Attica Uprising: 45 Years Later

Attica hostage John Stockholm

ATTICA, N.Y. (WIVB)- The world watched in horror for nearly five days in September of 1971, as a New York prison became a battlefield.

Two weeks prior to the Attica uprising, George Jackson was shot and killed by prison guards in San Quentin Prison while trying to escape. His death only added fuel to the Prisoner’s Rights Movement.

American prisons were overcrowded and understaffed, and there was a broad disconnect between inmates of color and largely white guard populations.

Inmates were fighting for basic civil rights, many of which they were already legally entitled to.

UB professor and expert on the 1971 riot, Bruce Jackson, told News 4 Attica was a prime example.

“Medical care was poor, they got one roll of toilet paper for a month, one shower a week,” he said.

John Stockholm had been on the job 19 months when the riot started September 9, 1971.

‘Stocky’ as his friends called him, was often in charge of multiple groups of inmates, like he was that morning.

“Especially going to mess hall in the morning, if they were running short, it would be nothing to take maybe two-and-a-half, three full companies, which would be anywhere from 100 to 120 inmates,” Stockholm recalled.

“The riots started totally by accident,” Jackson said.

“It was unplanned. Guards grabbed a convict, they got the wrong guy. Some prisoners bunched up in a corridor, and it was kind of chaos for a while, and a door that was supposed to restrain them broke,” he continued.

29 inmates and 10 hostages would die; dozens would be injured, and the Village of Attica would never be the same.

“The officers were being pelted with rocks, weights, anything the inmates could pick up and throw,” remembered Stockholm.

Moments after the riot started, the 23-year-old guard looked up to see around 30 inmates charging down the corridor towards him.

“It was almost like slow motion,” he said.

“They ripped the baton off my key-ring and then I got hit in the head I guess with a mop ringer, my baton, and I believe a mop handle. And at that point I was out cold and when I came to I had approximately four inmates in the cell. They had taken me in a corridor and put me in a cell.”

He was taken hostage by the men he was guarding just moments before.

“And at that point I was bleeding quite profusely from my head, so they took my shirt which was all bloody and put one of theirs on me.”

Other guards and civilians employees were forced to wear prison uniforms as well; many of the hostages were also blindfolded, and had their hands tied.

“You could hear windows being broken, cell doors were being slammed back open and back up again,” he said.

Stockholm told News 4 at that point, he was just praying to get out of there.

After one group of inmates attached him, Stockholm remembered being protected by another.

“I would say 10 percent that was in the yard wanted to be there, the other 90 percent didn’t.”

As the hours and days passed, the state faced a big dilemma.

“Nelson Rockefeller just lost patience. He wanted to make another run for president, and he was worried he was being perceived as too liberal. And he decided to have the prison retaken by force,” Jackson told News 4.

On the morning of September 13, 1971, a state police helicopter began dropping tear gas on Attica’s yard; state law enforcement, the majority of whom had no experience inside Attica’s walls according to historians, were sent in armed with rifles.

Jackson described Attica as “just a blood bath.”

“There were state police, there were prison guards, there were even game wardens shooting into that yard. There was one book about it by a state official that was called The Turkey Shoot,” he said.

Just before state force came in, Stockholm was taken up on one of the catwalks with seven other hostages.

“I had made my amends. I had made my amends and I’m not afraid to say it. I was scared to death,” the now retired corrections officer told News 4.

Half of those hostages never made it out of Attica; they were killed by trooper fire.

“Four were killed on the catwalk, one was shot five times and he survived. And the other three came out together. The three of us out together and we left in the ambulance together.”

After almost five days, it was hard to understand that it was finally over; Stockholm, was in shock.

When he was first discovered by state troopers, he was mistaken for an inmate, as he was still wearing the shirt they put him in.

“He met me nose-to-nose, he grabbed me by the shirt, threw me around and I hit the wall and down I slid. And one of the officers said ‘No he’s one of ours.’ He puts his hand down and says ‘Good luck son.”

Stockholm was treated at the hospital and given six months leave, as all the surviving hostages were.

After that, he was back on the job.

He walked the corridors and catwalks of the place where he was once held hostage, for another 30 years.

He’s now retired, and a grandfather. Driving by Attica Correctional, Stockholm thinks of the guards he served with, and the ones who never made it home.

“I’m just one of the lucky ones,” he said.

He still thinks about the state’s role in the most terrifying 5 days of his life.

“The ducks were lined up before the assault went down.”

Stockholm remembers Corrections Commissioner at the time, Russell Oswald, calling a meeting with surviving hostages shortly after the riot; Stockholm says he urged them not to talk to the press.

“Just be good cowboys and keep quiet. And that’s what everybody did. Nobody talked about it,” Stockholm told News 4.

Historian and professor at the University of Michigan, Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, dedicated the last several years of her life to digging up the facts on Attica, and finding out where the state went wrong.

Her book Blood in the Water outlines her findings, as well as names troopers and prison guards believed to have fatally shot hostages and unarmed inmates.

Thompson said as a citizen, she agonized over the decision to publish the names, not wanting to open old wounds for hostages or the troopers involved in the re-taking. But as a historian, she felt it necessary.

“The purpose of that section of the book is to tell the history of the state’s investigation. And if I would have told the history of the state’s investigation without indicating what the state knew when it knew it, and what it did not pursue in a court of law, that would be irresponsible,” she said.

Her book also talks about the misinformation that so quickly spread about what occurred inside the prison.

“For anybody on the ground, particularly the state officials there, it is almost inconceivable that they wouldn’t have thought that this could have happened considering the amount of firepower they had sent in.”

The troopers orders have often been debated.

“Many of the troopers who end up going in, for example with 270 rifles, had never been trained to even use those rifles,” Dr. Thompson told News 4.

There were reports of guards being castrated, having their throats cut, and being thrown out windows. After the prison was retaken, a coroner determined those hostages had actually been killed by gunfire; they were shot by state troopers and other law enforcement.

Stockholm is mentioned several times in the book as well.

Dr. Thompson told News 4 finding the information was a great challenge. She happened upon several pieces of history in Buffalo she feels the state didn’t want her to find.

“These are public institutions and taxpayers spend a fortune on these institutions and we trust these institutions to our nation. And yet they are utterly private when it comes to accessing how they’re run, how people are treated in them,” she said.

Despite being held hostage by a group of inmates for nearly five days, Stockholm recognizes the social catalyst behind the riot.

“They [the inmates] were looking for change,” he said

“I’m no bleeding heart, but some things should have been changed.”

Overcrowding and under-staffing was a big problem back in 1971, one Stockholm faced as a new CO; at times he was in charge of 120 inmates by himself.

We asked Stockholm if he felt unprepared.

“Oh definitely, definitely.”

In that regard, the state has improved.

The inmate-to-guard ratio in 1971 at Attica was around 4.9 inmates to every guard. It’s now 3.1 inmates to every guard.

“The 1971 Attica riot changed things in America in one critical way: so far as I know, not a single prison uprising since then has been settled by gunfire,” Jackson told News 4.

Other than not shooting, Jackson doesn’t feel the prison system at Attica, in New York, or in the United State has changed much.

News 4 asked the Department of Corrections for inmate and guard demographics from both 1971 and 2016. Experts agree that a clear area of tension in 1971 and today is the disconnect between inmates of color and largely white guard populations.

The racial breakdown for inmates at Attica in 1971 was not available, but the current breakdown is as follows:

  • White – 463
  • African American – 1,086
  • Hispanic – 401
  • Native American – 19
  • Asian – 6
  • Other – 20

The current guard population at Attica is 96 percent white.

A DOC spokesperson said in a statement:

“The appointment of Correction Officers, after successfully completing their training at the DOCCS Academy in Albany, is conducted in accordance with the negotiated reassignment system which is a seniority based, voluntary system. The ethnic breakdown of correction officers at Attica Correctional Facility closely mirrors that of the populations of Wyoming County and the contiguous counties. As of July 1, 2016, 96% of correction officers at Attica were white, 2% were Hispanic and 1% was black.”

Stockholm doesn’t remember exactly when, but at some point, he did start talking. In part, to raise awareness for the forgotten victims of Attica; the surviving hostages and widows of slain guards.

“The state did not do these women justice,” he said.

He recalled so many of his friends and coworkers’ wives being turned upside down with no warning, and from his perspective, little sympathy from the state.

“Never drove, supposedly didn’t grocery shop and supposedly never wrote a check. But on Monday guess what? You had to do it all. And you might have had 6 or 8 kids in the house,” he said.

In 1981 hostage survivors and widows were dealt a devastating blow.

The New York Supreme Court Appellate Division ruled former hostages or widows who had accepted workman’s comp checks for the period of the riot and afterwards, could not seek additional money from the state.

In 2000, the state agreed to pay surviving inmates $8 million and $4 million for their lawyers.

Families of slain hostages were outraged; they had yet to see a penny. Finally, in 2005, hostages and widows were awarded $12 million.

“By that time a number of the plaintiffs were already dead. It took another decade, and more, until any of the money awarded in that trial was paid,” Jackson said.

“It is just stunning how many people looked the other way if not outright betrayed these people who were suffering,” said Thompson.

Stockholm told us in addition to leaving many his friends’ widows penniless, the Attica riot left a stain on his home.

“It kind of degraded it. I mean Attica as far as I was concerned, was the greatest place in the world to raise kids.”

It’s something he still thinks, and part of him will always call Attica home.

Tuesday, on the 45th anniversary of the retaking of the prison, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a new website dedicated to making documents and archives on the 1971 riot and the litigation that followed, digitally accessible to the public.

Thompson said she is happy to hear about increased access to records, but is skeptical about how much will and what will actually be made available.

To this day, the state of New York has never issued a formal apology for the events following the 1971 Attica riot.

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