On September 8, 1971 a football game led to a fight in the A-yard of the New York Correctional Facility, Attica. Guards quickly broke up the fight and separated the two inmates they believed responsible, Ray Lamorie and Leroy Dewer. No one would admit that a fight had taken place, instead they insisted that Lamorie had been demonstrating proper lineman's techniques to Dewer. Lieutant Richard Mulrooney attempted to gain control of the situation by grabbing Dewer from behind. Dewer swiftly turned and hit Mulrooney in the chest, knocking his wind out. Mulrooney, angered, ordered Dewer out of the yard. Dewer refused and began yelling that he wasn't going to let himself get beaten. By now the guards were surrounded by a growing group of inmates that easily outnumbered them many times. The situation had clearly spun out of control and the guards, wisely, decided not to pursue the action. As the guards retreated an inmate shouted from the crowd, "If you take those guys out tonight, we'll take this prison off you."
After supper that evening Dewer and Lamorie were both removed from their cells in different parts of A-block. Both men resisted and the guards responded in kind. Before long the entire block was yelling and throwing things from their cells, taunting and threatening the guards. One guard was deeply lacerated when a jar was thrown from a cell. The prisoner responsible for throwing the jar was immediately placed on 24-hour lockdown. Rumors quickly spread between the inmates that both Lamorie and Dewer had been beaten severely, maybe killed.
The next morning didn't start out any better. Many of the inmates in A-block were refusing to leave A-block for breakfast without the prisoner who had thrown the jar. A passing inmate threw the switch, opening cell 17 and the jar thrower rushed out and got in the breakfast line. Lieutenant Robert Curtis, afraid of increasing unrest, let the man go. It was decided that they would let the prisoners eat breakfast and then lock everyone back up. That never happened.
Inmate Company 5 left the mess hall at 8:50 a.m. and headed back towards A-block. At 8:55 a.m. Sergeant Jack English received a trouble call from the hall captain in A-block. The inmates quickly overpowered the five men in charge of A-block. Sergeant English attempted to contact blocks b, c, and d and warn them to lock down the prisoners, but he was too late. Only C-block responded, and Captain Frank Wald was taken hostage moments after answering the call.
Prisoners rushed through the halls and captured "Times Square," the central office with lock controls to all the major intersections. William Quin was on guard at Times Square and he was removed from his post and beaten, ultimately dying from his wounds fifty-five hours later. The prisoners formed an angry mob of destruction that tore down bars and barricades that had been thought impregnable. They set fire to the chapel, school and tailor shop. They ruthlessly beat any guards they came across. Three officers from C-block locked themselves in a cell, only to be drug out by inmates with welding torches removed from the metal shop.
Within a short amount of time the mob began to organize and a group of about 1200 of the 2250 inmates ended up with control of D-block, portions of B-block and the entire D-recreation yard. They had taken 32 guards and 6 civilian employees as hostages. Within two hours Richard Clark and Herbert X. Blyden had taken charge in D-yard and began to protect the hostages and issue some semblance of order.
At 2:00 p.m. Arthur Eve and Herman Schwartz entered the prison to begin negotiations. They shortly returned to report to Commissioner Oswald that the prisoners would only deal with him. Warden Mancusi refused to negotiate and was prepared to storm the prison. Oswald disagreed and overruled Mancusi. Oswald and a select crew of TV, news and radio reporters entered Attica to begin negotiations. Very little, if anything was accomplished for the next two days. The prisoners insisted on complete amnesty from reprisals and insisted that reporters and outside observers be allowed into the prison to witness the conditions of abuse in Attica. A formal list of demands were eventually drawn up including: the application of the New York Minimum Wage Law, establishment of a Spanish library, a recruiting program for black and Spanish speaking correction officers, 28 points were included in the list. Officials refused to meet all the demands.
On Monday morning Commissioner Oswald, weary and frustrated, delivered an ultimatum to the inmates. Many of their demands could be met, but the state would not budge on the issue of amnesty. Oswald gave them an hour to respond and their response was negative. At 9:43 a.m. Monday, September 13, 1971, the attack on Attica began.
Captain Henry Williams ordered the power cut and conveniently, disabled the prisons video surveillance system ensuring that no record of the coming events would exist. The National Guard and corrections officers, armed with rifles, stormed the yards as it quickly filled with CS and pepper gas. The troops and officers attacking the prison were briefed that none of the inmates had conventional weapons or ammunition. By the testimony of witnesses there was little or no resistance form the prisoners after the gas was dropped.
When the gas cleared D-yard resembled the aftermath of a war zone. 36 men lay dead and 110 were seriously wounded (4 would later die from injuries sustained during the attack). Eight of the hostages were dead. Rumors soon spread of the savage treatment the hostages received at the hands of the prisoners. Prison officials claimed that all of the dead hostages were victims of the prisoners and that their throats had been cut during the early stages of the siege. Other rumors claimed that some hostages had their genitals removed and were forced to consume them. Once the yard was secured, the troops forced all the inmates to strip naked and many were herded through a gauntlet of officers brandishing clubs and batons. Some inmates were singled out and taken to rooms where they were beaten in what some later described as an "orgy of brutality."
Dr. John Edlund worked the entire night performing autopsies on all of the dead hostages and several of the prisoners. His investigations revealed that every one of the dead hostages had died from gunshot wounds. No mutilations were found. All of the dead had perished on Monday morning, during the attack. Despite this evidence Commissioner Oswald and Governor Rockefeller insisted that they had done everything properly and had taken the necessary course of action. Surprisingly, the press did little to criticize their actions, probably because they had been reporting myth as fact for several days. The State took no action on any of the inmate's demands, not even the ones they had agreed to during the negotiations.