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This image, captured from a helicopter flying above the Attica Correctional Facility, shows smoke emanating from one of the prison's buildings.
The inmates (many of whom can be seen in the background) burned down the prison chapel on the first day of the riots in September 1971.Bettmann/Getty Images
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One of the many guards beaten by inmates on the first day of the riots is loaded into an ambulance by New York State Police troopers and local police.New York State Archives
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Some of the hundreds of police officers standing guard outside of the main prison entrance after the first day of rioting on September 9, 1971.
Emergency lighting illuminates the prison walls as authorities debate how to handle the situation.New York State Archives
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Inmates raise their fists in solidarity while one of their leaders speaks with Commissioner of Corrections Russell Oswald on September 10, 1971.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A debris-riddled corridor in one of the four Attica cell blocks is littered with shattered glass and broken equipment on the second day of the riot.Santi Visalli Inc./Getty Images
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Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (second from left) arriving at the Greater Buffalo International Airport on September 11, 1971.
After meeting with Attica inmates, he proposed accepting the deal put forth by the Commissioner of Corrections — which would have granted the prisoners 28 of their 33 demands.Bettmann/Getty Images
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New York State Police troopers keep guard at the main prison entrance during a morning shift change on September 14, 1971.New York State Archives
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Heavily armed authorities position themselves on a platform overlooking Attica's D Yard — which had become the main stronghold of the 1,281 rioting inmates.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Inmates had drawn up a manifesto listing 33 demands, from better living conditions to amnesty for the uprising.
They elected five prisoners to serve as leaders with negotiating powers, while many others were instructed to work as security or medics. Here, they express solidarity during the negotiation process. Bettmann/Getty Images
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This makeshift hospital station was one of the internal services that prisoners set up during the riot. These services would be widely documented by journalists who were invited into the prison to oversee the uprising. Bettmann/Getty Images
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Inmates barricading themselves in one of the corridors leading to cell block D on September 10, 1971. They had just finished discussions with correctional officers regarding the terms of their impending negotiations.
The figure in black standing in the center was one of the television cameramen that inmates allowed into the prison to document events.New York State Archives
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Civil rights lawyer William Kunstler (right) was one of the observers that the Attica inmates had asked for help.
After a four-hour meeting, he's pictured here with the negotiating committee and other inmates in the prison's D Yard on September 11, 1971.Bettmann/Getty Images
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National Guardsmen donning gas masks as they prepare to storm the facility on September 13, 1971.
Protected from the tear gas that had been delivered via helicopter, they would brazenly open fire on both inmates and hostages in the yard. Don Dutton/Toronto Star/Getty Images
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An injured guard — one of 89 people wounded in the bloody September 13 assault — being carried to an ambulance on a stretcher by authorities.New York State Archives
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Some of the hundreds of guards, officers, and troops stationed outside of the prison on September 11, 1971, awaiting their orders.Santi Visalli/Getty Images
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Attica Correctional Facility Superintendent Vincent P. Mancusi entering the main gate of the prison on September 11, 1971. To his chagrin, the prisoners requested his removal from office as one of their top demands during the negotiations process. Bettmann/Getty Images
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One of the military helicopters flying over the prison's D Yard to deploy tear gas. Moments later, hundreds of troops, officers, and guards would storm the prison, firing off rounds with abandon — and killing 10 of their own men in the process.Bettmann/Getty Images
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New York State Police troopers rush into Attica Prison as the siege begins. Armed with shotguns and rifles and protected by gas masks, they would fire some 3,000 rounds into D Yard on September 13, 1971.New York State Archives
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Ordered to respond to the scene by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, National Guard troops position themselves outside the prison walls on September 13, 1971.
Helicopters would drop tear gas into the prison yard moments later, signaling the troops to rush inside and retake control of Attica at any cost.New York State Archives
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Guards inspect some of the many makeshift weapons that prisoners left behind in the wake of the assault on the D Yard on September 13, 1971.Santi Visalli/Getty Images
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Authorities fill in the defensive trenches that prisoners had dug during the riot while confiscating any weapons or contraband left behind. New York State Archives
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Some of the many makeshift weapons that were confiscated from prisoners when the riot came to an end. The belt that reads "executioner" tragically speaks to the worst parts of the uprising.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Inmates are forced to lie down (left) while others are strip-searched for weapons (right) in the prison yard on September 13, 1971.Bettmann/Getty Images
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In the aftermath of the uprising, New York State Police troopers comb through one of the many command posts set up by the inmates.New York State Archives
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Many inmates were ordered to sit or lie down by the D Yard trench in the wake of the four-day uprising.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Shattered glass and rigid bars reflect just how chaotic the Attica riot had been. With 43 people dead, it was the deadliest prison uprising in American history. Bettmann/Getty Images
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The immediate aftermath of the riots saw inmates stripped of their clothes and forced to stand with their hands above their heads. A week after the riot had ended, inmates were allegedly beaten by the guards.
The McKay Commission used this image during their four-day hearings on the fiasco.Bettmann/Getty Images
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The charred hat of an Attica prison guard — and a bullet hole in the railing enclosing the D Yard. Bettmann/Getty Images
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The Attica prison riot became such a flashpoint in the prisoners' rights movement that demonstrations like the one pictured here continued throughout the rest of the 1970s. Banners and signs that read "Avenge Attica" and "Feel for your brothers and sisters in jail" became common sights across the nation. David Fenton/Getty Images
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On September 14, 1971, a photo of the vacant D Yard told a thousand words about the disastrous raid.Santi Visalli Inc./Getty Images
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Demonstrators marching for leniency for Attica rioters, improved conditions for all inmates, and an end to police brutality during a demonstration on September 28, 1971.Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
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Authorities inspect one of the defensive trenches that inmates dug in preparation for the inevitable assault on September 13, 1971.New York State Archives
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While both the New York State Police troopers and National Guardsmen involved in the September 13 assault were trained in firearms, they wound up killing 10 hostages and 29 inmates — a devastating loss.Don Dutton/Toronto Star/Getty Images
33 Pictures Of The Bloody Attica Prison Riot That Left 43 People Dead
The small town of Attica in upstate New York may appear quaint and subdued today. But it became infamous in 1971 — when the Attica prison riot exploded into the bloodiest prison uprising in U.S. history.
The four-day revolt began on September 9, 1971, and saw more than half of Attica's prison population take up improvised arms. At that point, their calls for improved living conditions had gone unanswered for months. So, 1,281 inmates decided to take matters into their own hands. They took 39 prison guards and employees hostage, hoping to negotiate with state politicians.
At first, it seemed like authorities were willing to cooperate. But when negotiations stalled, police made the fateful decision to launch a raid on September 13. On that day, a helicopter dropped tear gas from the sky — as state police rushed the yard and fired 3,000 rounds — killing 10 hostages and 29 inmates. By the time the uprising was over, 43 people were dead.
These 33 images capture the historic chaos of the Attica prison riot — and how it helped galvanize the prisoners' rights movement.
How The Attica Prison Riot Exploded In 1971
Wikimedia CommonsToday, Attica Correctional Facility bears a memorial honoring the victims of the Attica prison massacre.
Meant to hold 1,600 inmates, the Attica Correctional Facility held around 2,200 at the time of the uprising — which led to overcrowding and the harried rationing of essential supplies. Many prisoners were limited to just one roll of toilet paper per month and one shower per week.
As one historian later wrote, "Prisoners spent 14 to 16 hours a day in their cells, their mail was read, their reading material restricted, their visits from families conducted through a mesh screen, their medical care disgraceful, their parole system inequitable, racism everywhere."
It was only a matter of time before tensions boiled over — and that's exactly what happened in September 1971. The riot began shortly after dawn on September 9, when inmates were supposed to be on their way to breakfast.
A small group of prisoners overpowered the nearby guards before charging through a shoddy gate and reaching "Times Square" — a central hub in the prison. Within moments, the initially small band of rioters swelled to 1,281 participants. They quickly began attacking prison officers with homemade shivs and clubs — and it was clear that the Attica prison riot had begun.
After burning down the prison chapel and taking over three cell blocks, the inmates encountered state police wielding tear gas and machine guns. While the authorities soon managed to regain control of the cell blocks, the rioters had already taken 39 prison guards and employees hostage outside.
At around 10:30 a.m., the prisoners settled in an exercise yard, blindfolded the hostages, and dug trenches into the soil. Drawing up their demands, they began delegating duties. Some prisoners would serve as security or medics. Others would serve as representatives to demand negotiations.
Titled The Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto of Demands, the prisoners' proposal listed 33 requests, including better medical treatment, more religious freedoms, "an end of physical abuse for basic necessities" like daily showers, and more than one monthly roll of toilet paper.
The five inmates elected to wield negotiation power called for outside observers to aid in the talks. These included lawyer William Kunstler, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, Minister Louis Farrakhan, and Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale. While some like Farrakhan declined the invitation, others like Seale agreed to meet with the prisoners.
New York Commissioner of Corrections Russell Oswald eventually agreed to 28 of the demands. Though negotiations moved forward, the prisoners' demand for amnesty for the uprising — and some other requests — proved a bridge too far. On the night of September 12, both Oswald and Governor Nelson Rockefeller decided that force was needed to retake the prison.
How The Police Took Attica Back By Force
Santi Visalli Inc./Getty ImagesThe aftermath of the Attica prison riot on September 14, 1971.
It was 8:25 a.m. on September 13 when Oswald delivered the prisoners a final written warning. It demanded their full surrender — but instead saw them put their blades against their hostages' throats. State Police and National Guard troops lined up outside the gates while the inmates dug into their trenches. Helicopters soon appeared at 9:46 a.m.
With tear gas flooding the yard, hundreds of State Police troopers, Attica correctional officers, sheriff's deputies, and park police officers rushed the field. Brandishing shotguns loaded with buckshot and Geneva Convention-violating unjacketed ammunition, they laid waste to the prisoners.
Thousands of rounds were fired into the yard, killing 10 hostages and 29 inmates and wounding 89 others. One emergency technician witnessed a state trooper shoot a wounded prisoner lying on the ground in the head. Another inmate was shot seven times and then ordered to keep crawling.
By 10:05 a.m., it was all over. "On a much smaller scale, I think I have some feeling of now of how Truman must have felt when he decided to drop the A-bomb," reflected Oswald after the massacre.
Both Oswald and Rockefeller initially claimed that all 10 dead hostages had been killed by the inmates, but autopsies quickly showed that the state had recklessly gunned them down. The death of one prison guard had been correctly attributed to the prisoners — as well as the deaths of three other inmates — but those deaths had happened early on in the uprising.
Ultimately, the Attica prison riot led to nationwide demonstrations in support of prisoners' rights. It also spawned a congressional investigation and a $2.8 billion class-action lawsuit that represented the inmates involved.
Decades later, an $8 million settlement was to be split among just 502 inmates who were involved in the uprising. A further $12 million would be paid out to prison guards and their families in 2005.
Despite the notoriety of the uprising, it did not make nearly as much of an impact on the U.S. prison system as some activists were hoping. Though it did lead to some changes in regard to prison reform — most notably more religious freedom behind bars — many of the inmates' demands for better conditions were either ignored or put into place and later reversed due to the "tough on crime" era of the 1980s and 1990s.
It's little wonder why many prisoners and prisoners' rights activists are still fighting for many of the same things today — such as better wages for prison work and better medical treatment — as they did decades ago.
A staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff has also published work at outlets including People, VICE, and Complex, covering everything from film to finance to technology. He holds dual bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a master's degree from New York University.