STEPHEN P. RAPPAPORT
In the early morning of September 9, 1971, cell block A of New York State's Attica Correctional Facility exploded in an uprising that quickly spread throughout the prison. Within two hours, forty-two correction officers and civilians had been taken hostage by the inmates. After leaving matters in the hands of local administrators for five hours, Russell G. Oswald, commissioner of the Department of Correctional Services, arrived from Albany and assumed the task of handling the uprising. After five frantic days, on September 13, negotiations between Oswald and the inmates broke down. Acting under gubernatorial orders, the state police seized control of the prison by force. Forty-three inmates and hostages died in the process.
As a consequence of the tragedies at Attica and other correctional institutions across the country, prison reform became a major public issue. The rebellions focused attention not only on prison conditions, but also on the American correctional system's lack of success in rehabilitating prisoners. One reason for this failure was that prison life and routine had changed little since the early nineteenth century. At that time, confinement, isolation from other individiuals, and unremitting hard work were seen as the keys to reform. According to the first report of the Select Committee on Correctional Institutions and Programs (the Jones committee), appointed by Governor Rockefeller and the legislative leaders to review the state's prison system and suggest reforms in the wake of Attica, the nineteenth century system:
featured the comprehensive subordination of the prisoner in every aspect of his life, the unyielding silence rule at work, while eating in the solitary