Even in the aftermath, it wasn’t immediately clear what had gone wrong at Attica Correctional Facility on Sept. 9, 1971. Was it the word that, the day before, an inmate been accosted for refusing to leave his cell? Or was it when reports spread that two inmates had been beaten in the aftermath of throwing a piece of glass at a guard? In any case, around 8:30 that morning, the New York State prison was the scene of an uprising that remains, 45 years later, one of the most famous and infamous events in the history of criminal justice in the United States.
For days, about half of the prisoners at Attica held control of one whole cell block, in addition to other parts of the facility, and about 40 hostages. After negotiations stalled and authorities violently retook the prison on Sept. 13, dozens of inmates and nine hostages were dead. Many more were injured.
“For some time to come in the U.S., that word will not be primarily identified with the plain upon which ancient Athens nurtured philosophy and democracy,” TIME noted two weeks later, in a cover story about the event. “Nor will it simply stand for the bucolic little town that gave its name to a turreted prison, mislabeled a ‘correctional facility.’ Attica will evoke the bloodiest prison rebellion in U.S. history. It will take its place alongside Kent State, Jackson State, My Lai and other traumatic events that have shaken the American conscience and incited searing controversy over the application of force—and the pressures that provoke it.”
Here’s how TIME described the retaking of the prison:
That issue, the question that swept the nation in the aftermath of the riot, helped turn Attica into more than just an isolated moment of darkness. Had it been necessary? To some, the use of force had simply not come soon enough; to others, it was a symbol of the tragic inhumanity of the entire prison system. The riot exposed not merely the problems that affected the inmates at one particular prison, but also the fault lines that ran throughout American society.
Read the entire cover story, here in the TIME Vault: War at Attica