ATalking History Project




On Monday morning, September 13, 1971, an uprising by prison inmates of the Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison located in western New York, ended in the bloodiest prison confrontation in American history. Five days earlier, thirteen hundred prisoners had rebelled, taken over the prison, and held forty guards hostage. Issuing a list of demands—including calls for improvements in living conditions as well as educational and training opportunities—they entered into negotiations with state officials. The negotiations failed and state police and national guard troops seized the prison; in the course of taking it over they killed forty-three individuals, including ten hostages.

The Attica Rebellion is more than a prison insurrection. It is also a window into the time and culture that produced it. It offers scholars and non-scholars alike an opportunity to examine closely a facet of our society that most of us rarely see or experience yet which is increasingly viewed by other nations and cultures as a fixture of American life. We lock away millions of people every decade in penal institutions; occasionally, as in the case of Attica, their inmates rebel and become socially and politically visible. When they become visible, so do our prisons and our criminal justice system.

Prisoners rebel for various reasons: because the warden is insensitive and cruel, because they are abused by guards, because living and sleeping conditions become intolerable, because certain prison communities foster group militancy, because social and cultural movements outside prisons encourage rebellion. Whatever the reasons, the act of rebellion brings public attention.

Utlimately, the Attica Rebellion is about us. Revisiting it permits us to peer into a world that we, after all, created—and perhaps reexamine our penal institutions once again, without waiting for another bloody rebellion. By bringing to the public the numerous documents, radio documentaries, films, videos, and interviews that were produced during and after the events of September 1971, we hope to give teachers, students, and the general public an opportunity to directly experience and reflect on the events and participants of the Attica Rebellion—and to stimulate debate and discussion of America's criminal justice system.

With the cooperation of the New York State Archives and the Pacifica Foundation, we have gathered together an extensive collection of audio, video, and textual records of the Attica rebellion—including written transcripts and audio recordings of the McKay Commission hearings as well as dozens of audio documentaries produced by the Pacifica Foundation. The documentaries contain many hours of interviews with key actors in and observers of the drama played out in September of 1971. We have also asked historians to contribute their perspectives on the story of Attica. We hope you find these resources useful to understanding the history of the event and the history of New York and American penal institutions in general.

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