“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.