Attica Prison Riot of 1971: An Uprising Without Parallel or Just Another Riot With an Unusual Ending?

Richard Featherstone, Purdue University

Popularly reported as the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War, the Attica Prison Riot of September 9-12, 1971, ended with the deaths of forty-three people and the injury of more than eighty others. Although there have been other violent prison riots, none have captured research attention as enduringly as Attica. After thirty years, this tragedy remains the most discussed prison riot in U.S. history. Yet, in many ways, Attica followed the same riot script used in other prison riots across the country. A conflict between inmates and guards triggers violence; a group of prisoners goes on a rampage of destruction; hostages are taken and barricades created as negotiations begin with prison authorities. In this paper, I compare narrative accounts and official reports to demonstrate that the Attica uprising followed the typical pattern of other prison riots of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Furthermore, I argue that the Attica riot receives more emphasis in the riot literature than it warrants, because in terms of riot etiology it was not unique. The Attica incident is instructive in terms of understanding administrative strategies and tactics for ending riots, but it offers little new information about riot development.

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Updated 05/20/2006