Attica: America’s infamous prison uprising is still a story about all of us

Tyrrell Muhammad, a 19-year-old Brooklyn native, was convicted of second-degree murder as a part of a robbery which ended in homicide, one he didn’t commit. In 1979, he was sentenced to 20 years to life, spending the next 26 years and 11 months in the custody of New York State’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. One day, Muhammad stepped off a prison bus, arriving at the Attica Correctional Facility in 1982.

“You got 22 people on the bus being transferred and all 22 are shaking, even if they’ve never been there, because they heard the rumor,” Muhammad, 61, a monitoring associate and senior advocate at the Correctional Association of New York, told FingerLakes1.com.

But there were no rumors; it was only the truth. The state killed 29 corrections guards and 10 inmates in cold blood during a siege of the maximum-security prison to snuff out a political uprising 11 years prior on Sept. 13, 1971.

Attica is still seen as a symbol of “real oppression” by many, even today, said Muhammad. He assumed the narrative would subside five decades later, but it’s still the same “dreadful place” that’s “filling men with pure fear.” 

It’s still in operation, incarcerating an estimated 2,000 men, even after activists like Soffiyah Elijah of the Alliance of Families for Justice have repeatedly tried to shut down the bloodstained correctional institution — with talks of a possible month-long march starting from 125th Street in Harlem to Attica, New York, back in 2012.

Muhammad was one of them. He recently inspected the same institution that once kept him locked up in shackles. It took three parole board hearings before his eventual release in 2005. Whenever Muhammad now embarks on a CANY monitoring visit to Attica, memories filled with trauma start swirling inside his mind.

Everyone is welcomed to Attica: an experience likened to a school orientation — albeit an abundantly less pleasant one. Someone is singled-out, typically “the biggest person,” by guards and they’re beaten in front of the group of grown men to install “the fear factor,” Muhammad explained.

“Anybody who ever went on a transfer to Attica, they witnessed this if they weren’t a part of that; and that’s trauma,” he quivered. “So, when people used to be transferred to Attica, there would be shaking, knowing that there’s going to be an initiation orientation, but no one knew who it was going to be.”

Even if someone wasn’t beaten, corrections officers still ordered inmates to carry their bags — without dropping them — while handcuffed and shackled to one another. It’s an impractical request. Those who attempt to abide by their demands are only staving off the inevitable. Eventually the bags will drop, Muhammad insists, since they’re only carrying them by the wrists — that’s when the guards decide to make an example out of them.

Instilling fear is part of the experience at Attica every day — like other correctional institutions — even now, long after the infamous uprising has been stamped out.

“I’m on the other side of the law, and I’m feeling this way,” Muhammad admitted. “If I’m feeling this way, I know everyone who’s ever visited Attica in some capacity has some kind of trauma with them, some kind of fear factor with them, that sits and resonates with them.”

Attica has an archaic design resembling a medieval castle, one that strikes fear in the hearts of men inmates as they arrive at the facility long after a deadly prison uprising. Photo Courtesy: Elizabeth Fink Attica Archive

There are an unknown number of Attica Brothers still locked up, those who witnessed the brutal assault with their own eyes. And whenever Muhammad would speak with them about the old days of Attica, “they come alive again,” he recalled.

“You can see how they go back in time, become youthful in their speech. That’s trauma,” Muhammad said. “They’re reliving an incident from 50 years ago when they were young, but they’re older men now.” 

Fifty years later, stories about Attica are still surfacing. Tales of perpetuating trauma plague families, friends and loved ones — with a steep price — for those who are still trying to cope with their losses half a century later.

“They can’t sue. They can’t be compensated. They lost loved ones due to the fault of the state,” he added.

Without any alternatives, the survivors turn to telling their side of the story — when one else seemingly would.

Wreckage lay in the wake of New York State reclaiming Attica’s D Yard on Sept. 13, 1971. Photo Courtesy: Elizabeth Fink Attica Archive

Aspiring documentary filmmaker Michael Hull was standing by the hospital bed of his dear friend Elizabeth “Liz” Fink shortly after she fell and broke her hip in 2015. She asked him to make a promise inside the NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital — 14 years after she and three other lawyers settled an unprecedented $12 million class-action lawsuit in the name of the Attica Brothers.

Hull wasn’t willing to “participate in her death fantasy,” explaining he’s never had to make a promise like that before.

He hesitated, at first. Eventually, the relenting nature of Fink demanded for him to accept her terms: digitize her entire archival multimedia collection of Attica. Fink died after a surgery at the age of 70. She couldn’t physically endure any longer, but her legacy did, through Hull’s tireless dedication to the cause, which spanned from 2012 to 2021.

Hull aptly named the collection in her honor: the Elizabeth Fink Attica Archive. After digitizing dozens of photographs in small batches, he gifted original copies to the David R. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University. He now personally oversees the online archive, too.

Six years after Fink’s death, Hull released his first documentary on HBO Max: Betrayal at Attica. To this day, it’s still surreal for him to see his film appear on the streaming service right next to Space Jam: A New Legacy and LeBron James’ shining smile.

Michael Hull’s Betrayal at Attica is available to stream exclusively on HBO Max. Artwork by Amazing Améziane

Unlike LeBron’s sequel, which was based on a ’90s cult-classic starring Michael Jordan, the genre of Hull’s film isn’t comedy. Its message is bleak, depicting a world where the state commits unspeakable atrocities against its own people inside of a prison in upstate New York.

Behind the fortified walls of Attica, the menacing medieval-like castle foreclosed upon America’s recollection of an indiscriminate slaughtering of guards and prisoners alike during the storming of the correctional facility. The Attica rebellion was a national tragedy, an often-overlooked one at that.

Yet part of the untold story of Attica is rooted in radical activism, as Hull shows while disrupting the traditional narrative. The footage is all public records from Fink’s personal collection that were, in her own words, “expropriated” from the several criminal and civil cases she tirelessly worked on for three decades.

“That is not a 9-5 job. That’s a life mission,” Hull told FingerLakes1.com.

It’s one that Fink lived up to, leaving behind an irreplaceable impression, which inspired Hull to pick up where she left off. Her unique aura touched the lives of many, including her fellow Attica Brothers Legal Defense lawyer comrades: Joe Heath, Dennis Cunningham and Michael Deutsch, through their common struggle at Attica — amounting to four lifetimes of legal activism. And all of their moral courage and wisdom came from an unexpected source: the Attica Brothers.

With inmates often being written off by society, Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, embraced them and their desire for “being at the forefront of their own destiny.”

Much like Hull, Thompson spent much of her academic career grappling with the tales of Attica, and she’s still shocked and unsettled with seeing the same horror stories now appearing on screen. Admittedly, Hull had been “anticipating more pushback” from Albany, the state’s capital, after the debut of his exposé, concerned with the possibility of being handed a cease-and-desist order. It hasn’t happened yet.

“Every bit of footage that he [Hull] shows is footage of people that the American public pay their salaries. So, whatever he is showing happens, we have the right to see,” Thompson told FingerLakes1.com. “But if he gets shut down, it will be because their mobilization and their activism is more powerful than then the public’s activism to demand its right to see it; and that really says it all.”

New York National Guardsmen stand in D Yard after the deadly takeover of the prison. Photo Courtesy: Elizabeth Fink Attica Archive

Thompson’s critically acclaimed book and Hull’s documentary both serve as testaments to history — one largely omitted from the public’s eye, even now half a century later. Attica is everywhere — all of us — as Cornel West, the former Harvard University professor, once famously orated.

Prison abuses haven’t ceased either. Acts of violence behind the guarded concrete walls of Attica have drastically dropped since the infamous uprising, through the installation of almost 2,000 cameras — a constant state of surveillance. But now, little “Atticas” have sprung up in its place.  

Founded in 1844, CANY was commissioned by the state of New York’s legislature to carry out monitoring inspections, create reports and conduct investigations. Muhammad says he’ll often see the names of guards that were transferred from Attica and scattered among the state’s 51 other not-for-profit correctional facilities, where “they took the violent behavior there.”

The Correctional Association of New York is the only independent organization with authority under state law to monitor prisons and report their findings to lawmakers and the public. But it wasn’t always working that way throughout its 177-year legacy, particularly in the wake of the Attica rebellion.

Former Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller sought to silence CANY and his critics. Legislation in Albany passed two years after the Attica uprising, scaling back their ability to conduct independent oversight, according to Sumeet Sharma, CANY’s director of monitoring and advocacy.

“They didn’t want us to exercise our role,” Muhammad echoed. “They didn’t have us on any of the commissions. We couldn’t do any investigations.”

Their ability to gain unrestricted access to incarcerated individuals and opportunity to initiate unannounced visits without prior notice weren’t restored until almost half a century later when state lawmakers passed a bill amid the tumultuous summer of 2020, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.

“I think it speaks to this feeling, there needs to be an effective oversight mechanism for the state prisons 50 years later,” Sharma told FingerLakes1.com.

“If we would’ve had the opportunity to do what we do, that information would’ve been out 50 years ago,” Muhammad added.

At a time of rampant political upheaval, much like today, Rockefeller was implicated in a scandalous cover-up related to the rebellion, and Muhammad believes he was able to “carry and create a narrative” that resonated through time until independent academics and researchers got involved — allowing for the truth to finally prevail.

People like Thompson come to mind. The Attica Brothers kept urging Thompson to tell their side of the story — she eventually did — in their defense. The prominent University of Michigan historical scholar believes the state will never officially come to terms with Attica — regardless of who’s holding political power: Rockefeller, Andrew Cuomo or even Governor Kathy Hochul.

The Attica Brothers faced extrajudicial punishments in the aftermath of the uprising — even upon requesting amnesty for 1,281 inmates, which was denied. Photo Courtesy: Elizabeth Fink Attica Archive

Forty years after the violence subsided, a recorded conversation between Rockefeller and former President Richard Nixon underscored the political nature of Attica’s watershed moment — one of the darkest days in American history. The same Nixon Tapes that later forced his resignation during the Watergate scandal also captured a lengthy exchange, on the very same day, shortly after the deadly retaking on Sept. 13, between Nixon and Rockefeller, who would one day become vice president.

With the state opposed to granting amnesty to prisoners as a part of their list of demands, which would’ve prevented any reprisals following the rebellion, Nixon found relief in Rockefeller’s stern decision to deny their demand.

“I think that you had to do it that way, because if you would have granted amnesty in this case, it would have meant that you would have prisons in an uproar all over this country,” Nixon confided in Rockefeller. 

Yet Rockefeller claimed: “It really was a beautiful operation,” touting only one injury among the entire New York State Police — even though the state killed 10 of their own corrections officers — collateral damage — while retaking Attica.

The New York State Police and New York National Guardsmen fired thousands of rounds into D Yard in a matter of six -minutes during their deadly retaking of Attica on Sept. 13, 1971. Photo Courtesy: Elizabeth Fink Attica Archive

Denying the reality that a multiracial coalition of radicals mobilized to bring forth their demands, Nixon asked: “….are these primarily Blacks that you’re dealing with?” 

“Yes, the whole thing was led by the Blacks,” Rockefeller swiftly answered. 

Even though that statement wasn’t true either, Nixon had already made up his mind about who in fact is the enemy of his America, claiming it’s “the Angela Davis crowd.”

Cunningham, one of the Attica Brothers Legal Defense lawyers involved in decades of criminal and civil litigation against the state, believed the savagery on display by dutifully-deputized law enforcement agents was “an indication of just where the feelings lie and how deeply racist they are.”

“We heard stories of the police celebrating at the motel that night and just carrying on,” Cunningham continued. “It was hard to believe that they could summon such a level of savagery and just rationalize it, join all in.”

Even though the $12 million settlement from a 26-year-long class-action lawsuit was a significant victory, it doesn’t come even close to acknowledging Attica’s undeniable legacy of deep-rooted racism.

“It becomes clearly not enough when we think about prisons, mass incarceration and systematic racism in the United States,” Heath told FingerLakes1.com. “White supremacy and racism is the dominant foundation of what happened at Attica.”

Masked New York State Troopers stand inside D Yard after a fatal takeover of the Attica Correctional Facility. Photo Courtesy: Elizabeth Fink Attica Archive

Not much has changed, aside from a name. In the final hours of his disgraced gubernatorial term, Cuomo signed a law striking the language of ‘inmates’ from all records — replacing any reference of “inmates” with “incarcerated individuals” in an effort to avoid any dehumanizing effects. 

Shortly after, a a spiraling number of sexual harassment allegations levied against Cuomo called for his resignation amid a sinking, scandal-ridden administration, causing then-Lieutenant Governor Hochul to step up and become New York’s first female governor. Regardless of whether it’s a Democrat or Republican who’s in power, Thompson isn’t convinced politicians from either side of the aisle will ever let the truth about Attica or any other abuses inside prisons be made known.

Generations of pain, grief and human suffering have festered in Attica’s aftermath. Acknowledging heinous acts is still a task worth pursuing for the sake of all survivors who “still live with that trauma every day,” according to Thompson.

“If we were to open these records, what we would have to acknowledge is that behind these closed doors of America’s prisons, unspeakable abuse takes place,” she later revealed. “And if it was going on 50 years ago today, there has to be a reckoning with what goes on this minute.”

Five decades ago, the Attica Brothers mobilized, writing a famous manifesto with 28 demands for better living conditions, which had drawn inspiration from the 19-day strike at Folsom State Prison a year before the Attica uprising. Even now, the Attica Manifesto of Demands is seen as a foundational blueprint for today’s social struggles to address a laundry list of issues associated with the punitive institutions of mass incarceration — the exact problems the Attica Brothers fought for 50 years ago.

When the Attica Brothers, a racially diverse and politically active alliance of nearly 1,281 prisoners, organized against the rampant human rights abuses inside their prison, they were also the “closest to the problem” and therefore, “closest to the solution,” as Thompson suggested. 

“That created its own tensions and its own dramas, but it was also what made that movement have the life and the vibrancy and the power that it did,” Thompson explained. “People did not just allow a bunch of academics and activists to come in there and tell them what they needed and what was going to happen; and I think that lesson actually has been very much learned in important ways by the criminal justice world today.”

The same problems are persisting today inside prisons that are overseen by the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision — even downstate at Rikers Island

With minimal advances in prison reform measures, like the passage of the ‘HALT’ Solitary Confinement Act, Sharma says Attica is simply a “placeholder” for every facility and the entire system of incarceration — not only in New York, but across the country.

Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative, sees the struggle for ensuring human rights as a ceaseless task — the same issues advocates faced back in 1971 — it’s spreading and getting worse.

Overcrowding has always been an issue — one that even sparked the Attica uprising. Their research shows at the current rate of declining prison populations, “it will take more than a century for us to return to the state prison populations of the early 1970s,” according to Bertram. 

“In other words, people in prison are right to fight for their humanity today just as they were 50 years ago,” Bertram told FingerLakes1.com.

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the oftentimes inhospitable living conditions while locked up. Bertram believes “lawmakers have all but abandoned people in prisons and jails” over the last 18 months ever since the beginning. For these reasons and more, Thompson insists that “you check your civil and human rights at the door” whenever someone serves time.

“History shows us they will never get used to the idea,” she added.

Thompson also believes “nobody wants to be responsible for potentially “opening Pandora’s box” when it comes to setting the record straight about Attica. It would force an unsettling reckoning with reality, one in which “law enforcement atrocities were committed 50 years ago” and are still occurring — just in the public’s eye — for everyone to witness and wince at: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Daniel Prude. Adam Toledo. The list goes on and on.

“It would require apologies. It would require a reconciliation. It would require an acknowledgment that nobody wants to really take on at this point,” Thompson elaborated. “We are having to face these very same questions in the streets of Minneapolis and Kenosha, Wisconsin, virtually every city in the nation. It sort of makes it even more remarkably tone deaf, that we’re not willing to do that when it comes to historical prison uprisings where the same kind of law enforcement abuse happened.”

Much like the radical roots of legal activism at Attica, Thompson says law enforcement agencies are engaging in their own form of activism — even a year after New York’s 50-a law was repealed, allowing anyone to access complaints about police officers statewide through the Freedom of Information Law.

“When the police are saying that you cannot access those files, they are mobilizing in a movement to prevent someone from accessing those files. That is what they are doing,” Thompson said. “They’re galvanizing their forces. They are mobilizing as activists to prevent the American public from seeing what happened between September 9 and September 13.”

Abuses behind bars at Attica and anywhere else will never seem to stop either until stories of truth shine a bright light on cruel displays of brute force — and authorities react responsibly.

“It is not enough to shine the light, you have to have the public and political will to actually do something about what you find or what you’ve just shone the light on,” Thompson ended.