© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Heritage Moments: The Attica Prison Uprising — 43 dead and a four-decade cover-up

Still image from the documentary “William Kuntsler: Disturbing the Universe”, POV on PBS
On Sept. 13, 1971, the New York State Police retook Attica Prison after a four-day takeover by inmates. Thirty-nine inmates and hostages were killed in the operation, all victims of police bullets, some fired from close range.

The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 is one of the most disturbing episodes in the history of New York State and, indeed, the nation as a whole. It lasted four days, cost the lives of 43 persons and damaged the lives of hundreds of others, and what happened in the weeks before and the decades after only magnifies the horror. The repercussions of the uprising, the brutality the state used to put it down, the cover-up that followed – all of it continues to reverberate today.

The Attica Correctional Facility was always a hard place. By the time of the uprising some 2,200 inmates, some of them violent criminals, were housed there. But the conditions inside were deplorable, exacerbated by mounting racial tensions between white prison guards and black and Hispanic inmates. On Sept. 9 a relatively minor incident quickly escalated into a riot, and roughly 1,300 prisoners took over Attica’s D yard, taking 42 guards and civilian workers in the process. A prison guard died of injuries as a result of the initial riot, and three inmates were later found dead.

Several eloquent spokesmen soon emerged among the inmates, who used the takeover as a platform to talk about the injustices of the prison system at Attica and elsewhere. One spokesman, 21-year-old L.D. Barkley of Rochester, made a speech that became famous. “We are men!” he pronounced, before the news cameras that had gathered at the prison.

The prisoners demanded improvements in medical, sanitary and food conditions and in visitation rights, and an end to beatings by guards. They began negotiations with state officials, observed by a prominent roster of neutral observers including Buffalo assemblyman Arthur O. Eve, Bronx congressman Herman Badillo, Tom Wicker of The New York Times and civil rights lawyer William Kuntsler. Both the prisoners and the observers asked Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller to join the negotiations, but he refused.

As the talks were going nowhere, the prisoners continued to hold the hostages and treated them relatively well. Meanwhile, outside the prison walls, the State Police prepared to retake Attica. In addition to their own forces, they issued firearms to prison guards and assorted sheriffs’ deputies.

On Rockefeller’s orders, the police struck on the morning of Sept. 13. They dropped tear gas into the yard and opened fire from cellblock roofs — 450 officers discharging more than 4,500 rounds of ammunition, including shotgun pellets and dum-dum bullets, outlawed by the Geneva Convention, that explode on impact. Twenty-nine prisoners and nine hostages were killed, all by police gunfire; at least three prisoners were shot at close range in a manner suggesting an execution. (A tenth hostage later died of his wounds.) More than 100 inmates and hostages were severely wounded.

The State Police announced that the nine hostages had their throats slit by the inmates, but the Monroe County coroner refuted the claim, ascribing their deaths to police bullets.

L.D. Barkley was among the dead. Another inmate, 19-year-old Charles Pernasalice, in Attica on charges stemming from a bike theft he committed at 16, was one of those who would later testify on what it was like to live through the hail of gunfire. “You’d see them getting blown apart,” he remembered.

Attica was recaptured, and with that the retributions began. Police and guards beat prisoners bloody, forced them to crawl in the mud and run naked through gauntlets, tortured them with rifle butts and lit cigarettes, hurled racial slurs at them and otherwise abused them in an orgy of revenge and cruelty.

Eventually sympathetic lawyers helped the prisoners and the hostages, as well as the families of slain inmates and prison guards, bring lawsuits against the state. But the authorities locked away evidence at hidden locations, stalling and stonewalling for years. It would take until the turn of the millennium for the first judgments to finally be awarded. They were all small amounts, paid by New York State, which to this day has never admitted wrongdoing.

Credit From the PBS NewsHour report “Unveiling the long-hidden story of the Attica prison riot.”

The state’s cover-up, however, continued until 2011. It ended only when a muckraking author stumbled across a huge cache of evidence in Albany that had been hidden by the State Police since 1971 — documents, victims’ bloody clothing, testimony of what really happened when the authorities took back the prison. That author —Heather Ann Thompson of the University of Michigan — went on to tell the entire story of Attica and its legacy in the book “Blood on the Water”, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2017.

Attica prison still stands forbiddingly just outside the small Wyoming County village. There has yet to be another American jailhouse riot as bloody, but the same problems persist in a national prison population now more than five times larger than it was in 1971. In every conceivable way, Attica is still with us.

Cast (in order of appearance):

L.D. Barkley: Corey Grant
Narrator: Susan Banks
State Police commander: Kevin Dennis
Charles Pernasalice: Mike Devine

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Dave Debo, WBFO news director
Brian Meyer, former WBFO news director
Armin St. George, Crosswater Digital Media

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)