Publish date:
Updated on
Year
1971

Massacre at Attica Prison

The four-day revolt at the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, ends when hundreds of state police officers storm the complex in a hail of gunfire. Thirty-nine people were killed in the disastrous assault, including 29 prisoners and 10 prison guards and employees held hostage since the outset of the ordeal.

On September 9, prisoners rioted and seized control of the overcrowded state prison. One prison guard was fatally beaten. Later that day, state police retook most of the prison, but 1,281 convicts occupied an exercise field called D Yard, where they held 39 prison guards and employees hostage for four days. After negotiations stalled, New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller ordered the state police to regain control of the prison by force.

On the rainy Monday morning of September 13, an ultimatum was read to the inmates, calling on them to surrender. They responded by putting knives against the hostages’ throats. At 9:46 a.m., helicopters flew over the yard, dropping tear gas as state police and corrections officers stormed in with guns blazing. The police fired 3,000 rounds into the tear gas haze, killing 29 inmates and 10 of the hostages and wounding 89. Most were shot in the initial indiscriminate barrage of gunfire, but other prisoners were shot or killed after they surrendered.

In the aftermath of the bloody raid, authorities said that the inmates had killed the slain hostages by slitting their throats. One hostage was said to have been castrated. However, autopsies showed that these charges were false and that all 10 hostages had been shot to death by police. The attempted cover-up increased public condemnation of the raid and prompted a Congressional investigation.

The Attica riot was the worst prison riot in U.S. history. A total of 43 people were killed–prison guard William Quinn, the 39 killed in the raid, and three inmates killed by other prisoners early in the riot. In the week after its conclusion, police engaged in brutal reprisals against the prisoners, forcing them to run a gauntlet of nightsticks and crawl naked across broken glass, among other tortures. The many injured inmates received substandard medical treatment, if any.

In January 2000, New York State settled a 26-year-old class-action lawsuit filed by the Attica inmates against prison and state officials. For their suffering during the raid and the weeks following, the former and current inmates accepted $8 million.

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