Stanley Nelson’s documentary “Attica” is a grisly and infuriating look at racism and the abuse of power by people who view others as inhumane. The subject matter is the riots that began at the Attica Correctional Facility on September 9, 1971. More than 30 prison staff members were taken hostage in the largest prison uprising in American history. Once they were temporarily victorious, the prisoners in Attica—mostly Black and Latino, but also White—tried to negotiate better conditions. They brought in many outsiders including senators, lawyers, journalists, and even Russell Oswald, the NY Corrections Commissioner. However, instead of reaching an amicable conclusion, the stalemate ended five days later with a hail of bullets taking the hostages and inmates hostage.
To say that Nelson’s film is timely would completely refute the notion that very little has changed. Many of the details sound so familiar that they feel contemporary. Open a newspaper here in New York City and you will read story after story about Rikers Island and how badly managed it is. In the case of Attica, New York, it has been a prison town since the 1930s. All the employees were local residents and convicts were brought in quite often from the city area 250 miles away. “They might as well be aliens,” is how one talking head describes this distinction. Lawyer Joe Heath was more outspoken: “There’s this cultural clash.
We hear a lot from survivors, but this is not a one-sided affair. There were also interviews with residents and relatives of correctional officers. Editor Aljernon Tunsil expertly put together a plethora of astonishing footage rarely seen from inside and outside prisons, some of which are too brutal to witness. And as he did in the incredible “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” Nelson points out that those who deserve justice can sometimes be their own worst enemies. It made their downfall as tragic as it was. One thing the film finds undeniable is that the people in Attica, despite their punishment, deserve to be treated humanely. “Even though we are in prison, we are human,” said Arthur Harrison, sharing a sentiment echoed repeatedly by those interviewed.
“Something will always happen,” said George Che Nieves, one of the many former prisoners Nelson interviewed. “The [prison] residents are tired. Tired of lies, promise.” Long before September 9, the facility’s dire reputation preceded it. “Attica is known as ‘The Last Place,’ the most stringent prison in the state of New York,” explains former inmate Tyrone Larkins. When you go there, you know you’re not going to Club Fed. As several interviewees have pointed out, there’s a good chance you’ll be jailed for some very serious crime, perhaps psychopathy.
One wouldn’t expect creature comforts in a maximum security prison, but the promise Che Nieves alluded to was basic necessities like toothpaste, soap, and sufficient toilet paper, not to mention bed sheets and a working toilet. This is a problem for everyone, although Al Victory points out that, as a White prisoner, he is able to attract slightly better care and resources from the guards. It is said that, when the list of demands was read out by LD Barkley, the men the inmates chose to be their spokesmen, most of them were deemed reasonable by an outside negotiating “board of observers”. There is a general consensus among all inmates, regardless of race.
The observer council consisted of a group of people sympathetic to the detainees’ cause. of The Chicago 7.” When the inmates saw John Johnson, a black reporter I watched on WABC, they invited him too. Most of the people involved in it thought so too.
But there is a big difference in perception based on where you are. “Attica” builds tension by juxtaposing the negotiation process with increasingly agitated police and the relatives of the hostages waiting outside the walls of this enormous facility. Even if you don’t know the outcome, the scene pacing, gunman will convince you that this is not going to end well. Especially after William Quinn, the guard whose hard smack and subsequent brutal blow sent the inmates on a full run from Attica Prison, died on the fourth day of the stalemate. As a result, the convicts lost most of their negotiating power. NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller made the decision to allow law enforcement to take prison back.