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In photography Cornell Capa has huge renown. In prisons, Attica has a huge renown. It is therefore, expected that I’d transcribe Capa’s testimony to the McKay Commission (New York State Special Commission on Attica) Hearings.

After the text I shall offer my opinion.


Cornell Capa: I was asked eventually by Arthur [Liman, Counsel] if I would want to look at Attica for the reasons that he mentioned, that photography and a photographer may have something to contribute …

As a human being and a photographer, my personal and professional and civic feeling was to look into it and – as my professional life is involved in understanding human condition – try to perceive what it is all about.

I think photography can serve a most useful role in an investigation and that’s exactly what I consented to do.

I [have] submitted 26 photographs which I will be showing to the commission and I have submitted equally a very short written statement and captions for the photographs.

I would like to really just read my written statement and following that as the photographs go by, I will do the captioning job for them.

At Attica: A Photographic Report.

Recently I spent three days at Attica, having been asked by the McKay commission to take a look at the institution and bring back my visual report.

During the visits to Attica I was, at all times, accompanied by a correction officer and a member of the Commission staff; all persons recognizable in these photographs consented to be photographed.

My photographs and their captions constitute my report for the commission. There is just a little more to add.

A feeling of nervous expectation seems to pervade Attica. Everybody is waiting the result of the work of the Commission’s investigations on the causes of the explosion which occurred there six months ago, and their recommendations for the future avoidance of such a tragedy in the future. Both sides, inmates and guards expect some new things to evolve from the findings – some kind of miracle which will transform the institution into a place where the Biblical lion and lamb will better live together peacefully.

The only hitch: each side has its very own view of the meaning of peaceful and better coexistence, and how to achieve it.

From the outside, Attica situated in the rolling farmland in western New York, has a Disneyland-like appearance, especially at night.

Attica’s inmates are all locked in their cells from approximately 5pm until 7am the next morning. Officers on the night shift make lonely rounds checking the count six times a night.

All movement in Attica is limited by locks. At night the duty officer must carry with him all the keys he will need on his nightly round of inspection

Confined to their 4 x 9 cells, inmates may talk to one another across the cellblocks and play music instruments until 8pm.

Locked in a cell a mirror is an inmates eyes to the rest of his gallery, and whenever something happens, the mirrors appear as if on cue.

After 8pm talking and noise  are not permitted. There is little to do until lights out at 11pm except read, write letters or listen to one of the three channels of the prison radio which plays music, sports and the audio portion of TV shows.

In E Block, Attica’s medium security prison with the maximum-security walls, a small group of inmates in special programs are permitted to remain at night in the blocks day room to watch television, play cards or talk.

Corrections officers on the day shift leave homes in the town of Attica and surrounding communities and report for roll calls at 7am, 9.20am, 3pm and 11pm to receive their assignments.

These are the guns and smoke parts etc, what [sic] they keep  in the armory for emergency use only.

These are the keys, which they use, the whole system is based on keys. This is just a very small selection of all the keys that open all the doors in Attica

On signal the cells open and inmates in each company line up in two’s to be escorted down one of the endless corridors to the mess hall for breakfast

In his daily movements throughout the institution, an inmate must pass through several times through ‘Times Square’ where the corridors leading from the four main cell blocks converge and gates point in four directions.

Many inmates spend up to five hours a day working in one of the prison industries, the largest of which is a large metal shop, where inmates build steel cabinets and office furniture for state institutions.

For a few hours each day, inmates are allowed to go into their cellblock’s yard for outdoor recreation

The sports facilities, always limited, have been even more curtailed since September. For most inmates the yard means walking around and around or standing around.

The only opportunity for most inmates to watch TV is outside in the yard. Due to the winter climate and the meager daytime TV schedules, few are interested.

While some are out in the yard, others return to their cellblocks. In some areas there are improvised meeting rooms where a few inmates can pursue simple hobbies and handicrafts.

For the rest it is back to the cells to pass the hours until supper. The site of disembodied hands outside the bars playing cards is not unusual here.

Some play chess but the opponent remains unseen.

There is so much idle time; one of the most common activities is preparing legal paper for appeals and writs.

9.30 to 3.30 every day are visiting hours. Those inmates whose families live nearby or who can afford the long journey to Attica may receive a visit. Visits take place in a large room, under the watch of officers and a wire screen separates the inmates from his visitor.

An inmate’s personal touch, often his own creation, is the difference between one cell and another.

One of the statewide changes since the riot is the creation of inmate liaison committees at each institution.

The committee at Attica was elected last month, has adopted a constitution and has begun the task of drawing up projected reforms.

Although life at Attica is again becoming routine, grim reminders of what happened there are everywhere.

This is the round State Shop in damaged condition beyond repair.

Two of the cells blocks were destroyed beyond repair and are still unoccupied. D Block yard on which the eyes of the world were focused for four days last September is deserted now. The trench is filled in but remains visible like a scar reminding one of the great illness which fell upon Attica seven months ago.



Capa’s review is a rather bland description of everyday life in the prison. This comes as quite a disappointment; I had expected a rousing polemic against the unsuitable conditions of mammoth prisons and their effect on the will of man.

These words seem particularly tame when one considers the magnitude, violence and precendence Attica has in the history of prison resistance. The words are detached from the extremely graphic photographs [WARNING] documenting the riot and its bloody remnants. Capa’s words are the epitome of obsolescence.

Attica was a disaster.

On Sept. 13, [1972] in upstate New York, a four-day standoff at the Attica Correctional Facility ended when 500 state troopers attacked the prison compound, firing 2,200 bullets in nine minutes. The raid killed 29 inmates and 10 guards held as hostages, while wounding at least 86 other people. The orders came from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Capa’s words fall short of the strength needed to describe the institution six months on from disaster.

I encourage you all to browse Attica Revisited an encyclopaedic resource of official papers, oral history video and photography.


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