Attica, New York Prison Riots

On September 9, 1971, prisoners at Attica prison in western New York State, protesting their appalling living conditions, outraged by the killing of George Jackson in San Quentin a few weeks earlier, and fortified by a growing black and brown power and prisoners’ rights movement, rebelled and took over the prison, seizing guards as hostages. Four days of negotiations, and the presence of several outside observers including New York Times journalist Tom Wicker, state representative Arthur Eve and attorney William Kunstler, brought significant progress in reaching a resolution. New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused to intervene in the negotiations and instead decided on a state police assault on September 13. The assault and ensuing massacre killed 39 people, 29 of them prisoners. Immediately after the retaking of the prison, law enforcement alleged that the killings had been committed by the prisoners, but this story was soon revealed to be false, and the actual facts were that all 39 victims of the retaking were killed by the state.

The retaking of the prison was followed by an orgy of violence and retaliation by prison guards and police, with prisoners brutally tortured for hours, and some prisoners likely executed. Jeff and Mzizi Woodson, a legal worker who had recently joined the office, went to New York and were among the first legal people allowed to see the prisoners. They met many of the Attica brothers, including Frank “Big Black” Smith, who had been tortured by the prison guards after the massacre. They also met Mara Siegel, a Buffalo law student who had responded to the call for legal support. Over the next several months, many different lawyers, law students and legal workers from the office made trips to Attica, where we learned first hand of the atrocities, developed relationships with many of the brothers, and worked on several of the injunctive cases which sought relief from the hideous maltreatment of prisoners in the aftermath of the massacre.

Although the killings in the retaking of Attica had all been committed by law enforcement, and although a later investigations by a special prosecutor concluded that “at least sixty-five or seventy [law enforcement] shooters were subject to possible indictment for murder, attempted murder, reckless endangerment and other felonies,” 62 prisoners were the only ones charged with crimes. Michael and Dennis relocated to Buffalo to help coordinate the defense of the criminal cases, support the Attica brothers, prepare a civil lawsuit on behalf of the prisoners and work with groups to raise political support for the Brothers. There, they worked tirelessly with other lawyers and a large group of law students and paralegals (including John Stainthorp, who was later to become an attorney, move to Chicago and become a member of the office), and eventually obtained the dismissal or acquittal of almost all the charges. In 1976, New York Governor Hugh Carey pardoned all of the Attica Brothers who had pled guilty in return for reduced sentences, and commuted the sentences of the two prisoners who had been convicted at trial. The civil case continued for years, and eventually resulted in a settlement for the prisoners, which will be described later.

History by Section

Early Days
The Murder of Fred Hampton
Government Surveillance
Representing the Panthers in Downstate Illinois
Attica New York Prison Riots
The Fred Hampton Murder Trial
Prisoner Rights Work
Puerto Rican Independence Movement and the Puerto Rican Community
Fred Hampton Appeal
George Jones Street Files and False Imprisonment
Representing Demonstrators, Protestors, and Activists
Puerto Rico Work Continues
Police Brutality and Torture
Continuing to Represent Demonstrators and Activists
The Attica Prison Civil Case
Continuing Work in Solidarity With Puerto Rico
Fighting the Death Penalty
Sexual Abuse Litigation and Illegal Strip Search
Back to the Supreme Court
The 1996 Democratic Convention
Policy and Practice Cases
False Arrests and Convictions
Continuing to Defend Dissent
Continuing the Fight for Justice in the Chicago Police Torture Cases
Criminal Defense for Civil Rights Abuses
Jail Suicide
Opposing the Criminalization of the LGBTQ Community
People’s Law Office and The National Lawyers Guild