Dr. Clarence B. Jones: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising

Prisoners in protest, Attica Prison, 1971; photo courtesy of The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College

This week is the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising. Overshadowed by the 20th Anniversary 2011 terrorists attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, many Americans may not remember the events of September 1971 in upstate, Attica, New York.

Along with Tom Wicker, then Associated Editor and Columnist for the New York Times, and Congressman Herman Badillo of the Bronx, the first Puerto Rican member of Congress, I was recruited  by then Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York to  come to Attica State Prison as an “Observer” at the request of the rioting inmates.

Other “Observers” were also invited. Badillo, Wicker and most of them are now deceased. Now, almost 91 years old, I remain one of the few remaining Observers alive who sought a peaceful resolution of the prisoner’s riot.

The seminal literary description of the Attica Prison uprising is author Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in The Water: The Attic Prison uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (Pantheon, 2016).

As Heather Ann Thompson documents in her book and, as I wrote in an E-Book (jointly with Stuart Connelly), Attica reflected the moral failure of our country to remember that when a person becomes incarcerated, they don’t forfeit or lose their attributes  of remaining a human being, like other non-imprisoned members of our society.

It is fitting that Time Magazine has devoted this week’s issue to remembering Attica.

The 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising also invites us to also to recall the wisdom of the author Fyodor Dostoevsky in The House of the Dead (1862):  “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

The uprising of the inmates at the  State prison in Attica, New York was a collective plea by them to be treated like  human beings in society, not like animals.

The real challenge of the 50th anniversary is whether conditions at the Attica State prison and prisons throughout the United States today are materially any different than 50 years ago.

I am now a retired Adjunct Professor at the University of San Francisco, and Founding Director Emeritus of the USF Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice.  The experience at the Attica State Prison is indelibly imprinted on my almost 91 year old soul.

The Emmy Award  winner African American filmmaker Stanley Nelson has produced a documentary feature film “Attica” telling the story powerfully and poignantly, describing this historic event and its legacy.  The film is being exhibited at The Toronto Film Festival.

Everyone should see his film when it becomes  for general television exhibition on the Showtime television network.

Dr. Clarence B. Jones

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Jonathan Greenberg