In the late summer of 1971, approximately 1,500 inmates took 39 hostages and seized control of a section of Attica Correctional Facility in New York state. After four days of tense negotiation with some 37 observers, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and state officials finally took back the prison by force, resulting in the deaths of 29 inmates and 10 hostages--all from the attacking police officers' gunfire. Wicker, a prominent columnist with The New York Times, was one of the observers and in an excellent position to give an eyewitness account of what happened.
Wicker weaves into the story reflections on human nature, prison and social reform and how his own Southern liberal background led him to the agonizing moral and practical choices he was faced with during the revolt.
Although Wicker's sympathies clearly lie with the inmates, he is balanced enough to understand the reactions of state officials, correctional officers and local townspeople. However, several questions remained unanswered. Were the conditions at Attica, which were admittedly beginning to improve, really bad enough to justify the inmates' desperate, half-spontaneous revolt? Should the observers have done more to mediate the impasse rather than simply convey messages? Should the state have shown more flexibility on the amnesty issue? Could more have been done to force inmate leaders to negotiate outside of the tense atmosphere of the D Yard? Did the inmates believe their own rhetoric--did they intend to kill their hostages, and were they ready to die themselves? Should the authorities have moved more quickly to take back the prison, or should they have perhaps waited longer? Should less force have been used, or at least different assault tactics? The answers are not found here.
Authorities were clearly clumsy during the assault, unprofessional and brutal once they were in control, and hapless in their attempts at cover-up. With hindsight, one can speculate that the observers might have played a much more constructive role had they attempted to persuade the inmates to accept the best outcome they were likely to get rather than indulge...