Sept. 9, 2022

The Attica Prison Riot

The Attica Prison Riot

September 9, 1971. Prisoners seize control of the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, sparking the bloodiest prison uprising in US history.


Cold Open

It’s the evening of September 2nd, 1971 at the Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York.

Across the maximum security prison, inmates head to their cells in anticipation of an announcement they hope will change the future of the facility.

For years, Attica’s inmates have felt their basic rights were being ignored and violated by the prison’s administration. Earlier this summer, a group of prisoners came together to demand better living conditions by sending a list of grievances to the head of the New York’s prison system, corrections commissioner Russell Oswald.

To their surprise, Oswald promised to come to Attica and address their concerns in person. Today, his arrival has filled inmates with a newfound sense of optimism.

As the prison’s loudspeaker turns on, a hush falls over the inmates. Then, a recorded message from Oswald begins to play.

Immediately, the prisoners turn to each other in disbelief. They were promised a live, in-person address, not a taped response from an official who already left the prison.

As Oswald’s recorded message continues, the inmates grow more agitated at what they perceive as him brushing them off. Soon, angry shouts and low rumbles of frustration echo through the prison.

As the loudspeaker turns off, prisoners shake their heads in frustration. Men in the yard kick clothes off dirt and mutter curses. Inmates inside the prison begin to rattle their cell doors in anger. Others just put their head in their hands yet again feeling hopeless. 

Fed up with the empty words and broken promises of the prison’s management, Attica's inmates turned to corrections commissioner Russell Oswald in the summer of 1971 as a last-ditch effort to improve Attica’s conditions. In their manifesto to Oswald, the prisoners called attention to long-standing frustrations around institutionalized discrimination, dire living conditions, and general mistreatment.

After Oswald agreed to come to Attica, many inmates hoped that their grievances were finally being taken seriously. They prayed his visit would be the first step in reforming the prison. But instead, they feel Oswald has betrayed them.

For many inmates, Oswald’s disappointing response will be their final straw. Many will no longer see nonviolent protest as a viable course of action. And soon, a dangerous volatility will grow inside Attica as frustrations boil over, sparking a five-day uprising that will become the bloodiest prison riot in US history on September 9th, 1971.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is September 9th, 1971:The Attica Prison Riot.

Act One: Conflict Brews

It’s 3:30 PM on September 8th, 1971 inside Attica prison; one week after Oswald’s address to the inmates.

In one of the prison yards, 22-year-old corrections officer Mike Smith watches as five hundred inmates enjoy their recreation break. As they pass him by, they look over and nod at Mike in greeting.

Since coming to Attica earlier this year, Mike has fostered a good relationship with the inmates. Unlike many of his colleagues, Mike has operated on the premise of mutual respect between guards and prisoners. When inmates drafted their letter to Oswald this summer, it was Mike who they asked to look it over before sending it off.

Mike easily gave them his seal of approval. To him, the prisoner’s complaints seem well-warranted. At Attica, he has witnessed firsthand the prison’s often neglectful and vitriolic treatment of its inmates. Along with the inmates, he was hoping that the letter would spark change.

And when it resulted only in a taped message from prisoner commissioner Oswald, Mike was also disappointed and alarmed.

But so far, there hasn't been any serious fallout. Still, Mike is sure there will be. For days, he has felt a fury develop among the inmates that leaves him uneasy. And he’s not alone.

Yesterday, guards met with Attica's superintendent and asked for the prison to be placed on lockdown. Their request was denied. So, today, Mike stays on high alert as he faces the prison yard, on the lookout for any signs of conflict brewing.

Over in a corner, a couple of sparring inmates catches his eye. Mike quickly identifies the exchange as benign horseplay and moves on. But the inmates catch the attention of another officer.

Lieutenant Richard Maroney walks over to confront the sparring prisoners. And as he approaches, Mike sees one of the fighting inmates slip away into the crowd of prisoners. But the other is unable to escape.

Lieutenant Maroney orders 23-year-old Leroy Dewer to return to his cell. But Leroy refuses, stating he’s done nothing wrong. Then, he turns his back on Maroney and begins to walk away. The Lieutenant grabs him by the shoulder to stop him.

Leroy spins around and hits Maroney twice in the chest. As the lieutenant staggers back, Leroy runs to the middle of the yard. Maroney chases him down, and the yard’s prisoners begin to form a circle around the two men.

Worried this will escalate, Mike tries to calm the agitated crowd. But it’s no use. As Maroney tries to take Leroy back inside, the prisoners erupt in protest, worrying that Maroney will subject fellow prisoner Leroy to a brutal beating.

Realizing he's surrounded, Maroney tries to assure the crowd that Leroy won't be harmed. But the crowd doesn't believe him and threatens Maroney if he takes Leroy anywhere.

And then, another prisoner breaks through the crowd to defend Leroy.

As he approaches Maroney, another officer arrives at the scene to break up the conflict. Lieutenant Robert Curtiss tells Maroney they'll arrange Leroy’s punishment with Attica’s superintendent later. 

Leroy can remain in the yard, and the two guards go back inside. The standoff is over, and the crowd around Leroy disperses. Slowly, they resume their normal activity. But the threat of Leroy’s future punishment hangs heavy in the air.

That night, the prisoners’ concerns prove warranted. After his fellow inmates are locked inside their cells, Lieutenant Curtiss and other officers try to take Leroy Dewer to disciplinary confinement. But Leroy refuses to go with them.

All across the cell block, inmates listen as Leroy struggles with the guards. He shouts in protest, his voice loudly ringing off the walls of the prison until suddenly, they don't. The inmates watch in terrified silence as four guards carry out Leroy’s motionless body, unable to tell if the young prisoner is dead or alive.

As the other officers take Leroy to confinement, Lieutenant Curtiss walks toward the cell of the man who tried to intervene in the altercation between Leroy and Maroney.

Curtiss isn’t sure what this prisoner’s offense could be, or if it deserves disciplinary action. But the superintendent ordered him to take both inmates to confinement. And Curtiss doesn’t want to question his boss. So, he does what he’s told.

But the other prisoners scream in protest, throwing anything they can get their hands on at the officers. Soon, a can of soup strikes an officer.

But Lieutenant Curtiss saw who threw it, and orders prisoner William Ortiz to be locked in his cell until further notice.

This aggravates the prison’s inmates even further. And Lieutenant Curtiss tries to get the cell block under control. As eight other officers join him, the inmates grow quiet. But this does not satisfy Lieutenant Curtiss.

Later that night, he tries to convince the prison’s superintendent that prisoner unrest has reached a point of crisis. He asks the warden to bring in more officers to man the prison. But the superintendent dismisses his concerns, refusing to pay unnecessary overtime.

The next morning, Lieutenant Curtiss will hold a meeting with the prison’s day shift officers. There, Curtiss will try to reassure his fellow guards of their safety. But he will struggle to mask his helplessness. As they file out the door and head to their stations, Curtiss will be able to do little more than wish them luck and pray for a normal day. But an ordinary morning is the last thing Curtiss will get.

Act Two: The Uprising Begins

It’s September 9th, 1971 at Attica prison; less than two hours after Lieutenant Curtiss’s morning briefing.

Inside the administration building, Curtiss frowns as he puts down the phone.

He just received a call from one of the officers in charge of taking the prisoners to the mess hall for breakfast. During the journey, some of the prisoners managed to take control of the prison’s central lockbox. And in protest, they were able to able to open William Ortiz's cell, allowing him to head to the cafeteria with the rest of them.

After relaying the incident to Attica’s management, Curtiss was instructed to lock up everyone from Ortiz’s cell block after breakfast. Though Curtiss worries it’s unwise to further agitate the inmates right now, he follows orders. And dutifully, he picks up the phone again and dials the number of the prison’s central office, known as Times Square.

Curtiss knows the prisoners will pass through Times Square after breakfast to get to the tunnel leading to their prison yard and cell block. Curtiss plans to trap them in Times Square, wrangle them there, and order them back to their cells.

Over the phone, he gives orders to lock the gates leading out of the tunnel of Times Square. Then, he hangs up and heads to meet the prisoners.

A few moments later, as Curtiss enters the tunnel leading to the prison yard, he sees some of the inmates ahead trying to open a locked exit. As Curtiss approaches, the inmates back away in deference and fear. But one of them leaps forward, striking Curtiss’s left temple. As he tries to recover from the blow, several other prisoners join in, sending Curtiss tumbling to the ground. 

Soon, the other inmates begin to realize they’ve been intentionally locked inside the tunnel. And for them, that can be only one thing: violent reprisal from prison guards. The tunnel dissolves into a state of chaos. Many prisoners scramble to find something to protect themselves, others rush to find hiding spots. Still, others more see the moment as an opportunity to exact their revenge on officers and other prisoners they’ve harbored grudges against. Soon the violence in the tunnel escalates, and prisoners are able to break through the locks and enter Times Square. 

As they storm the control center, the officer in charge there, William Quinn, is beaten and knocked to the ground. The prisoners steal his keys and are able to gain access to all of the prison’s tunnels and cell blocks.

Before long, the entire prison dissolves into a pandemonium of fighting and screaming as the word spreads that a riot is underway. Over the next few hours, prisoners kill three inmates and brutally beat several guards. William Quinn, the officer at Times Square, endures the most brutal beating of all. But, eventually, some inmates rescue him and call for medical attention.

Across the prison, similar scenes play out as inmates come together to protect and rescue officers from attacks. And in the end, no guard is killed. Instead, the prisoners escort 42 of Attica’s officers to Prison Yard D. And there, they are held hostage as leverage for any upcoming bargaining.

By noon, correctional officers and police regain control of half the prison. But the other half remains under the hold of the nearly 1,300 rebelling prisoners. Quickly, the prisoners begin to organize themselves inside Prison Yard D.

And by afternoon, the morning’s chaos turns into a remarkably organized and calm protest. Together, the prisoners elect two representatives per cell block to vote on all important decisions. They also appoint medics to attend to the wounded, a security force to keep order and protect hostages from violent prisoners, and a negotiating committee to handle contact with the prison administration.

Soon, these representatives begin to voice their grievances and organize their terms for surrender. And eventually, corrections commissioner Russell Oswald agrees to meet the prisoners to negotiate, this time, face-to-face.

In their meeting, the prisoners demand two things before any further negotiation; they ask for media to be allowed inside D Yard, and they request for a team of outside experts on prison to assist with negotiations. Eventually, Oswald agrees to both conditions.

After this meeting, the prisoners draft a list of 33 demands to present to the prison administration. Among them are requests for basic living necessities, better professional training, improved medical treatment, fair visitation rights, improved food quality, and an end to physical abuse. But two of the most urgent are amnesty from criminal prosecution related to today’s uprising, and the removal of the prison’s current superintendent.

For the next two days, negotiations continue. Eventually, Oswald agrees to 28 of the inmates' demands. But he refuses to remove Attica’s superintendent. At the behest of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, he also continues to deny amnesty. Still, the inmates believe that a peaceful resolution is possible.

But two days after the inmates' initial uprising, their hopes will fade. Corrections officer William Quinn will die from the injuries he sustained during the prisoners’ beating. The subsequent threat of a murder conviction will cause negotiations to break down as the prisoners’ demand for amnesty takes on a new gravity. Soon, Oswald will give up on talks with the prisoners and state authorities will plan a new course of action, preparing to take Attica by force.

Act Three: Retaking Attica

It’s the morning of September 13 at Attica prison, four days after inmates took control.

On the roof of one of the prison’s tunnels, corrections officer and hostage Mike Smith stands blindfolded. Surrounding him are inmates armed with homemade knives and spears preparing a last-ditch effort to deter the state from retaking Attica.

Earlier today, commissioner Oswald ordered the inmates to surrender and release their hostages in order to continue negotiations. But the inmates refused. Since then, the team of observers normally sent in to help negotiations have failed to appear. And now, the inmates speculate that the state may be planning to retake Attica by force.

To remind them of their bargaining power, the inmates sent Mike and seven other hostages to the rooftop with prisoners holding knives to their throats. The inmates don’t want to kill the hostages; the gesture is only supposed to be a demonstration of their leverage. But as one inmate points a spear at his chest, one wields a hammer behind him, and another holds a knife at his throat, Mike worries they won’t hesitate to kill him if they need to.

So, Mike turns to one of the inmates he's most friendly with, Don Noble. Don was the one who rescued Mike in the initial riot and was one of the inmates who sought Mike’s approval for their first letter of complaints to Oswald.

Even in this chaos, Mike trusts Don. So he tells him about a farewell note for his family inside his wallet. As Don promises to deliver it to Mike’s family if he does die, an ominous roar interrupts him.

Helicopters appear swooping from the horizon, and quickly swarming above the prison, dousing Attica in tear gas. Shortly after, shots break out as state troopers flood the prison and begin to retake Attica through a hail of gunfire. In the end, Officer Mike Smith makes it out alive. But many do not.

Within 10 minutes, the invading police will kill 29 inmates and 10 hostages. The assault will become one of the bloodiest one-day encounters between Americans since the Civil War.

And immediately afterward, state officials will claim that many of the hostages shot by police were killed by inmates. But less than 24 hours later, medical examiners will confirm that all were killed by bullets of law enforcement.

Over the coming years, 62 inmates and one state trooper will be indicted for criminal acts associated with the riot. Five years after the uprising, New York Governor Hugh Carey will issue a blanket pardon for inmates and rule that no disciplinary action should be taken against police officers involved either.

But the inmates will still pursue a civil suit. Together, they will file a class-action lawsuit against Attica prison and state officials. After three decades in court, the state will finally agree to pay the inmates $8 million to settle the case.

And while initial press reports were tightly controlled by state officials, the true narrative of the riot will come out. And eventually, Americans will condemn the massacre. In response to public criticism, Governor Rockefeller will establish a special commission to investigate the events at Attica. And the following year, that commission will issue a report, criticizing Governor Rockefeller, the Department of Corrections, and New York State Police for their handling of the uprising and their role in the massacre that turned it into the bloodiest prison riot in U.S. history just four days after it began on September 9th, 1971.


Next on History Daily. September 12th, 490 BC. A greatly outnumbered Greek force defeats the Persian Army in the Battle of Marathon, preserving Greek independence from the mighty Persian Empire.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.