On September 9th, 1971, one of the largest prison insurrections in history unfolded after incarcerated men in New York rose up and took control of the yard at Attica State Prison. For five days, they demanded more humane living conditions and basic civil rights such as religious freedom, expanded phone privileges, and an end to mail censorship. They called for peaceful negotiations with prison officials and summoned several observers to facilitate.
On the morning of September 13th, however, these negotiations were shut down when the state responded with force. Police and correction officers physically assaulted the incarcerated men, while helicopters flew over dropping tear gas. A total of 43 people were killed, shedding light on the injustices and inhumane conditions occurring inside correctional facilities and placing them in the public eye.
Within the walls of correctional facilities, incarcerated people continue to face racist brutality and a denial of basic humanity. Unlike recent incidents of police brutality caught on camera, violence at the hands of correction officers is largely shielded from the public. Everyday, people continue to be placed in solitary confinement—a form of torture that leaves lasting psychological tolls on all who experience it.
COVID-19 has only exacerbated inhumane conditions in jails and prisons, where social distancing is impossible and conditions are unsafe and unsanitary. As the virus continues to spread in prisons, the lack of access to COVID-19 testing and adequate healthcare makes incarcerated people much more likely to contract the virus.
Today, advocates continue to remember Attica’s legacy and honor all those who lost their lives. As one of the mediators called in to facilitate negotiations at the Attica massacre, The Fortune Society’s Founder David Rothenberg saw firsthand the urgency of ending the abuses occurring inside. Today, this urgency drives our work and the community we build with other organizations and advocates.
This includes achieving accountability for corrections officers, ending solitary confinement entirely, and most importantly, decarcerating our prisons and closing Rikers Island once and for all. In the spirit of the men who rose up at Attica, leaders and policymakers must recognize, and act on, the shared humanity of all who have been impacted by incarceration.