Empire State disgrace: The dark, secret history of the Attica Prison tragedy

Dozens were killed at Attica prison in a bloody 1971 clash. So why is New York state trying to hide the truth?

Published May 25, 2014 1:30PM (EDT)

Inmates at Attica State Prison in Attica, N.Y., raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity, September 1971, during the Attica uprising.     (AP)
Inmates at Attica State Prison in Attica, N.Y., raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity, September 1971, during the Attica uprising. (AP)

In the wee hours of Sept. 13, 1971, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered hundreds of state troopers to storm the Attica State Correctional Facility in bucolic upstate New York rather than continue to negotiate. Inside were almost 1,300 inmates who four days earlier had managed to secure control of more than half the prison, holding many guards hostage in the hopes of forcing the state, finally, to hear their concerns.

These prisoners had already tried to work through the system to get their basic needs met — that they be allowed to practice their religious beliefs, to be paid fairly for the labor they were forced to do, to have enough toilet paper each month. They got nowhere. And thus, on Sept. 9, 1971, the state of New York found itself facing one of the nation’s most dramatic civil rights protests of the 20th century. And, even though the hostages themselves supported continued negotiations and a peaceful end to this standoff was within view, on Sept. 13, the state decided to end the protest with one of the most extraordinary shows of force in American history.

Within minutes of Rockefeller’s green-light call to the head of the New York State Police, a huge chopper rose ominously over Attica’s 30-foot concrete walls, dropping powerful gas as angry and tired state troopers donned heavy masks and headed out onto the prison’s catwalks. Then, over the next 10 frenzied minutes, these heavily armed men proceeded to shoot over 2,500 hollow tipped and deer-slug bullets down into the confines of the 50-by-50-yard enclosure where inmates and hostages alike had congregated. Seeing the carnage splayed before them, it was immediately clear to all present at Attica that the retaking had been disastrous. And tragically predictable. Whereas the Rockefeller administration always maintained that it had no choice but to retake the facility with force and, more important, that it did so first and foremost to rescue the hostages, it well knew that deaths were inevitable. As the head of the New York National Guard, Gen. O’Hara, later confessed, “It was the general consensus of opinion by all the officials present that the hostages would be killed one way or another ... everybody had that impression.”

Though barely visible through the fog of chemicals that still hung thickly in the air, bodies littered the muddy earth inside of D Yard. Thirty-nine, in fact. Some were prisoners lying shirtless with football helmets askew on their lifeless heads. Some were hostages lying motionless in the now filthy and tattered garb given them by their inmate captors. Several of the dead lay crumpled high above the ground on the catwalks like so many heaps of discarded rags. Others had fallen below, sprawled face down alongside the fetid, hand-dug trench that encircled the yard. Notably, none of the dead in neither D Yard, nor any of the hundreds that now lay there severely wounded, had been carrying a firearm.

Of course the bodies covering D Yard were cleared away long ago but the nightmare of Attica has lived on.

Seventy-year-old Cleveland “Jomo” Davis still finds it hard to sleep. He has hoped, desperately, that telling the story of what happened to him at Attica might one day allow him to heal. Of course, doctors still would not have been able to remove all of the .270 bullets, high-caliber pistol slugs, or .00 buckshot that New York state troopers had shot into his neck, back and arms. Some of those projectiles were simply lodged too close to his spine and kidneys. Still, he had clung to the promise of some sort of closure.

And yet, this May, almost 45 years after the ordeal itself, men like Jomo are still haunted. Even with the approach of a new spring these men find themselves replaying that awful day, Sept. 13, in the horrifying flashbacks that come to them unbidden and unexpectedly. The cloying and sickly smell of trauma can surround these men today as suddenly and powerfully as it did when they were tossed semi-unconscious on top of the rest of the dead and dying in a hallway of the Attica State Correctional Facility back in 1971. As these men see it, how can anyone ever fully heal from all that happened at Attica until the truth is finally told about what that was? How can anyone have closure when the state of New York has yet to admit that crimes were in fact committed there?

Dee Quinn Miller has found it excruciatingly difficult to heal from Attica too. Being an adult has never dulled the vivid memory of the siren blowing and blowing over at the prison that fateful morning back in September 1971, when she knew that her father was inside working. Nor has she ever been able to shake the painful memory of the school principal coming to get her from the classroom, or her neighbor, Mrs. Beal, then taking her to her grandparents' house. She can still see the fear and shock in all of their eyes. That evening, all of the grown-ups surrounding 5-year-old Dee whispered worriedly until they finally explained to her that her daddy had been badly hurt. She would stay there, her grandmother explained, until he got better. But when Dee finally was reunited with her mother, her heart sank. In a voice almost unrecognizably hollow and weary, Nancy Quinn looked down at her daughter and confirmed her very worst fear: “Deanne, Daddy’s not coming home."

This May, though, Dee finally had the possibility of feeling a whole lot better than usual — she might have felt like celebrating. Not only had families like hers managed -- finally, in 2005 -- to get some compensation from the state for all they had suffered back in 1971, but it seemed that the state of New York was, at last, going to allow Attica’s survivors to see some records related to the tragedies that had befallen their loved ones at Attica.

Dee had fought hard, for years, to gain access to the state’s records related to Attica so that Attica’s survivors -- like hostage Michael Smith who had almost died from brutal gunshot wounds to the abdomen -- might finally learn more about what, exactly, had gone so wrong on the day of the Attica retaking. They might finally discover who, exactly, had been responsible for the fatalities and injuries there. Indeed, just like the prisoner survivors, hostage family members such as Dee and Mike are determined to get the Attica story fully told. Without doing so, the past will just continue to haunt the present in ways almost unbearable.

Those not close to the events that took place at the Attica State Correctional Facility back in 1971 might well question why this tragic but seemingly local episode in our nation’s past still matters. Why has it not just faded away — if not back in the 1970s, then at least by 2000 when the state of New York agreed to a monetary settlement with the surviving inmates? And, if not by 2000, why not in 2005 when Attica’s surviving hostages, and the widows and children of those who were killed, settled with the state?  After all, New York Gov. Hugh Carey had thought that he had actually “closed the books” on Attica, ostensibly forever, back in 1976, after he ordered it investigated and then, thereafter, formally ended any future state inquiries into the catastrophe. And, well before that, Nelson Rockefeller himself had been persuaded that Attica would fade from the headlines the minute that “radicals” and “militants” got over their supposed obsession with it.

But Attica was a particularly ugly stain on the state of New York, and state officials were simply naive to think it would easily be removed. Despite every official attempt to make the Attica uprising fade from memory over the last nearly 45 years, the nightmare of its horrific end doesn’t go away. It still consumes those who survived it, and still shapes the evolution of the nation as a whole, in ways both inspiring and tragic. What Rockefeller, Carey and even Pataki and Cuomo have failed to understand is that Attica can’t go away until its survivors finally get what they need to heal. And, as those survivors have pointed out time and again, what they need to heal is for the full Attica story finally to be told, and for the state of New York finally to take responsibility for the devastating role that it played in that tragedy.

* * *

When New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman agreed a year ago to pursue the opening of certain key Attica-related records --specifically volumes 2 and 3 of the Carey-commissioned Meyer Report that had previously been ordered sealed, first in 1977 and then again in 1981 -- survivors and family members alike were newly hopeful that finally some truths would be revealed and some responsibility could be assigned. The Meyer Report had itself come about only because one of the state’s own prosecutors, Malcolm Bell, became a whistle-blower in 1975, charging not only that major crimes had been committed by state troopers, and some correction officers, during the retaking of Attica; but, just as important, that top officials had gone to great lengths to cover up those crimes and protect those members of law enforcement.

Notably, and despite the hopes of survivors that new evidence might finally come to light, getting access to the volumes of the Meyer Report would reveal but a hint of the many thousands of boxes of materials that the state of New York has accumulated over nearly four decades investigating and litigating matters related to the Attica rebellion. Still, such access would have been an important, if largely symbolic, victory for those still haunted by the events of that day. Finally they might learn what had really happened to their loved ones — who was ultimately responsible for such suffering.

And so, for the last year, Judge Patrick H. NeMoyer has been assessing the wisdom of opening volumes 2 and 3 of the Meyer Report to public scrutiny. The judge has heard compelling arguments from the attorney general’s office that “The time has come to bring transparency to one of New York State government’s darkest chapters”; and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made clear that he too believes that enough time has passed that such a release of records should cause little concern. The judge has heard a great deal as well from those who opposed the release of the Meyer Report — particularly from the leaders of the New York State Police Department and its union, as well as from individual members of law enforcement who worried greatly about what might be contained in that report.

Just a few weeks ago Judge NeMoyer finally issued his decision, one that on the surface seemed to be a victory for the Attica survivors -- but was in fact not. Although he did order the release of the two volumes of the Meyer Report that the survivors had wanted opened, he also made clear that none of the evidence therein that had originated in the grand jury investigations into Attica — the most important evidence — could be released. Just as significantly, he also stipulated that even the names of the individuals mentioned in the “non-grand-jury-referencing-portions” of the report could be redacted at the attorney general’s discretion. Indeed, it would seem that the secrets at Attica remain safe.

The former members, as well as current leadership, of the New York State Police have devoted considerable energy to preventing the opening of anything related to Attica Prison, and the rebellion or retaking of 1971. Not only have they weighed in loudly on the question of whether the Meyer Report should be released each time that question has been posed — first in 1977, then in 1981, and most recently in NeMoyer’s chambers in 2014. It also seems that, incredibly, they may even have managed to wield influence over at the New York State Museum and Archives in Albany, since that institution has suddenly rescinded all public access to a cache of rebellion-related artifacts that it had made available to scholars and survivors alike since the fall of 2012.

And that was quite a collection of objects. In the hours and days after their bloody retaking of the Attica facility, rather than collect the thousands of shells and bullets that lay strewn around D Yard, and rather than draw chalk impressions around the dead bodies where they lay, and even rather than determine which officers had used which firearms, the New York State Police instead scooped up everything in that yard that they thought might be useful to them in the event of an official inquiry, and buried or hid everything else. Fast forward 40 years: In 2012, more than 2,000 of these objects surfaced in a 30-foot steel structure owned by NYSP Troop A in Batavia, New York — the troop primarily in charge of the retaking. Clearly naively, someone in the NYSP decided to turn everything over to the New York State Museum in case it had historical value.

They did indeed. Among the items held for decades by these troopers were personal letters written to prisoners from their children, and hundreds of personal photographs that troopers had scooped up out of cells, trashing and tearing them during the retaking. There were notebooks with accounts of life at Attica. There were legal records that prisoners had meticulously copied and kept so that they could get parole or file a writ. There were hundreds of baseball bats that troopers collected hoping to show that these items from the rec areas of the prison were deadly, and justified their assault. There were hats, badges and even a wallet with personal photos in it from the slain hostages. There was an original copy of the Attica Manifesto — undoubtedly one of the very few of those still to exist. And there were bloody clothes — stiff bloody clothes such as the pants and shirt of L.D. Barkley, famed Attica spokesman, who many observers insisted had been murdered well after the police had control of the prison.

And from 2012 until just this week, Attica’s survivors, and the family members of survivors and victims alike, were able to see these many heart-wrenching objects at the State Museum, while scholars such as myself, filmmakers such as Christine Christopher, and even former Attica prosecutor-turned-whistle-blower Malcolm Bell have met with state archivists to help them to fully understand and accurately catalog what they have. Suddenly, though, this access was shut down.

Now, rather than have Attica scholars and researchers help with the cataloging of the collection, and rather than allow the survivors to see what has been found after more than 40 years, the museum has now decided to enlist “officials with the state corrections department and State Police to help inventory the artifacts.” In other words, the same body that retook the prison with guns blazing, and the same body whose bullets killed 39 people and wounded hundreds of others, will once again be deciding what the public can see and what it can’t.

Yet, no matter how hard the state police try to control access to the information explaining what happened at Attica, they are on a fool’s errand. Despite the enormous lengths that countless officials as well as rank-and-file members of law enforcement have gone to in order to keep the true story of Attica from being told, they simply will be unable to contain this story indefinitely.

In short, the story of what really happened at Attica can’t be contained because simply too many different people suffered it and too many people have already told their stories to too many official bodies -- with too much corroborating evidence of the ugliness that was done there. No institution and no official body could possibly put this genie back in the bottle now — the countless pieces of powerful evidence in the form of memos, ballistics reports, and more that confirm not only the horror of what happened at Attica on Sept. 13, 1971, but also point clearly to the parties who are responsible for it.

This story wasn’t just told in the more than 33,000 pages of this testimony heard by the two Attica grand juries, nor does it exist merely in the 500 exhibit folders that the Meyer Report assembled, nor in the 10,000 pages of transcript that it was based upon. The truth of what nightmare the prisoners endured was also told in 14 suits that prisoners managed to file before the Court of Claims — nine of which were resolved in favor of those same prisoners — as well as in the nearly 30-year-long civil rights case that Elizabeth Fink argued on their behalf in Federal Court — a case that made quite clear just how egregiously their civil rights had been violated by the state of New York during the retaking and rehousing at Attica. The prisoners in this suit were eventually awarded $8 million for all they had suffered and their lawyers made their case by drawing from the very documents — a most ugly and comprehensive paper trail -- that the state imagines that it alone holds today.

Then, of course there were the hostage cases. By 1980, 28 hostage cases had been filed and were winding their way through the Court of Claims as well — each carrying its own thick evidentiary record of trooper abuses and their use of excessive force during the retaking at Attica. In addition there was the case of Lynda Jones, wife of slain hostage Herbert Jones, who fought a case from 1977 until 1982 when her powerful evidence of trooper abuses — much of it stemming from state-owned documents -- resulted in the state having to pay her more than a million dollars. And finally, there were the stories told and evidence that was brought to bear when Attica’s surviving hostage and hostage families tried to be heard as well by the state of New York from 2000 to 2005. Not only are the thousands of pages of their testimony before the Attica Task Force a record of extraordinary and excessive state force mounted against its own unarmed citizens, but this case is laid out as well in the paper trail that led the state of New York to settle with them as well for $12 million.

And so, in fact, no state official in New York — no politician, no judge, no member of law enforcement -- can ever possibly contain the true story of what happened at Attica. In addition to the thousands of pages of evidence that were brought to bear in over 30 years of legal proceedings related to the Attica rebellion, there are thousands more Attica-related documents still sitting in county courthouses across this country as well in seemingly unrelated archival collections the world over. And then, of course, there are the personal items that keep surfacing — everything from materials kept under wraps for years by New York state troopers who then decided to sell them on eBay to private correspondences and memos and even autopsy reports that others as well had sat on for years but finally decided to share.

To imagine that the truth of what happened at Attica can be corralled is, ultimately, as arrogant as it is foolish. When the state of New York made the decision to storm the Attica State Prison on Sept. 13, 1971, it forgot that there were people in there who would never rest until they could tell exactly what they had seen to lead to so much death and injury that day. When troopers tore off all of their identifying badges before entering Attica that same day, precisely so that they couldn’t be identified, they failed to realize that some in their midst would be so traumatized that they wouldn’t be able to live with themselves until they reported the wanton abuses they had witnessed. And even though so many people died at Attica that day, what every state official in New York failed to fully grasp was that those who had survived — be they prisoners, hostages or family members of both groups — were never, ever going to rest until they brought every piece of evidence they had of wrongdoing to light as well.

Judge NeMoyer’s ruling is, therefore, largely irrelevant -- as is the New York State Museum’s move to rescind access to its Attica artifacts. These decisions are sad, infuriating and deeply dispiriting, but they are not going to stop the truth of what happened at Attica from being told. Not only is this truth known, but it will eventually and inevitably be public. And, this is a good thing. Without a full reckoning there can be no justice, and without justice, there can be no true peace for anyone who survived the state’s assault on the Attica State Correctional Facility on Sept. 13, 1971.

Heather Ann Thompson is a professor of history in the departments of African-American Studies and history at Temple University. She writes regularly on the history as well as current policy implications of mass incarceration and is currently completing the first comprehensive history of the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its legacy for Pantheon Books.

By Heather Ann Thompson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Attica Prison New York New York Police Department New York State Prison