The Only Photographer Allowed at the Attica Prison Riot Remembers Four Days of Chaos


When John Shearer showed up at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York on Thursday, Sept. 9, 1971, he joined a mob of hundreds of photographers clamoring to gain entry. Rumor had it a riot was brewing, and Shearer had come with LIFE reporter Bob Stokes to capture the story. By the time they arrived, more than 1,000 inmates had taken control of the facility, with 42 officers and employees held hostage. Facing the media mob, the inmates turned away every photographer except for one: Shearer, his film in tow.

Unrest had been building within Attica’s walls for some time, as it was inside prisons across the country. Physical brutality, lack of access to medical treatment and poor sanitation were but a few bullet points on a long list of grievances. Pushed past the boiling point by the killing of Black Panther leader George Jackson at San Quentin Prison…

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