about the dangers of prison overcrowding and prompted a Congressional investigation.

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