Case: Inmates of Attica Correctional Facility v. Rockefeller

1:71-cv-00410 | U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York

Filed Date: Sept. 13, 1971

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Case Summary

This case is part of the Clearinghouse's special collection on the Attica Uprising. In September of 1971, incarcerated people in New York's Attica Correctional Facility took control of the prison and took several staff members hostage. The uprising ended when state police violently stormed the prison, killing over 40 incarcerated people and staff members. Attica was one of the most significant events in the American prisoners' rights movement and drew public attention to poor conditions in pris…

This case is part of the Clearinghouse's special collection on the Attica Uprising. In September of 1971, incarcerated people in New York's Attica Correctional Facility took control of the prison and took several staff members hostage. The uprising ended when state police violently stormed the prison, killing over 40 incarcerated people and staff members. Attica was one of the most significant events in the American prisoners' rights movement and drew public attention to poor conditions in prisons across the country. The uprising, retaking, and their aftermaths spawned numerous lawsuits, many of which are included in this special collection.

This case concerns an injunction to stop the reprisals and interrogations after the retaking.

Filing and Initial Litigation

This class action lawsuit was brought immediately after the retaking by people incarcerated at Attica. The plaintiffs alleged that the corrections officers were committing violent reprisals against them, failing to provide proper medical care, and interrogating them without counsel to gather evidence for prosecutions. The interrogations eventually resulted in criminal charges for many class members. 

The plaintiffs included all incarcerated people at Attica after the retaking. The complaint was filed on September 13, 1971, the day of the retaking, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York. The plaintiffs’ counsel, led by Herman Schwartz, who helped facilitate the negotiations during the uprising, were concerned there would be immediate violence after the officials regained control of the prison. A final amended complaint was filed September 27, 1971 to add additional named plaintiffs and defendants. The defendants included the commissioner of corrections, the superintendent of Attica, the deputy attorney general, and the governor. The case was assigned to District Judge John Curtin.

The plaintiffs filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming violations of the right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment, right to due process under the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments, and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants were 1) committing retaliatory violence against class members who participated in the uprising (reprisals), 2) interrogating people involved in the uprising without counsel and without Mirandizing them, and 3) holding people “incommunicado” without access to counsel or medical care. The plaintiffs sought damages and injunctive relief, including a temporary preliminary injunction to stop prison officials from using violence and conducting interrogations.

The court denied the request for a preliminary injunction on September 14, 1971 because the plaintiffs failed to show there was an immediate need since they did not show that officials were being violent or conducting interrogations. This finding was based on assurances from a corrections officer that investigations into the uprising had not begun. As for the violence, the defendants claimed there was no abuse once the retaking was complete, while the plaintiffs claimed correction officers continued to abuse the class members. According to Heather Ann Thompson’s book Blood on the Water, reprisals were still ongoing. Blood in the Water, 251.

The First Preliminary Injunction

The next day, September 15, 1971, the governor appointed a panel of impartial observers, the Goldman Panel, to go to Attica and monitor conditions. On September 16, 1971 the governor appointed a deputy attorney to investigate any crimes committed during the uprising and retaking. The investigation was called the Attica Task Force (referenced in Matter of Carey). As part of the investigation, state officials began interrogating class members. Once the interrogations began, the plaintiffs’ counsel informed the court that prison officials were interfering with them representing their clients during the interrogations. Based on this allegation, on September 16, 1971, the court reopened the plaintiffs’ application for a temporary injunction.

The court then held a hearing concerning the preliminary injunction, both for the right to counsel and the reprisals claims. One of the key witnesses was a national guardsman present during the retaking who witnessed the reprisals. The court also received an affidavit from one of the plaintiffs' counsel stating that they were being denied access to speak with their clients. After the hearing, Schwartz and several of his co-counsel, were allowed to enter Attica as part of the Goldman Panel. The court allowed counsel to conduct interviews with their clients from September 17-21, 1971. 

On September 23, 1971, the plaintiffs submitted a revised request for injunctive relief based on the new information they learned from the interviews. The plaintiffs sought an order 1) enjoining the defendants from conducting interrogations without counsel, 2) enjoining the defendants from destroying class members’ property, 3) requiring the defendants to submit to the court all photos and videos of the uprising and retaking, including all autopsy records, and 4) appointing federal monitors to ensure the injunction was enforced. The plaintiffs also sought to certify the class of: all people then incarcerated at Attica. In response to this revised request, on September 25, 1971, the defendants moved to dismiss the case. 

Given the ongoing Attica Task Force interrogations, the court initially only addressed the right to counsel claim. The court held a hearing on the matter on September 27, 1971. At that hearing, the defendants said they distributed materials throughout the prison informing people of their right to counsel and made space available for attorney-client interviews. Based on those assurances, the court denied the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to stop the interrogations, but did require that the defendants advise class members of their right to counsel. This ruling enabled class members to be interrogated as part of the Attica Task Force investigation, resulting in class members being charged with crimes.

The court then held hearings to resolve the remaining injunction issues, namely the claims pertaining to reprisals, destruction of property, and federal monitors. On October 6, 1971, the court denied the plaintiffs’ remaining requests for preliminary injunctive relief, and dismissed the complaint insofar as the plaintiffs also sought a permanent injunction and permission to pursue the case as a class action. The judge accepted testimony from class members about violence during the retaking, but found there was no evidence of violence after the retaking. Also, the court found there was sufficient evidence that officials were taking steps to prevent abuse and the destruction of property, so preliminary injunctive relief was not appropriate. 

Appeal to the Second Circuit

The plaintiffs then appealed the judgments for the right to counsel and reprisal claims. The plaintiffs tried to take the right to counsel issue directly to the Supreme Court, but the court declined to issue a stay. 404 U.S. 809. On December 1, 1971, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed in part and affirmed in part. 453 F.2d 12. The panel included Circuit Judges Walter Mansfield, Joseph Lumbard, and James Oakes. Mansfield wrote the opinion of the court, with Lumbard concurring, and Oakes concurring and dissenting in part. 

The court of appeals reversed the district court’s rulings pertaining to the reprisals claims. It reasoned that the violence during the reprisals did constitute cruel and unusual punishment given that the reprisals lasted for days and involved “barbarous abuse and mistreatment.” The court ordered the district court to enter a preliminary injunction against violent conduct and to consider appointing federal monitors. The plaintiffs would also be allowed to pursue the case as a class action for the cruel and unusual punishment claim. 

However, the appellate court affirmed the rulings concerning the interrogation claims. In doing so, it noted the state had a duty to investigate and prosecute people for crimes committed during and after the uprising. It found there was no evidence of improper interrogations since people were informed of their right to counsel and/or had counsel. Finally, the plaintiffs did not meet the requirements for pursuing the interrogation claim as a class action. 

The District Court’s Revised Injunction

On December 14, 1971, the district court issued the preliminary injunction to stop physical abuse as ordered by the Second Circuit. The injunction stated: “defendants, their agents and employees, including State Police and Department of Correctional Services personnel, are immediately prohibited and enjoined from subjecting inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility to physical abuse, torture, beatings or other forms of brutality, from threatening such conduct or from authorizing, sanctioning or permitting such conduct; and it is further ordered that plaintiffs be permitted to maintain as a class action their claim for injunctive relief against brutality.” Blood in the Water, 302.

According to Thompson, despite the injunction, the plaintiffs alleged the corrections officers continued to be violent. The plaintiffs’ attorneys went back to court and argued the corrections officers were in contempt of the injunction, and asked the court to appoint federal monitors. The court held hearings and then modified the injunction on August 1, 1972. The new injunction more specifically enjoined the corrections officers from “physical abuse, torture, beatings or other forms of brutality, including verbal abuse and racial slurs, from threatening such conduct or from authorizing or permitting such conduct.” However, the court did not rule on whether the corrections officers had violated the previous injunction. Blood in the Water, 302. 

Although the plaintiffs won on the reprisals issue, the loss for the interrogation claim enabled the Attica Task Force to gather evidence to charge 62 class-members with crimes committed during the uprising.

Summary Authors

Sarah Marble (4/14/2022)

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Documents in the Clearinghouse







U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Dec. 1, 1971

Dec. 1, 1971


453 F.2d 453


USCA Opinion

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

April 18, 1973

April 18, 1973


477 F.2d 477



Last updated Aug. 30, 2023, 1:18 a.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: New York

Case Type(s):

Prison Conditions

Special Collection(s):

Attica Uprising Litigation

Key Dates

Filing Date: Sept. 13, 1971

Case Ongoing: No


Plaintiff Description:

People incarcerated at Attica Correctional Facility after the uprising

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Attorney Organizations:

Legal Services/Legal Aid

NAACP Legal Defense Fund

ACLU Affiliates (any)

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Class Action Sought: Yes

Class Action Outcome: Mooted before ruling


Commissioner of Corrections, State

Superintendent of Attica Correctional Facility, State

Deputy Attorney General, State

Governor of New York, State

Defendant Type(s):



Facility Type(s):


Case Details

Causes of Action:

42 U.S.C. § 1983

Ex parte Young (federal or state officials)

Constitutional Clause(s):

Due Process

Due Process: Procedural Due Process

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Available Documents:

Any published opinion


Prevailing Party: Mixed

Nature of Relief:

Preliminary injunction / Temp. restraining order

Source of Relief:


Content of Injunction:

Preliminary relief granted

Preliminary relief denied

Retaliation Prohibition

Order Duration: 1971 - None



Access to lawyers or judicial system

Conditions of confinement

Disciplinary procedures

Loss or damage to property



Jails, Prisons, Detention Centers, and Other Institutions:

Assault/abuse by non-staff (facilities)

Assault/abuse by staff (facilities)

Disciplinary segregation

Solitary confinement/Supermax (conditions or process)


Medical/Mental Health Care:

Medical care, general

Wound care


Excessive force