‘We Are not Beasts’ The Attica State Uprising

“We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace—that means each and every one of us here—has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States.

What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed. We will not compromise on any terms except those terms that are agreeable to us. We call upon all the conscientious citizens of America to assist us in putting an end to this situation that threatens the lives of not only us, but of each and every one of us.”

L.D Barkley 21 year old spokesmen for the rioting prisoners, died September 13 1971 killed by New York State troopers in the retaking of the prison.


In the context of the disturbances at Long Lartin prison week and the revelations about Brooks House detention centre for those seeking refuge today’s post will look back at one of the largest prison uprisings to occur in the western world. The Attica state uprising happened in 1971 when around 1000 inmates seized control of Attica State prison, 42 members of staff were taken hostage and demands were made for better living conditions and political rights.


The prison at Attica was built in the 1930s and originally designed to hold 1600 inmates. By 1971 the prison housed almost 2300 inmates who were allowed only one shower a week and one roll of toilet roll a month. Prisoners were confined to their cells for 14-16 hours a day and the state spent only 63 cents per day for each prisoners food. In addition to this prisoners were regularly subjected to racial abuse and beatings ,the population of Attica was over 50 percent black and almost 10 percent Puerto Rican by guards who allegedly referred to their batons as “Nigger sticks”.


On September 9th ,1971 following an incident involving an alleged assault on an officer one inmate from 5 company was confined to his cell, whilst the rest of the company was led to breakfast. In protest some other inmates protested that they too would be locked up and headed back to their cells. These inmates freed the confined inmate and rejoined the rest of the company at breakfast. Following breakfast, confusion about a rescheduling of the prisoners time table caused them to be led to the yard mistakenly. When they arrived they found a locked door. When more officers arrived to take the prisoners back to their cells violence ensued the inmates quickly seized control of multiple areas of the prison and took 42 members of staff hostage. During the initial chaos of the riot Officer William Quinn was beaten to death and became the first casualty of the conflict. However, eventually order was restored by a group of prisoners including Frank “Big Black” Smith who, as head of security, provided protection for the hostages who were also provided with mattresses, blankets and food. The leaders also included Donald Noble, Peter Butler, Frank Lott, Carl Jones-El, and Herbert Blyden X.


A list of the prisoners demands was formed and were communicated by 21 year old spokesman for the prisoners L.D Barkley. They included better access to prison education, a reduction in the censorship of their mail, freedom of religion, reform of the discipline and probation process of the prison and, an amnesty for crimes committed in the course of the riot itself. Negotiations would follow for 4 days during which the amnesty for crimes committed during the riot would repeatedly prove to be a sticking point between the two groups. Governor Rockerfeller repeatedly refused to travel to the prison or attend the negotiations personally.


On the morning of September 13th 1971 an assault to retake the prison was launched. It began with the dropping of tear gas on the prison, the assaulting troopers fired constantly into the smoke for 2 minutes before advancing into the prison itself. Former prison officers were allowed to take part in the assault. By the end of the assault 9 hostages and 29 inmates were dead, including spokesman L.D Barkley. Barkley was officially killed in the battle to retake the prison however it has been alleged by ex inmates that prison guards searched the prison for him before shooting him. It was initially alleged by both the press and the governor that the 9 hostages had been killed by prisoners however later evidence would show they were killed by gunshot wounds. Inmates were armed only with knives and had no access to firearms.


Following the retaking of the prison an orgy of reprisals was carried out by prison staff. National Guard troops reported witnessing prisoners being made to strip naked and run gauntlets of prison officers who would beat them with batons. Another reported that the prison doctor would ask inmates if they were injured before beating them further. Frank “big black” Smith alleges that leaders of the revolt were separated for further reprisals. Frank was singled out by guards and taken away to be tortured including striking his genitals with batons, burning him with cigarettes and hot shell casings and repeatedly threatening him with castration.


In the immediate aftermath of the rising 62 of the surviving  inmates were charged with offences. The Weathermen Underground carried out a retaliatory bomb attack on the New York Department of corrections building in Albany. A legal battle to secure compensation for the families of those killed and those abused at the facility would go on for decades but eventually resulted in compensation being rewarded to both the families and many of the inmates. Frank Smith would dedicate much of his life following his release to campaigning for prison reform and against torture, particularly during the Iraq war.


Thompson, HA. (2016) Blood in the water, New York, Pantheon.

Yuhas, A. (2015) ‘New Attica documents reveal inmate accounts of torture after 1971 prison riot’, The Guardian, 22/05/15 [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/may/22/new-attica-documents-reveal-inmate-torture

Chen, D. (2000) ‘Compensation set on Attica uprising’, New York Times, 29/08/00 [Online]. Available at  https://mobile.nytimes.com/2000/08/29/nyregion/compensation-set-on-attica-uprising.html?pagewanted=all&referer=



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