Published February 3, 2022
The Department of Africana and American Studies and the UB Libraries are hosting the exhibit “Open Wounds: The Fifty-Year Legacy of the Attica Prison Uprising.”
In September 1971, inmate frustration over inhumane living situations in the Attica Correctional Facility culminated in the uprising that the exhibit acknowledges today. 2021 marked the 50-year anniversary of the riots that left 43 people dead, almost all of them killed by law enforcement officers retaking the prison.
The display is located on the first floor of Abbott Library on the South Campus. It is a traveling exhibition developed by the New York State Museum, and will remain at UB at least through the spring semester.
All of UB’s libraries, including Abbott, are open to the public, with hours of operation listed on the UB Libraries website.
Lillian S. Williams, associate professor of Africana and American studies, and Scott Hollander, associate university librarian for administration and distinctive collections, reflect on the exhibit’s significance.
“I wanted that story to be told,” Williams says. “This is about trying to get people to think about what we do as an American democracy to perpetuate our goals, our democratic principles, and how we treat people. I wanted to have conversations around such issues: What is incarceration and what does it mean in a democratic society? What about educational opportunities, and the disparities that we still see? What does it mean for our society when we lock up prisoners and throw away the key?
“I wanted to keep in mind prison reform and the ongoing debates taking place now,” she explains. “We imprison people for decades. What about rehabilitation and alternatives? What are conditions like for those prisoners? I remember the Buffalo newspapers’ coverage when the riots took place at Attica. While conducting research at the Library of Congress some years ago, I found a letter from a Buffalo Attica inmate in the 1930s complaining about the same conditions for which Attica prisoners were seeking redress in 1971,” she says. “It dealt with racism, it dealt with the paucity of supplies, just basic food, health. Taking a bath was an issue.”
Attica serves as a reminder of the issues of a flawed justice system, Williams says. Younger generations that may be unaware of the uprising are offered an opportunity to familiarize themselves with it, as the exhibit’s panels recount the history.
“Attica was incredibly complicated and tragic,” Hollander says. “The intent of the exhibition was to present and bring back the history into the public’s consciousness and encourage conversation, however uncomfortable it may be.”
The exhibit location in Abbott Library is a short distance from the UB Stampede Main Circle shuttle stop, and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s University Station Metro Rail stop.
“It's a wonderful space because it also allows faculty to bring classes in, and focus upon those issues,” Williams says of the library. “It also has public access, which is one of the reasons I wanted it there, and people from the community can come to see it.”
The Attica prison uprising is a defining event in the realm of prison reform. The facility is located about 45 minutes from Buffalo in Wyoming County, and many Western New Yorkers recall the outrage and media attention it sparked.
There are countless parallels between the injustices suffered by inmates in Attica in the 1970s and inmates in the modern prison system today, Williams says. Disparities in treatment of Black and white inmates, sustained pleas for improved prison conditions and disparities in incarceration rates and sentencing among Black Americans are ongoing issues, she notes.
Prior to the uprising, Attica inmates endured deplorable living conditions that included “abuse, overcrowding, and inadequate food and medical care,” according to the exhibit. They experienced racial disparities. Prisoners wanted reforms, such as improved medical care, increased wages and better oversight of facilities staff. Frustration about the injustice and powerlessness over the situation reached a breaking point in 1971.
“These were the same issues about which African American inmates complained in the 1930s and had implored the Buffalo Branch NAACP to investigate,” Williams says.
Prisoners rioted, rounding up prison employees and guards and holding them hostage. After the initial rebellion, inmates organized to protect hostages during negotiations with the state. Leaders of the uprising drafted a list of demands.
Gov. Nelson Rockefeller refused to travel to Attica for negotiations, and ultimately the prison was retaken by force. Dozens of people, both guards and inmates, were killed as law enforcement officers dropped tear gas and opened fire on the crowd.
In all, the uprising resulted in 43 deaths: 39 people were killed by law enforcement during the violent assault to regain control of the prison, according to the exhibit; four deaths, including the deaths of three inmates, occurred at the hands of inmates, according to the New York State Archives.
Williams recalls how the media reported on the events at the time.
“In a story with a bold headline covering a large portion of the front page, the Buffalo Evening News erroneously reported that the hostages had been slain by inmates who slashed their throats," she says. "But the medical examiner reported that hostages had died as a result of gunfire from police.”
Many news outlets nationwide, including the Washington Post and New York Times, made similar errors, Williams notes. While such accounts were later corrected, the initial prominent errors "had a devastating and lasting impact on public perceptions," creating an environment that enabled misinformation about the event to persist for many years, Williams says.
Williams notes the Attica uprising is deeply rooted in New York history, and that local individuals who worked on issues relating to Attica include former UB law professor Teresa A. Miller and former New York State Assembly Deputy Speaker Arthur O. Eve.
Miller, who died in 2021, fought for prison reform and sought to help the public understand how prisons impact inmates, corrections officers and society as a whole. While at UB, Miller organized the event “40 Years After the Attica Uprising: Looking Back, Moving Forward” in 2011. She worked with the UB School of Law and its Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy and other UB and community partners to host the two-day conference.
Miller made several documentary films about the Attica Correctional Facility, including “Encountering Attica,” a documentary film that chronicled a year of meetings between a group of first-year UB law students and Attica inmates, and “Attica: The Bars That Bind Us,” which depicted the “human costs” of life in a large men’s maximum security prison through the voices of prisoners and their family members, the warden, correctional officers and others.
In addition to her work on prison reform, Miller dedicated her time at UB to increasing equity, diversity and inclusion. She was the first vice provost for inclusive excellence at UB, and was appointed to the role of senior vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and chief diversity officer in the SUNY system.
Eve, another influential member of the Buffalo community, is connected to the Attica uprising through his work as a mediator during the conflict.
Eve has been a lifelong advocate for social justice and reforms, and the building housing UB’s Educational Opportunity Center in downtown Buffalo is named in his honor. As a New York State assemblyman, Eve led efforts to create an appropriations bill that brought about the SEEK/Educational Opportunity Program, providing students facing economic and educational obstacles with opportunities to gain admission to New York colleges and universities.