By Mishael Williams
In the late 1900’s, Attica prison in New York City was overcrowded, outdated, and a poor living space. Overcrowding was only one of many problems that followed everyday life in Attica, as well as many other prisons throughout the United States. This led to riots and protests by prisoners throughout New York, demanding better conditions. Thousands of prisoners started taking over prisons from facilities like The Tomb and The Queens House of Detention, and the rebellions either “ended quietly after intensive discussions,” or when guards “retook the prisons with their nightsticks (4). Instead of actually dealing with the problem of overcrowding that caused these rebellions, the mayor of New York at the time, John Lindsay, and two other U.S representatives from New York helped decide to send more and more prisoners to more upstate facilities– essentially creating the problem somewhere else instead of actually fixing it. Frank Smith was one of the many transferred prisoners sent to Attica Correctional Facility in New York. Naturally, Attica started to experience the overcrowding problem that started the rebellions at The Tomb and The Queen’s House of Detention. When prisoners of Attica protested on September 13th, 1971, it was because of more than just overcrowding in the prison. The riots lasted for about 4 days, and ended with about 45 deaths and several injured, including those held hostage and tortured during the uprising. Since the uprising, much information regarding prisoner testimonies about Attica, police testimony, and the conditions of Attica itself has been sealed from the public and is extremely difficult to access, even through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). And even if one could access information regarding the Attica uprising and the trials that followed suit, so much of the content is redacted that it is rendered “nearly unreadable” (xiii). But through a couple of amazingly lucky opportunities, Heather Ann Thompson was able to access crucial information regarding Attica and the uprising that happened there, which was sealed soon after she recorded as much as she could and published it in her book, Blood in the Water.
Overcrowding was not the only pressing problem in Attica, but it was also the poor living conditions inside the prison and lack of resources and basic necessities. From poor medical care, low paying jobs, small cells, incredibly hot temperatures, limited resources, restriction of communication with loved ones and family members, failure to follow through with parole, and the favoring of White inmates, Attica was a terrible place to be incarcerated.
Already poor inmates from impoverished families certainly couldn’t count on prison job wages to get them comfortably through prison life. Even some of the more favorable jobs– like those in the commissary, the laundry and the hospital– barely gave prisoners enough money to get through one day, let alone a week. In fact, it was uncommon for prisoners of Attica to earn “more than 6 cents a day” in 1970. Even the higher paid inmates only received $2.90 for a full day of work, which was “still much less than a man needed to survive at this facility” (8). Men in Attica Correctional Facility needed this extra money from jobs so they could afford other necessities besides what the state offered them: “a thin gray coat, two gray work shirts, three pairs of gray pants, one pair of shoes, three pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, and one comb”. That wasn’t even the worst of it; once a month, prisoners received only one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper, and so they were advised to limit themselves “to one sheet per day” (8).
Additionally, prisoners were given only two quarts of water a day–only half a gallon of milk’s worth of water– to “wash their socks and underwear, shave, brush their teeth, and clean the cell to a correction officer’s exacting standards”.
Cells were also a big problem in Attica. The cells were crammed with “a bed, a toilet, and a basin,” which “barely left enough room for a man to move around”, and any inmate spent 15 to 24 hours in a cell per day (9). The cells in each block varied as well. One could be placed in a cell that offered more privacy but was extremely claustrophobic, as the cell had “steel doors with small viewing slots”. The other type of cell at Attica offered minimal privacy with typical bars.
So, why couldn’t inmates just be visited and supported by their loved ones? The reality for many of the inmate’s loved ones, as discussed above, were impoverished like them–especially the loved ones of Black and Puerto Rican inmates. A bus fare to get to the prison from New York City– where about half of the inmate’s families were from– was about $33.55. This was just to get to Batavia, the city nearest to Attica with a depot. Additionally, since there was no public transportation to and from that bus depot, loved ones traveling to Attica would “also need a cab fare”, resulting in “more than $100 of travel expenses” and “twenty hours of time away from a job” in order to visit the prison. After all of that, there was rarely money left over to “buy food for themselves, let alone to assist the relative they had come to see” (9). In addition to the disproportionate incarceration of POC in Attica prison, there were no accommodations made to the many Spanish-speaking prisoners. In fact, the one officer who did speak Spanish in the prison was insisted “by his fellow officers that he only use English with the men in his charge” (7).
Clearly, stretching out resources to make them last over a long period of time was seen as an acceptable standard in Attica, as well as the lack of accommodations and help to prisoners that were sent there. But these were not the only problems.
Thompson, H. A. (2017). Blood in the water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. Vintage.