Behind Bars


Thirty Years after Attica, U.S. Prisons Still Rife with Abuse

By David A. Love

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the inmate uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. Three decades later, the conditions that caused the uprising are still prevalent in America’s prisons.

Prisoners at Attica, protesting the harsh living conditions they faced, seized the facility and took 39 hostages on September 9, 1971. Four days later, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered heavily armed state troopers and the National Guard to storm the prison and fire on the inmates. In the end, 43 people, including ten hostages, were killed, and 90 were injured.

Since that time, the country’s prison population has swollen from several hundred thousand to more than two million, and prisoners in state and federal institutions still endure violations of their human rights.

At Attica, the inmates were fighting for humane treatment, decent food and medical care, updated libraries and against slave wages for their labor.

“I was working for the warden,” said Frank “Big Black” Smith, a former Attica inmate who survived the massacre in 1971. “I was making 30 cents a day to hand iron shirts and sheets and tablecloths, and all that type of stuff.”

During the retaking of Attica, guards beat Big Black in his groin, burned him with cigarette butts and threatened to castrate and kill him. According to Big Black, guards forced him to lie naked on a table for hours.

“But everybody in the yard was naked, the majority of the people, you know, and that went on for, like, three, four, five hours,” he said on PBS’s “The Rockefellers.” “They had a gauntlet set up, and they was running everybody through the gauntlet, beating them—they had 20, 30 people each side—with what they called their nigger sticks.” Eighty-five percent of the Attica inmates were African American or Latino.

Despite rumors that prisoners had cut the throats of some of the hostages and castrated one, a medical examiner determined that nine of the ten dead hostages were killed by troop gunfire. The inmates were unarmed.

Three decades after Attica, the brutality continues in America’s prisons. Amnesty International has cited the United States for numerous violations of international standards in the treatment of its inmates.

In Texas, for example, a 1997 training videotape showed guards kicking and beating prisoners, shocking them with stun guns and commanding dogs to bite the inmates. At Brazoria County Detention Center in Texas, two officers beat a prisoner to death yet served only two months.

At Corcoran State Prison in California, guards forced inmates to participate in “gladiator” fights, and shot dead seven prisoners between 1988 and 1994, according to Amnesty International.

Prisons are a growth industry at a time when crime is down. The Justice Policy Institute reports that after a decade of declining crime rates in nearly every state, 37 states still had increases in their prison populations in 2000.

America has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Although the United States has five percent of the world’s population, it houses one-quarter of the world’s prisoners. More than 60 percent of these inmates are from minority groups, and half are black, cites Amnesty. White rural communities compete with one another to have prisons built in their backyards.

Corporate America has profited from the prison boom. According to CorpWatch, an Internet publication based in San Francisco, businesses such as “Microsoft, Boeing, TWA and Victoria’s Secret, are using low-cost prison labor for everything from manufacturing aircraft components and lingerie to booking reservations.”

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut Corrections Corp. (WCC) lead in the privatized prison industry. For-profit prisons often cut corners on training and services, have little accountability and serve as breeding grounds for prisoner abuse.

For example, one CCA facility in Youngstown, Ohio, closed earlier this year following 13 stabbings and two inmate killings in its first nine months of operation, according to an April report in the Dayton Daily News.

Wackenhut has been cited for the abuse of juvenile prisoners. One girl was repeatedly raped by a prison guard in a Wackenhut prison in Texas, according to “60 Minutes II.” Six boys were removed from a WCC central Louisiana facility last year after they had been brutalized by guards, placed in solitary confinement for months and deprived of blankets, shoes, education and medical services, according to a story in the New York Times.

In 1971, during the Attica uprising, one inmate made the following statement: “We are men! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison population has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of prisoners here and throughout the United States.”

Sadly, 30 years later, little has changed for America’s prisoners.

David A. Love is a public interest scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He contributed to the book States of Confinement: Policing, Detention and Prisons, (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). He can be reached at

The Progressive, September 11, 2011