Name: Attica Correctional Facility
Prison System: New York State Department of Correctional Services
Status: Active since 1931.
Offender Gender: Male
Security Level: Maximum
Distinguishing Feature: Although it has been almost 50 years since it occurred, Attica is probably best known for a riot that occurred there on September 9, 1971. The riot resulted in the deaths of 29 inmates and 10 hostages and is one of the deadliest prison riots in United States history. To this day, people speculate about what actually happened in the riot and whether the prison system took sufficient steps to end the riot in a timely manner and to protect the inmates and hostages during the riot.
Maximum Capacity: 2,253; however, the prison has exceeded capacity in the past by making cells that were intended to be single occupancy into double-occupancy cells.
Number of Guards: 582; 570 male and 12 female
It is impossible to discuss Attica as a prison without looking at the history of incarceration in the United States, as a whole. The 1971 prison riot, which resulted in 43 deaths and injuries to an additional 90 people helped bring attention to the deplorable living conditions that inmates experience in prisons and sparked a debate in the United States about what qualifies as humane treatment for prisoners. While the debate is more nuanced than it appears on the surface, the two basic approaches seem to be in conflict. On one side of the debate are the people who believe that criminals give up their right to humane treatment when they commit a crime, and that duly convicted criminals should only receive the most basic care while incarcerated. On the other side of the debate are people who believe that most criminals will be re-released into society and that dehumanizing conditions in prison not only fail to help rehabilitate them, but can actually make them a greater danger to society upon their release. Attica has served as a focal point for that debate, but has not really waivered from its position as one of the harshest prisons in the United States.
The population of Attica skews more towards middle age than one would expect in most prisons, due, in part, to the fact that many of the prisoners there are serving extended sentences. The average prisoner is in his late 30s, serving a minimum 15 year sentence. Most of the inmates there have committed a violent felony. As one can expect in most prisons, the racial composition of the inmate population is disproportionate to the racial composition of the surrounding community; more than half of the inmates are African-American, more than 20% are Hispanic, and around 20% are white. The population is also more highly educated than one might anticipate; significantly more than half of the inmates have at least a high school diploma or its equivalent. Approximately one-fifth of the inmates have an identified mental illness. While some inmates are initially sentenced to Attica, it is also frequently the final destination for problem inmates who have created problems or engaged in violence at other prisons in New York.
Attica is considered one of the most brutal prisons in the nation, in part because of the ever-present threat of violence at the prison. Officially, its rules appear very similar to those one would find in any other prison, but the casual use of the threat of violence is constantly prevalent. For example, guards walk through the prisons with their batons-in hand, constantly ready to respond to any aggression with extreme violence. The prisoners also complain that guards harass them verbally, with the perceived goal of inciting violence by prisoners to justify violence responses. It has higher levels of violence by both staff an inmates than most institutions of similar size and prisoner composition, and has been plagued by allegations of sexual abuse by the prison guards for years. Guards also engage in behavior that seems aimed intimidating prisoners without the use of violence or verbal threats, such as engaging in a higher number of frisks than comparable prisons, refusing to release inmates at meal times, turning off power or water to cells, and retaliating when prisoners complain. In fact, it is one of the nation’s highest-ranking prisons in terms of both sexual abuse and racial harassment. However, it is difficult to determine whether the higher-than-average violence levels in the prison are a response to a more violent prison population or whether the prisoners, themselves, have become more violent in response to a more restrictive and intimidating prison environment.
Attica has a variety of prison programs available for inmates, though the overcrowding and limited staff levels make it difficult for inmates to access the programming. These programs include substance abuse programs, transitional services, anger management courses, academic programs, and vocational programs. It is probably best known for its aggressive education program, and inmates and staff believe that Genesee Community College, which offers courses to inmates at Attica, offers educational opportunities that exceed those found in most prisons. However, while Attica’s higher education may exceed other prisons, it has a lower GED enrollment and passage rates than comparable prisons, reflecting that the programs may not be providing services to those most at-risk upon release back into the community.
While Attica has become known because of a famous prison riot, it was actually constructed as the answer to other serious riots that had struck the New York prison system in 1929. The construction of the facility was supposed to be sufficiently guard-heavy that it would discourage rioting by the inmates. For example, the walls were deeper and thicker than the walls of other prisons of that time period and featured more guard towers than were present at other prisons. However, while prison riots might occur when prisoners feel the freedom to take action, they can also be encouraged by an environment that is too restrictive, and, from the beginning, Attica aimed at restricting inmates in a significant way. Even inmates that are not on any type of segregation spent more than half of their day confined to cells, which were smaller than cells in other facilities. These cramped living conditions, combined with a lack of recreation and programming, bad food, and inadequate medical care may have contributed to the unrest that resulted in the famous 1971 prison riot. In addition, Attica was plagued by concerns of racially motivated mistreatment; while the prison population has been overwhelmingly composed of minority inmates since the prison opened, its guards have been mostly white men. Prior to the riots, the prisoners actually engaged in a number of peaceful protests regarding their living conditions, but did not see any resolution or action from those protests.
Attica has had a number of famous inmates, including several notorious serial killers. David Berkowitz, also referred to as the Son of Sam, is incarcerated there, as is Colin Ferguson, the Long Island Railroad killer, and Kendall Francois who targeted prostitutes. John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman was confined to Attica, as was the infamous mafia killer Anthony Provenzano. Willie Sutton, a prolific bank robber who robbed over 100 banks was one of Attica’s most famous inmates who was serving time for a non-homicide offense.
Year Built or Opened: 1931 Warden or Supervisor: Dale Artus Security Level(s): Maximum
Inmate Name, ID Number
Attica Correctional Facility
639 Exchange St.
Attica, NY 14011-0149
639 Exchange St.
Attica, New York, 14011-0149