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Negotiations in The Attica Prison Riot Term Paper

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Updated: Dec 2nd, 2021


In a prison riot which occurred at Attica State Penitentiary in New York, the prisoners held the guards hostage and demanded that they be accorded their basic human rights. Deaths occurred when New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the National Guards to take the prison by full force.

The inmates held hostages; the administration reluctantly negotiated. An impasse ensued.

The negotiations that went on for days and circumstances surrounding these negotiations are the subject of this paper.

First, who were involved in the negotiations? What were the demands? And where these demands impossible to be met or attempted to be delivered by the negotiators?

It is the purpose of this paper to determine how the negotiators used their power or leverage in the negotiations? Who had power and its effect in the negotiations? What went wrong in the negotiations?

Above all, can anyone negotiate?


In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a prison movement that first culminated in San Quentin then in Attica.

This description from the book Routing the Opposition:

Prisoners took over the main cell blocks, taking guards as hostages. One guard was killed shortly after the takeover. As the mood turned angry, and despite the efforts of some prison groups to protect the hostages, some of the guards were assaulted. In the general melee, widespread violence broke out among prisoners themselves. (Meyer 243)

It was 1971, the time when Nelson Rockefeller was Governor of New York. In the early morning of September 13, he called up his advisors to tackle on the matter of the Attica State Penitentiary which, after a series of negotiations, had to be taken by force.

The Attica Prison was a facility 30 miles south of Buffalo, New York. Inmates had often complained of prison conditions, including the guards’ trampling on their rights, racial discrimination, the inmates’ living conditions, etc. Most of the inmates were African Americans and Puerto Ricans. There were also complaints of no shower or just one roll of toilet of paper a month or that the facility was overcrowded. (The Rockefellers website)

The Event Leading to the Riot

The event leading to the riot happened when guards tried to suppress a scuffle between two prisoners, held them in isolation cells and tried to torture them. Negotiations started – the prisoners who cared for their comrades on one side and the guards on the other. On the next day, a riot occurred where the inmates beat several guards with pieces of pipe, fatally injuring some. The inmates numbered in a thousand, took hold of the prison and even set fire on some of the buildings.

The inmates managed to take hold of 40 hostages and demanded the following:

  • the federal government should take over the Attica prison;
  • better conditions for the prisoners and the prison facility;
  • the removal of the superintendent, and
  • amnesty for the crimes committed during the riot.

There were demands and so the negotiations, but Gov. Rockefeller did not want to budge, even from the start. The prisoners used every possible means to be in control of the situation. They knew there would be deaths, so they tried every means in their power to let the authorities give in to their demands.

The inmates held hostages, the guards whom they had held in one of the areas of the prison. They also used the instant “celebrity” status they had earned at the time by announcing to the public their demands. They believed the public including their families and some government officials were on their side.

Different forces had been grappling for prison reforms at Attica and other New York Prisons. “Commissioner of Correctional Services Russell Oswald attempted to enact liberal prison policy” but budgetary constraints hindered such reforms. (Useem and Kimball 25)

On the other hand, the guards and so-called “on-line” prison officials constituted another force that were opposed to reforms but were in favor of traditionalist policy and expansion of their span of control in prison. The inmates wanted to exert power or influence and to express their demands and complaints inside the prison.

Some reforms had already been instituted but questioned, and these reforms were based on court decisions. For example, a federal district court ordered that the prison’s system of internal punishment was a denial of due process and therefore should be stopped. The supervisors’ right to censor inmates’ mail was also illegal.

However, the correctional staff resisted these changes, and they were successful in reinstituting the system. There were many other complaints, and Corrections Commissioner Oswald made statements to the inmates that reforms would soon be carried out. Oswald had to accede to the inmates’ demand for penal reforms of which the guards and the superintendent much disliked. This was one of the reasons why the inmates sought for amnesty in one of their demands in the riot, and that was because the state failed to effect prison reforms, and therefore they should not be punished.

One of the demands was low wages in the metal shops. 450 inmates working in the metal shops conducted a sit-down strike, and they won. Negotiations ensued and the new wages were tripled out of the strike. However, as a consequence, organizers of the strike were transferred to other prisons. (Useem and Kimball 26)

Power of unity was used in this particular situation. The inmates conducted a strike and they won their demand of triple wages.

Moreover, in June 1971, five inmates attempted to communicate with other inmates and in other prisons in the state. They identified themselves as the “Attica Liberation Faction” and developed a program of demands to Commissioner Oswald which were for legal representation before the Parole Board. The demands were for improvement in medical care, upkeep of facilities and working conditions, uniform rules, lower commissary prices, and an end to ‘segregation … because of their political beliefs” (Useem and Kimball 26-27).

After this, more inmates of larger organizations prepared for broader inmate unity. Some came from the organization Black Panther Party. The guards then feared of a growing inmate unity when they saw the members of the Black Panther Party and the Black Muslims face each other at the table.

On August 22, black inmates protested by wearing black armbands, observing silence, and fasting, when George Jackson of the Black Panther Party was killed by San Quentin prison guards. Inmates also signed up for sick call when they heard that Commissioner Oswald was visiting Attica.

The above description is a backdrop to the big prison riot at Attica. The inmates were a bit experienced at uniting and carrying out protests, of which some had been proven successful.

The Riot

Then on September 8 to 9, two inmates were engaged in a scuffle. Two officers summoned them, but one of them disappeared in the crowd. The other inmate, Leroy Dewer, was ordered to return to his cell but did not comply with the order. An officer named Lieutenant Maroney came after Dewer, but he struck the lieutenant, after which a crowd of inmates immediately collected. Because of this, the officers could not anymore enforce their will; instead, they were forced to back out. After the incident, the officers took Dewer, to transfer him into HBZ cell for disciplinary action, but the inmates mistook this as torturing and punishing the inmate.

On the morning of September 9, realizing that the two inmates who were involved in the scuffle, were not in their cell, the inmates protested. This protest was encouraged by some court actions. They were “increasingly aware of an assertive of due process safeguards [and] their rights had been grossly violated” (Useem and Kimball 29).

The First Attempt of Negotiation

This means that by ordering an inmate for punishment, i.e., sending an inmate to HBZ cell, an officer should state the reason why an inmate was being sent to HBZ cell for punishment. They demanded an explanation; this was not done. The guards thought that their fellow inmates were savagely beaten. And so, they united and resisted. This unity had long been a reality even days or weeks before the incident where the two inmates in a scuffle were accosted by the guards.

The inmates protected their fellow inmates, but the guards insisted the two inmates should be punished and that they had no right to know what was happening to the two inmates.

These took into a series of conflicts with violence and threats between the guards and the inmates. Now it came into a situation that the officers in 5 Company were locked from the rest, and there was no reserve force of guards to perform the operation to save the hostage guards. The inmates overpowered the guards, had obtained a set of keys and opened all the doors. (Useem and Kimball 30)

Negotiations started, with one telephone used to transmit information to and from the administration.

The Appeal to the Public

In their statement to the public, the prisoners exposed the “brutalization” of prisoners and other inhuman conditions in the prison. Governor Rockefeller’s stand in the political arena was maligned by the statements of the prisoners, which made him react and order the taking of the prison by force. He believed that the action of the prisoners was instigated by revolutionaries so that any sign of compromise would affect the nation. (The Rockefellers)

The prisoners used their leverage – power and force – by holding hostages, setting fire to the buildings, and showed control over the situation. The public, the media, and the nation were watching, to the advantage of the prisoners who were in the losing situation, but seemed actually in control.

Moreover, the prisoners demanded that Rockefeller should come to Attica and handle the negotiations himself. Influential people also demanded that Rockefellers handle the situation calmly. Commissioner of Correctional Services Russell Oswald asked him to go and tackle the situation in Attica. The pressure was mounting on the Governor so he would give in to some of the demands of the hostages.

The inmates took advantage of the pressure on Governor Rockefeller. They added more dramatically by saying that the situation was Governor Rockefeller’s own doing. If their long complaints of inhuman conditions in the facility had been addressed, the riot wouldn’t have happened.

In a sense, the prisoners were successful in transforming the prison riot into a political battlefield, complete with psychological and political attacks. Their original objective of informing the public and the proper authorities about their inhuman situation inside the facility was now gaining ground.

Governor Rockefeller told Oswald that his actions had to reflect a larger implication which should also reflect on the entire nation. By Monday morning, Rockefeller ordered the assault to reclaim the facility. Tear gas canisters were dropped by a police helicopter on areas occupied by the inmates holding the hostages. Missiles were dropped, about 2,200; shotguns were used, and bloodshed was all over the Attica facility. As a result, ten hostages and twenty-nine inmates were killed. (The Rockefellers website)

More on the negotiations

The situation in the Attica was that the prisoners used force and hostages to have power over the negotiation.

In their “Immediate Demands”, the prisoners showed that they were “over” the situation or were in control and used psychological tactics by saying that “the entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States.” (Useem and Kimball 236)

The inmates used propaganda by calling on the American population to assist or help them in their situation. They asked the people to sympathize with their predicament by saying that the situation was not their own fault but the fault of the authorities who had made the prison situation truly in a deteriorating state. By announcing their demands in public, by captivating the sympathy of the public, thethe prisoners were in the leverage to negotiate. The authorities now we’re in a losing game.

But this was not so in the mind of the Governor. He knew he had to end the impasse right away; if not, more and more things would happen. Meanwhile, some observers and influential politicians were trying to intervene or come up with a compromise. They issued a statement calling on the Governor to avert more serious consequences or loss of lives by going to the prison himself.

Instead of the Governor going to Attica, Robert Douglass, the Counsel and Secretary of Governor Rockefeller, was sent to represent the governor. The inmates wanted the Governor but they got only the secretary, which they didn’t like.

The situation was getting worse when Secretary Douglass came into the scene. He, however noted that the inmates’ demands were not really big demands but only involved some number of showers or the “amount of fresh fruit”. (The Rockefellers [b])

Douglass and Commissioner Oswald conferred with each other, and the latter said that he would deliver his promises to the inmates, and that is, the reforms of the Attica prison, such as the conditions the prisoners were invoking. Douglass noted that they were making some headway in the negotiations. (The Rockefeller [b])

The 25 demand items of the inmates were nearly delivered, and Douglass said the negotiation was making progress and they were near closure. But when Douglass was still negotiating with the inmates, something happened. One of the prison guards died from injuries during the initial confrontation between the guards and the inmates. This changed the whole thing. Some behavior of the inmates also changed, trying to be smart. And so Douglass and the administration tried a way to settle the matter. They contacted the District Attorney, and they soon assured the inmates that there would be no general persecution but only the one who was guilty of killing the guard would be persecuted. This was agreed later by the inmates. But then, the inmates again added two demands, and these were they asked for an asylum to another country and complete amnesty. Douglass had doubts on the grant of asylum to another country; he said it was impossible. The second thing, the amnesty, Douglass said that it was not within the power of the Governor to grant amnesty and that this was only possible after a conviction.

Douglass felt that the inmates really wanted a confrontation because of the demands that were impossible to meet.

On the other hand, the inmates didn’t trust the administration’s way of dealing with them. Frank Smith, one of the inmates, was later interviewed long after the incident, and said that there was some double-dealing on the part of Commissioner Oswald. So the inmates didn’t trust Oswald and Douglass. Smith said they had the national TV, and the inmates knew what Commissioner was saying on TV. Smith said that Oswald told the public that the inmates wanted everything, which was not so.

The inmates wanted the Governor to come down to Attica because they knew it was the Governor who had the final say, and that he had the connections or he could grant asylum to them. The inmates talked with observers Arthur Eve, Clarence Jones, Wicker, and Dunne. Smith said that the inmates didn’t like or trust Commissioner Oswald because he didn’t also trust the inmates.

There were other people who wanted to broker peace in the situation, like Herman Bedio, Bill Kuntsler, Eldridge Cleaver, and Douglass said that these people were influential people at that time.

The negotiation then turned into a sort of confrontation between these people and Douglass because, as the latter said, the Governor did not want to negotiate with people (the inmates) having hostages. They insisted that the Governor should come down and attend to the matter personally. But Douglass retorted that once the Governor came to face the prisoners, it would come to a matter of precedent. There would be more and more prison riots and hostage-taking, and that would be the end of it.

Douglass told the inmates’ negotiators to call the Governor himself, and so they did. The Governor said that he got good people in the field negotiating with the inmates, and it was up to them to negotiate, but he also said that the situation was not making any sense. He further made a sort of warning: that the State Police were professionally trained to handle the situation.

There was a standstill in the negotiations. There were some appeals from the administration that if the inmates released the hostages, everything would be taken care of, that is, only the ones who killed the hostages would be persecuted, and there would be no general persecution or recrimination.

But then the inmates barricaded the building, made weapons, soaked mattresses in gasoline, or prepared themselves for battle. Douglass noted that the inmates were not out to negotiate or give up but they were prepared to face the State Police for a battle.


In our observation, it is proper to give some explanations why the Attica negotiation was doomed to fail from the start:

  1. Each side was apt to outsmart the other;
  2. Proper authorities failed to address the situation or to give some “promises” to the hostage-takers, the prisoners, who were at this time desperate for an answer and hope on their situation.
  3. The prisoners did not see any sincerity on the part of the governor who was decided to take the facility by force even at the start of the negotiation, so that they were decided to take hold and fight even up to the last drop of their blood.
  4. Human rights groups, observers, and influential people failed to unite and convince the governor about the rationale of giving in to the demands of the hostage-takers.
  5. There were no real negotiators who could act on behalf of the prisoners except a handful of relatives and some unconvincing individuals.
  6. The governor was concerned of his political ambition than of his constituents. In fact, many years later after the riot, he still denied any wrong decision for the force take over of the facility, despite a number of prison guards who were killed and many prisoners also killed by shotguns.


The Attica Prison riot used various means in the negotiation to gain leverage or to gain power. The inmates used force, took hostages, barricaded themselves, and also used the power of media in gaining advantage over the administrations’ negotiators. The State, represented by Governor Rockefeller, his counsel Douglass and Commissioner Oswald, used psychological pressure so that the inmates would release the hostages. They also used some promises that there would be no general persecution. But in a way, the administration side was trying to be sincere and truthful to what they were saying to the inmates. This was so because they wanted to gain the trust of the inmates, so that the whole matter would end up peacefully.

The inmates on the other hand were desperate. They were in a situation that they didn’t know what they were asking or how they were doing it. They went as far as killing one of the hostages.

In the negotiations, they wanted to outsmart Douglass and Oswald. They used the media, the public, and everything they could think of to hold power. Holding hostages was somehow beneficial to their demands. By having the guards as their hostage, they thought they knew how to handle the situation. They were on top of the situation, they thought.

This was not so. They were in for a great battle of their lives. They thought they were united, or a force the administration had to reckon with. They were a bunch of boys who didn’t know what they were doing. They thought by using force and hostages they could get their demands. This was not so.

Governor Rockefeller issued the order – to regain the Attica Prison by force. The negotiations failed.

Works Cited

Meyer, David S., Valerie Jenness, and Helen M. Ingram. Routing the Opposition: Social Movements, Public Policy, and Democracy. U.S.: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Rockefellers, The. People & Events: Attica Prison Riot, 1971. Web.

Rockefellers, The (b). Attica Prison Riot. Web.

Rockefellers, The (c). Attica Prison Riot. Web.

Useem, Bert, and Peter Kimball. States of Siege: U.S. Prison Riots, 1971 – 1986. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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