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Book Review: A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt by Tom Wicker

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“Attica! Attica!” yells Al Pacino as Sonny, in a crucial scene during the classic film Dog Day Afternoon (1975). He and his partner Sal‘s (John Cazale) attempt at a bank-robbery has gone very wrong. They have taken hostages, the police are outside ready to storm the barricades, and a huge crowd has appeared to watch the proceedings. By raising the specter of the Attica prison riot/massacre, Sonny instantly has the people on his side, as that disaster was still very fresh in the public’s mind.

A Time To Die: The Attica Prison Revolt by Tom Wicker is a first-hand report of what went down at the Attica prison September 8-13, 1971. The book was first published in 1975, and has recently been reissued by Haymarket Press. Wicker was in a most unusual situation during the crisis. He was a New York Times columnist whose presence as an “observer” was requested by the rioting prisoners during negotiations. He was not alone in this capacity, the prisoners had asked other members of the press, attorneys, and Black Panther leader Bobby Seale to be there, in a “neutral” capacity.

The prisoners feared massive retaliation by the state. The attendance of these observers (it was hoped) would help to mitigate the incendiary situation. History records the disastrous outcome of the conclusion of the stand-off, with a total of 39 dead–29 prisoners and 10 hostages. The state police and the correctional authorities stormed D-Yard of the prison with guns blazing, and clubs swinging, amidst a fog of tear-gas to take it back on September 13.

Tom Wicker’s experience was a strange one, almost a journey for him. As a well-regarded newpaperman for the Times, he had no experience with the harsh reality of day to day life in a maximum security prison such as Attica. While he tried to stay neutral, the conditions he saw were impossible to ignore. Attica was built for a capacity of 1,200 prisoners, yet held 2,225 at the time. All the warning signs of a powder-keg ready to blow were ignored.

Things happened so fast, and the guards were so unprepared, that the prisoners were able to take 28 of them hostage. The idea of bringing in “observers” was a smart one and was done in reaction to what had happened in other recent prison uprisings. A whole world of reforms were promised, and as soon as the inmates were safely back behind bars, none of them were followed up on. And the reprisals were brutal.

When Wicker was asked to travel upstate to the prison, he really did not know what he was in for, and was more following a newsman’s instincts to get the story than anything else. He came away profoundly shaken by the entire experience.

Besides Wicker, observers included James Ingram of the Michigan Chronicle, state senator John Dunne, state representative Arthur Eve, and civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, among others. Their roles increasingly became to relay the prisoner’s demands to the staff, and the officials’ reactions back. Over the course of four days, things hardened considerably. At one point, Wicker wondered which side of the fence he was safer on.

The main points of contention were that the prisoners wanted amnesty for their actions, and prison Superintendent Vincent Mancusi removed. They also wanted an audience with Governor Rockefeller. None of these demands were going to be met, although to avoid the inevitable bloodshed, Mancusi (privately) offered to resign.

The situation rapidly deteriorated between both sides. The state was simply not prepared to give in to what it considered precedent-setting demands. The issue of amnesty was never seriously considered. And when Correctional Officer William Quinn died of injuries sustained from the initial uprising, the handwriting was on the wall.

With 28 hostages, the rioters are convinced that they have the upper hand. In fact, in the opening stages of the situation, Wicker sees a strange euphoria among them. They cannot possibly know the types of pressure that the Governor on down are feeling to retake the prison. As he sees first-hand, Nixon’s “Silent Majority” are not silent at all about the situation, and want to see law and order enforced immediately. As it slowly dawns on Wicker, the lives of the hostages are more and more being seen as expendable in the cause of taking back the prison.

His descriptions of the endless oratories on both sides are mind-numbing. When I say “both sides” it is not the two sides one would think. The officials are adamant, and not making any speeches. The rhetoric is coming from inside the yard where the hostages and rioters are penned, and inside the small conference room between the observers. Wicker and company are seen as hostile by both sides. Although none of the messengers are literally killed, the mood is ugly towards them.

When the author tries to come up with some sort of compromise to the amnesty issue, some way for both sides to keep face, while defusing the escalating tensions, both sides basically laugh at him.

When the order is given to retake the yard, it is with full force. Wicker describes it succinctly and paints a hideous picture of violence. And in the end, the hostages did prove to be expendable.

Wicker witnessed the brutal reprisals afterwards as well. It seems as if every prisoner who was in the yard were beaten within inches of their lives. The guards actually dismissed these clubbing as “like a hazing.” In the end, nothing was accomplished by either side, other than amplifying the hatreds even further.

40 years after Attica, the prison system has expanded beyond anyone‘s wildest dreams. The “War on Drugs” has turned it into a growth industry, which is sickening. A Time To Die is an incredible book in that it so perfectly captures the thoughts and feelings of a self-described “liberal” in 1971, who had something of a near-spiritual awakening by the events he found himself involved in. The treatment of prisoners today seems completely irrelevant to the general public, as do the sheer numbers of incarcerated Americans.

A Time to Die is a very powerful historical account of what would seem to have been a defining moment in the American prison system. And although I have refrained from dwelling on it up to now, it is a powerful indictment of racism in the system, and society at large at the time as well. It also made me wonder if things have actually gotten worse in the 40 years since it was initially published.

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