A Humanitarian Ethical Analysis of the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 Essay

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  7
Wordcount:  1651 Words
Date:  2022-06-27


Attica Prison in upstate New York witnessed a bloody uprising on September 1971. The prison was seized by 1,300 inmates and presented some demands which included improved living conditions (Thompson, 2007). However, there was a breakdown in communication which resulted in the forced takeover of the prosion, and many hostages and prisoners died while others were severely injured. In this ethical analysis, Governor Rockefeller is the focal point. After the riot had started, Tom Wicker and other negotiators contacted the Governor to convince him to visit the prison. Governor Rockefeller refused to honor the request which would have shown that he cared about what was happening in Attica (Thompson, 2007). He also pointed out that under no conditions would the prisoners be granted amnesty. The choice made by the governor led to the actions of the armed state troopers resulting in deaths. Governor Rockefeller was essential since his decision cost people their lives and he could have decided to avert the outcome by making a more appropriate decision. In this analysis, the actions of the governor will be evaluated according to the Humanitarian Ethical Principles.

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Value of Life Principle

In examining the decisions of Governor Rockefeller, it is important to apply the principle of the value of life which states that human life should be revered, nurtured and protected. It is ethically wrong for an individual to act in a manner that directly intends to harm or kill another person. The way Rockefeller made his choices as the governor sheds doubts on his adherence to the value of life principle. The humanitarian ethics principles would have required the governor to take every opportunity to prevent any injury and loss of life. When he was contacted, he informed them he would not avail himself and that negotiations with the prisoners on amnesty were not possible. He postulated that agreeing to these terms would mean that the basic tenets of the society were undermined (Sachs, 2012). The governor was much concerned with maintaining order which portrayed his ingrained political motives. In the justification of his refusal to visit Attica riots, he was worried that it would result in similar revolts and demands in other prisons. The governor then gave orders to Commissioner Russell Oswald and the State police that they could use force to retake the control of the correctional facility. This is even though he could have opted to visit Attica and negotiate with the prisoners who could have potentially ended the riot. His decision, however, led to an armed assault in which ten hostages and 29 inmates were killed indiscriminately, and 89 others were severely injured. The actions of Governor Rockefeller in the course of the riot were focused on upholding governance order and not to uphold the value of life principle.

Goodness/Rightness Principle

The actions of Governor Rockefeller can be evaluated according to provisions of the principle of goodness or righteousness. To the largest extent, ethical decisions should entail the principle of the greatest good. This means doing good and avoidance of evil doing so that the outcomes of the actions are beneficial for the individual and the society as a whole. In the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971, prevention of harm to the hostages and the prisoners was paramount (Sachs, 2012). The main question here is whether Governor Rockefeller had an opportunity to ensure prevention of deaths and injuries that were experienced. When the negotiations stalled, Tom Wicker and other negotiators requested the governor to come and show support in addition to negotiating for amnesty (Sachs, 2012). This was his opportunity to help, and it could have averted the retake of the prison by force. The governor did not consider the demands of the prisoners, and he ordered the Commissioner and State police to use force to take control of the situation. It means that the governor did not do anything to ensure that no harm came to the hostages and the prisoners. If the governor were interested in doing good, he would have tried to come to Attica and do everything possible to ensure the riot did not end up in bloodshed. The manner of governor's refusal was clear that he was not concerned with the welfare of the hostages and the prisoners. He only emphasized on maintaining order, and that is why he ordered New York State police to use force to take control. The actions of Governor Rockefeller where not aligned with the principle of goodness or righteousness.

Justice or Fairness Principle

The justice or fairness principle involves the fair distribution of benefits and burdens and equality of treatment of individuals in the society. The actions of Governor Rockefeller can be evaluated in two ways. First, it can be examined by considering the reasons for the governor's actions and effects on the order in the society. Secondly, it can be evaluated in that the actions did not ensure justice and equality for the hostages and the prisoners.

Rockefeller emphasized on upholding order which can be said to have been supported by a strong political motive. In justification of his actions, the governor pointed out that if he accepted the demands, the case riots could be experienced in other prisons. This would lead to governors all over the country and even the president being summoned by the prisoners (Bernard, 1989). Considering this line of thought, the governor was trying to maintain order in the larger American society by keeping the prisoners in their place. Despite that, the prisoners have their rights, and this is where the government failed in ensuring justice or fairness for everyone.

On the other hand, the governor was requested to visit Attica prison to show support and negotiate for the amnesty of the prisoners. This would have helped in addressing the Attica riots and preventing the death of hostages and prisoners. Considering these actions, the governor did not act in fairness or justice in ensuring equality of treatment. This means that Governor Rockefeller did not follow the provisions of justice or fairness principle.

Principle of Honesty/Truth-telling

Moral systems need the principle of truth-telling or honesty to function. If there are doubts concerning honesty, it is impossible to communicate ideas or be agreement. It is often difficult to comply with this principle, and this means individuals need to try and be truthful and honest. In the ethical analysis of the Attica uprising of 1971, it is important to examine if the actions of Governor Rockefeller adhered to the principle of truth-telling or honesty. Months before the uprising, prisoners had presented some demands such as improved medical care, better food, and minimum wages for prison labor among others. By the time of Attica riot, there were more demands which included amnesty for the prisoners. Since the prisoners did not trust the prison warden, the insisted on negotiating with the governor. The governor could be barely trusted since he represented a long line of law and order politicians. He refused to meet the prisoners and even rejected their demands concerning amnesty. The governor was not overly honest or truthful in the course of the uprising. After refusing to visit the prisoners, the governor provided a statement that explained that the prisoners executed the cold-blood killings as they had earlier threatened (Bernard, 1989). This is despite the investigations showing that only one of the officer and four of the inmates being attributed to the inmates. This case shows the outcome of the rebellion which could have been averted if the governor would have been trustful to the course of helping reform the criminal justice system. The examination shows that the governor did not adhere to the principle of truth-telling or honesty.

Principle of Individual Freedom

The principle of individual freedom or autonomy means that every person has the freedom to make decisions on how to be moral. Due to individual differences that we possess, everyone is free to select their specific ways of being moral and acting ethically within the framework of the four principles which include the principle of the value of life, goodness or rightness, justness or fairness and truth-telling. Governor Rockefeller had the individual freedom to make decisions which were moral according to what he considered just (Timeline of Events, n.d). However, being a holder of a public office and acting in the official capability, his freedom was limited to what is ethical concerning the public. When he was contacted, he first refused to visit Attica prison and then did not agree to negotiate with the prisoners regarding their demands. He then ordered the commissioner and state police to storm into the prison to take control by force. This resulted in the death of hostages and prisoners which could have been averted. Considering these actions, the governor did not adhere to the provisions of the principle of individual freedom.


Actions and decisions made by individuals should be ethical especially if the actions and decisions affect others. The Attica uprising of 1971 presents a case where decisions of the key players would have affected the outcome of the prison riot. This ethical analysis focused on Governor Rockefeller since his actions and decisions led to the state police using force resulting in many deaths and injuries. He refused to visit the prison during the riot and negotiate with the prisoners. If he acted differently, deaths and injuries could have been averted. Being a holder of a public officer, he should have tried to ensure that no lives were lost or hurt. It can be concluded that the governor acted unethically.


Bernard, S. (1989). Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 [In person].

Sachs, E. (2012). A State and Its Prison: The Attica Riot of 1971 and Untold Stories Since. Retrieved from https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/91828/ethanasa.pdf?sequence=1

Thompson, H. (2007). The Attica Uprising. Retrieved from https://solidarity-us.org/atc/126/p313/

Timeline of Events of the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Subsequent Legal Actions | New York State Archives. Retrieved from http://www.archives.nysed.gov/research/oag/attica-timeline

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A Humanitarian Ethical Analysis of the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 Essay. (2022, Jun 27). Retrieved from https://proessays.net/essays/a-humanitarian-ethical-analysis-of-the-attica-prison-uprising-of-1971-essay

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