On September 9th 1971, the inmates at Attica took over the prison; it was the largest prison rebellion in U.S. history. 1200 prisoners now held half the prison in their power.
Tension had been brewing for months, at least, over the poor conditions of the prison. In fact, two months earlier, the prisoners had peacefully sent a list of 27 demands to the commissioner of corrections, and the governor. No actions whatsoever were taken, and the prison warden retaliated against those inmates by increasing restrictions.
The prisoners once again put forth a list of demands and prepared to negotiate in good faith. They asked for simple things like better medical treatment, fair visitation rights, edible food, religious freedom, an end of physical abuse, and for basic necessities like toothbrushes, showers, and toilet paper. They held 42 guards and civilian employees as hostages.
When negotiations broke down, blood was spilled as the corrections commissioner ordered the prison taken back by force. It needn’t have happened.
Director Stanley Nelson examines all angles of this most deadly riot, interviewing surviving prisoners, victims’ family members, lawyers, and journalists. He tries, perhaps in vain, to understand the series of poor decisions that led to violence as a response to men simply asking for basic human rights. And not only that, but when troopers stormed the building, they shot inmates who were not resisting as well as hostages, using ammunition banned by the Geneva Conventions. Law enforcement shot at least 128 men, killing 10 hostages and 29 inmates. That’s right, the operation was so disorganized that they killed ten of their own. How did this happen?
The answers are never going to be satisfying, but Nelson does his best to untangle this mess and bring some sense to it, maybe even some closure.
Attica is an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021.