Was The Attica Rebellion Really The Worst Prison Riot In History?

Without a doubt, the Attica rebellion, also known as the Attica Prison Riot, is at the top of famous prison riots, and it's about to be made even more famous when the HBO Max documentary "Betrayal at Attica" drops on August 1. (The trailer is posted on YouTube.)

You hear about prison riots from time to time, but many of us picture a few inmates getting rowdy or a massive brawl in the yard, and a lot of prison riots honestly tend to go this way. Some of them, however, are drawn-out battles for control between mistreated inmates and angry prison staff who want nothing more than to get things back to how they were before, if not punish those who were out of line, and sometimes they'll do so by any means necessary. Such is the case of the Attica rebellion. This definitely wasn't your everyday prison scuffle.

According to Realscreen's summation of the events, the riot lasted for four days when the prisoners of Attica Correctional Facility assumed control of the building and caused a big, deadly stir. But was this really the worst prison riot in history?

How big was the Attica rebellion?

The Attica prison riot started on September 9, 1971, after what History says was a long period of prisoners living in less than ideal conditions. The facility, located near Buffalo, New York, was overcrowded, the prisoners' only steady line of communication with the outside world, letters, were being censored, and the hygiene situation was beyond subpar. Things weren't changing, so the prisoners decided to take the change upon themselves.

That morning, a small group jumped the guards on the way to breakfast. Soon, 1,281 out of roughly 2,200 convicts were in full riot mode. After storming through the prison, they made their stand in the exercise yard with 39 prison employees (guards and other staff) as hostages.

Negotiations went back and forth, but eventually, they stalled out. The whole situation probably could've been avoided if the prisoners had been treated with a shred of dignity, but that's not how things shook out. Instead, the prison officers, with the help of the state police, attempted to put down the rebellion by force. They won in the end, but 29 prisoners and 10 of the hostages were killed in the process.

But was Attica the worst?

One way to judge the tragedy is by the numbers of those who died. With a death toll of 39, according to History, or 45, according to Realscreen, the Attica rebellion was indeed the worst prison riot in U.S. history, but it definitely wasn't the worst of them when looking through the scope of world history.

On World Atlas' list of worst prison riots, Attica comes in at third place, after the El Porvenir Prison riot in Honduras (second worst) and the Carandiru Massacre in Brazil (the worst). El Porvenir resulted in 86 deaths, while Carandiru saw 111 people dead, 109 of them inmates killed by police, by the time peace was restored.

As BBC explains, the Carandiru Massacre started out as a brawl between inmates that turned into a full-scale riot in 1992. Attica lasted four days; Carandiru lasted three hours. Around 300 officers rushed the prison with guns blazing. Even if the officers thought this was the right thing to do, it wasn't seen as a favorable outcome by the courts. In the end, each of the officers involved in the massacre was sentenced to 156 years in prison, reported Reuters.

Attica was bad from start to finish, but the number of bodies and the final outcome of the massacre at Carandiru prison clearly makes that the worst prison riot in history.