September 9, 2011
Today marks the 40th Anniversary of the beginning of the riots at Attica State Prison in New York. 40 years ago, an organized group of prisoners took control of a wing of Attica state prison, taking more than 30 hostages and holding them until security guards in concert with the military retook the prison on September 13, with casualties in the dozens. (The sad and grisly details of this event are more fully recounted in Inmates of Attica v. Rockefeller, 453 F.2d 12).
Due to the horrific nature of the events, and the national awareness of them at the time, I wanted to see if there was an appreciable rise in prison litigation in the years following the uprising. Westlaw has a Topic Number for “Prisons” and related litigation, and because the Prisons heading was fairly inclusive or prisoner’s rights issues, I felt it would be a workable proxy for reported cases on prisoner’s rights. Running this for the period 1962-1971, then 1972-1981, we see a significant increase in reported prisoner’s rights cases:
310k! & DA(aft 9-13-1961 & bef 9-12-1971): 961 Documents in ALLCASES
310k! & DA(aft 9-13-1971 & bef 9-12-1981): 2795 Documents in ALLCASES
The riots raised awareness about the prison itself. Just adding the word ‘Attica’ to the above searches reveals this. in the first search, there were 18 cases that mentioned it, all of them in New York (cases that actually arose from a plaintiff’s stay in Attica). In the second decade, there were 95 cases, some arising from a range of states, with one reference as far away as Hawaii. The first case outside New York to mention Attica was published 4 days after the riots ended. See U.S. ex. Rel Miller v. Twomey, 333 F.Supp. 1352 (N.D. Ill.).
310k! & attica & DA(aft 12-31-1961 & bef 01-01-1972): 18 Documents in Allcases (same as searching New York State and Federal Cases)
310k! & Attica & DA(aft 9-13-1971 & bef 9-12-1981): 95 Documents in Allcases (only 59 when searching New York State and Federal Cases)
While Attica may not have been the initial cause of increased prisoner litigation in the 1970s and beyond, it is certainly one of the most remembered incidents.*
CLE: If you’re interested in learning more about the field of prisoner rights litigation, and some of the hurdles that inmates face even today, there is a CLE Seminar entitled “Representing Plaintiffs in Jail and Prison Litigation” available in the West LegalEdCenter. It’s accredited for CLE purposes in, among other jurisdictions, New York.
*for a sense of how well remembered, try DA(aft 08-31-2001 & bef 10-01-2001) & HLD(attica & anniversary riot uprising (correction! /3 facility)) in ALLNEWS to see how much was written about the 30th Anniversary. My search got 40 hits; I’m interested in seeing at the end of the month what it returns for 2011.