33 Pictures Of The Bloody Attica Prison Riot That Left 43 People Dead

Published November 1, 2021

For four days in September 1971, 1,281 prisoners held 39 guards hostage in protest of the horrific conditions at Attica prison. What followed was a disastrous police raid.

Aerial View Of Attica Prison
Attica Prison Riot Victim
State Police Vehicle Outside Attica Prison
Attica Prison Uprising In Progress
33 Pictures Of The Bloody Attica Prison Riot That Left 43 People Dead
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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

Attica Prison Riot

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

Attica Prison Uprising

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.

After learning about the Attica prison riot, read about how the Brixton riots changed London. Then, take a look at 44 historic photos of Alcatraz Prison.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
Cite This Article
Margaritoff, Marco. "33 Pictures Of The Bloody Attica Prison Riot That Left 43 People Dead." AllThatsInteresting.com, November 1, 2021, https://allthatsinteresting.com/attica-prison-riot. Accessed April 21, 2024.