Looking Back At Attica: Prisoners’ Right To “True Religious Freedom”

Storming the Gates: Fifty Years After the Attica Prison Uprising

Fifty years ago this week, September 9-13, 1971, incarcerated men at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York took control of the state prison to demand humane treatment and better living. The revolt captured the nation’s attention, with journalists, historians and political analysts calling it a pivotal moment in the national prisoners’ rights movement. 

Now, after the murder of George Floyd inspired renewed protests across the country demanding accountability around law enforcement, corrections and criminal justice, the WNYC Race and Justice Unit sought to reexamine the 50th anniversary of the Attica uprising, what has changed in New York State’s prison system to improve the quality of life for inmates, and what remains unaddressed half a century later. 

In 1967, at the height of his fame, Muhammad Ali refused to enlist in the U.S. Army.

“My conscience won’t let me shoot my brother, or some darker people,” Ali said, referring to the people of Vietnam. “And shoot them for what? They never called me n-gger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How am I gonna go shoot them? They’re poor little Black people and little babies and children and women. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

Ali cited his religious faith, specifically his membership in the Nation of Islam. Ali’s  willingness to risk imprisonment, and forfeit his heavyweight title, prompted New York Times columnist Tom Wicker to ask, what would happen if all young men of draft age took the same position? The government, Wicker argued, “would then be faced not with dissent, but with civil disobedience on a scale amounting to revolt.” Ali’s case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and, famously, he lost. And he went to jail.

But Ali certainly wasn’t the first Nation of Islam adherent to reject war. Under leader Elijah Muhammad, the faith group had gained notoriety as many of its members refused the draft, decades earlier, during World War II, and were subsequently imprisoned. This stream of Black radicals into U.S. prison facilities would have long-term consequences on prison culture and questions of religious freedom for prisoners, as well as the eventual uprising at Attica, which has its fiftieth anniversary this month.

In their book “Rethinking the American Prison Movement,’ Toussaint Losier and Dan Berger write, “it was not Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement but the Nation of Islam that effected the greatest legal change for people in prison.”

The Nation of Islam, widely know as the Black Muslims, is a religious organization with deeply poltical overtones, founded in the United States by Wallace Fard Muhammad, in 1930. Before Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, its most famous member was Elijah Muhammad, the leader who had himself been imprisoned for refusing the draft during World War II, and Losier said that after his release Muhammad corresponded with people who remained incarcerated.

“Elijah Muhammad does this amazing job of individually answering the letters of prisoners,” said Losier, a historian at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, “Saying, your duty as a Muslim is to sort of abide by the rules, to follow the regulations. But also to kind of adhere to your faith.”

This was often a challenge. Prison officials didn’t recognize the Nation of Islam as a religious group, viewing it instead as a political one, with its leader preaching openly against the so-called “white devil,” which led most prison officials to actively oppose it. 

“You have prisoners who end up in isolation, in segregation, because they have copies of Elijah Muhammad’s columns or are struggling to get access to the Koran,” Losier said.

All of this was happening during an important demographic shift within prisons.

“The population was becoming Blacker and Blacker,” Orisanmi Burton, an anthropologist at American University, said. “By 1963, New York prisons were majority Black. Whereas prior to 1963, they were not.” 

Increasingly, prisoners pursued their rights in the courts. For decades, the courts had not taken the demands of prisoners seriously, but this began to change with a torrent of lawsuits in the 1960s. Lawsuits from Nation of Islam adherents specifically sought weekly congregational services behind bars, and access to the Koran and Nation of Islam publications.

In 1964, the case Cooper v. Pate went up to the United States Supreme Court. Thomas Cooper, a prisoner in Illinois, argued he had been denied his First Amendment right to practice his Islamic faith.

“And it had been dismissed by lower courts who basically were like, ‘this is a crazy religion,’” Losier said.

In a historic ruling, the Court ruled in Cooper’s favor, opening the floodgates for other prisoners to sue prison officials. By one estimate, the number of prisoners’ rights cases ballooned from 218 in 1966 to more than 18,034 in 1984. 

“Incarcerated people understood that, at the very least, they needed to demand their basic constitutional rights,” said Heather Ann Thompson, the author of “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.” 

But Thompson said prisoners increasingly felt the law was not keeping up with their demands, so in the late 1960s they began to lead strikes, and boycotts. 

In 1967, the same year Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army, there were five prison uprisings, a number that grew to 37 by 1971. Black Muslims were at the center of this movement, Thompson said. They also represented the biggest threat to the system.

“And so even in Attica, when they say ‘we would like religious freedom,’ what’s going on behind the scenes here is that this is very much coded for a real protection specifically for Muslim brothers,” she said.

The uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York—which began on Sept. 9, 1971 and ended with 43 deaths four days later—began when incarcerated men took control of the state prison with demands for more humane treatment and better living standards.

Of the 28 concessions that Attica prison commissioner Russell Oswald accepted, number 7 was for “true religious freedom.” 

For Muslims, especially Black Muslims, this represented a “watershed moment of change,” said Thompson.

But then came a backlash. The political establishment pushed back against prisoner rights, and part of this pushback included a sort of systemic cloaking: prison facilities, Thompson said, became maddeningly opaque. And it was hard to determine which ones actually did allow prisoners to freely practice their faith.

However, Burton argued that the language of specific ‘rights’ for people in prison is a distraction from the larger issue.

“They’re inhabiting fascism,” he said.

Burton said the eking out of certain gains, whether the right to eat a meal free of pork, or to gather with others of the same faith, didn’t change the larger construct.

“It’s a totality of non-recognition of people’s humanity,” Burton said.

During the uprising at Attica, Commissioner Oswald and other prison officials negotiated with New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, in an attempt, said Burton, to shift towards a language of reform. It was a deflection.

“Prison reform was deployed after Attica as an explicit strategy of counterinsurgency. And part of that strategy was to shift the discourse from war to a discourse of rights. And so today, 50 years later, when we look back on Attica and we talk about it through rights, that’s the counter-insurgency speaking through us.”

Burton’s argument comes through in the numbers. 

“Despite making up close to 5% of the global population,” notes the ACLU, “the U.S. has nearly 25% of the world’s prison population.” 

In looking at data between 1970—one year before the Attica uprising—and present day, the ACLU also found that the population of incarcerated Americans has soared by 700% to 2.3 million.