Inside the Attica prison uprising: "We’re all less than nothing to the people that matter"

The inmates asked for outside observers to witness. I'd spent my entire law career becoming the right person to go

Published September 10, 2016 9:30PM (EDT)

The aftermath of the riot at Attica prison in September 1971.    (AP)
The aftermath of the riot at Attica prison in September 1971. (AP)

Excerpted from "The Butler's Child: An Autobiography."

A flash came across the morning news on September 9, 1971, that a riot had broken out at Attica, an upstate New York penitentiary. The inmates had taken over a part of the prison and were holding some guards as hostages. I immediately thought of my client Tony Maynard, who was incarcerated there. Almost simultaneously the phone rang. It was Dotty Stoub from the National Lawyers Guild.


A post-breakfast scuffle and a defective bolt in a central gate at Attica had literally opened the doors to a full-spectrum revolt. Buildings were set on fire, and forty-two prison employees were taken hostage.

One guard was in extremely critical condition. About a thousand of the more than two thousand inmates housed in the severely overcrowded prison had seized a central hub called “Times Square” and occupied D yard — one of four large exercise areas at the center of the medieval-looking walled fortress. Inmates waved baseball bats. They turned prison blankets into ponchos, undershirts into do-rags and kaffiyehs. They thrust fists into the air and shouted “Black Power!” while others dug trenches and huddled to prepare for battle. Leaders emerged and began issuing demands to the prison administration. A few prisoners roamed the yard wearing football helmets. It was chaos.

I was sitting in my kitchen when Dotty called. My kids had just finished breakfast. There was a cup of coffee in front of me. I had recent experience with prison uprisings in the New York State system. Dotty told me what she knew about the situation at Attica, which wasn’t much.

The inmates were asking for observers, and a prison activist, probably someone from Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF), had called the guild. And I was the right person to go. I had spent my entire career becoming the right person to go. A thirty-four-year-old former NAACP trial lawyer, I had been the protégé of the legendary civil rights attorney Robert L. Carter. In fact I had just started at the NAACP when Carter was working on Gaynor v. Rockefeller, an employment-discrimination class-action suit brought against New York’s then-governor Nelson Rockefeller, who, it turned out, would be the only person with the authority to end the crisis at Attica. In addition, four months earlier I had helped represent the Auburn Six, a group of prisoners from the Auburn Correctional Facility who were awaiting trial for doing more or less the same thing that was going on at Attica, only in that case no prison employees were harmed.

While Dotty was talking, my double life struck me. I already knew I was going, and I could see it in my mind’s eye. The prison yard at Attica would be filled with desperate men who faced consequences from the state that beggared the imagination. And the prisoners’ only real hope was that the activists who were summoned to be on the observers’ committee might somehow do something to avert bloodshed. Immediately the old familiar conflicts stared back at me. The facts were anything but simple. I had three little kids and my wife, Kitty, and we were concerned that I might be putting myself in harm’s way.


I left for Attica wearing a tan polyester summer suit with my banged-up leather briefcase holding some work papers, a change of underwear and a few basic toiletries. I had mutton-chop sideburns and wore horn-rimmed glasses. My hair was black and bushy. I walked past the doorman and the pretty flower arrangement in our lobby to hail a cab for LaGuardia Airport, where a plane would take me to Buffalo. It was sunny and warm out — almost fall.

In addition to Tony Maynard among the prisoners at Attica was Sam Melville, a young man from the Weather Underground, a radical organization that had split away from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to, it said, bring the Vietnam War home to America. He was a client of my partner, Henry diSuvero. Tony being there was definitely a motivating factor for me, but I’m not sure I knew Sam was there until I saw him in D yard.

Maynard had been wrongfully accused of a 1967 shotgun killing in Greenwich Village, convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to ten to twenty years. Using a shotgun as the murder weapon was completely out of character for this stylish man with an artist’s sensibility. The authors James Baldwin and William Styron, who knew Tony, and the editorial chairman and columnist of the then liberal New York Post, James Wechsler, had made a considerable amount of noise about the wrongful conviction, but it didn’t matter. As I saw it, the “crime” Tony committed was being black. Making matters worse, Tony had a beautiful white wife, and the two of them had spent enough time making the scene in Greenwich Village to become a target. As Baldwin would later tell me, more than being black, Tony became a target because he was “arrogant and didn’t know his place.”

I agreed with Baldwin. It certainly didn’t help that Tony had what you might call an attitude problem, but fighting the prevailing winds of racial prejudice in the 1960s criminal court system was more often than not impossible.

I had tried Tony’s murder case, and I bonded with him during the long days we spent together and the discussions on weekends and after court. When Dotty said “Attica,” I heard “Tony Maynard.” He was transferred there from the Green Haven Correctional Facility, where I had recently visited him in what was called “the Hole.” He was disciplined a lot, and was not what one might call a model prisoner. Well spoken, smart, unbending, and rebellious, Tony had all the qualities a prison guard would be unlikely to tolerate. He would make a tempting target when authorities put down the rebellion, which I assumed would happen — maybe even before I could get there.

Tony was wearing a tattered tailored suit — he refused to wear prison clothes — when I caught sight of him in D yard, which we entered with the state corrections commissioner, Russell B. Oswald, to negotiate with the leadership. Tony looked pretty out of place, more like one of the observers than a participant among the thousand or so black, Latino, and white convicts milling around D yard preparing to defend their revolution.

Tony, whose presence made me feel more secure in the chaos of the yard, said, “Once the hacks are back in control, you can forget racial harmony,” adding, “Nothing good can come of this.” Surveying his fellow prisoners waving homemade flags and chanting “Black Power!” he added contemptuously: “They’re all so blind. Today they’re kings. They think the world will listen. The TV cameras and negotiations add to the illusion. But no one really cares what happens to a bunch of convicts and the clock-punchers who run an asylum run amok. We’re all less than nothing to the people that matter.”

I shared Tony’s ambivalence about the sort of canned big-talk-but-often-empty radical rhetoric that had emerged from the heyday of the civil rights movement and migrated into the prisons.

Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” What happened at Attica came close to King’s definition. Before they rampaged through the prison, the inmates were an unheard group of people who now had access to the outside world. No one listened to them or even gave them a name. To the all-white guards who controlled their lives, their skin color denoted them as subhuman beings. Their only strength came from communication. That’s why what happened at Attica was different from a riot. It was an uprising. But unlike the few uprisings that have succeeded, there was no way the prisoners would be able to hold on to the territory they had taken, and failure appeared to be a given. To prevent the stranglehold the authorities had on the prisoners who were trapped in the yard they had seized from turning into a bloodbath, only the observers could open a dialogue, but the odds of either side listening were slim. That’s where things stood. Blacks were fed up. Jim Crow and other forms of apartheid like school segregation were now against the letter of the law, but still the norm all over the country and held in place by force and more passive forms of economic domination. Whites also were angry about the threat of black demands for a share of what they saw as their jobs, and the right to move into their neighborhoods and go to their schools. There was a lot of fear all around, but almost no willingness — or perhaps better, capacity — to occupy the gray area where race issues could evolve and change. As a not-quite-radical, not-quite-mainstream civil rights lawyer, I sensed how difficult it would be to find that gray area in the Attica yard.

The other prisoner I knew about at Attica was Sam Melville. As a white man, he was definitely in the minority there. Because he was my partner’s client, Sam sought me out in D yard. He had been convicted for a string of highly publicized Weather Underground bombings that took place in 1969.

When Melville saw me, he talked his way through the phalanx of prisoners guarding the negotiators.

“They’re going to come looking for me,” Sam said, in a matter-of-fact way. “And I’ll be here. I’m a dead man.”

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

He shook his head. We exchanged a few words, shook hands, and he disappeared back into the crowd.

After it was all over, there were reports that some of the prisoners who led the rebellion were killed long after authorities regained control of the facility. Sam Melville was one of the people mentioned on that list, though he was not part of the leadership. After retaking the prison, state spin doctors said that Melville got shot while trying to explode a fifty-gallon fuel tank. They said he had four Molotov cocktails.

It made no sense. The uprising was over. It would have been suicide, and I saw no inkling that Melville had that kind of ending in mind. To the contrary, the Weathermen issued warnings and planned their bombings to avoid hurting anyone.


Forty years after the Attica prison uprising was crushed, tapes were released on a Freedom of Information Act request that recorded conversations between Governor Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon discussing the retaking of Attica. The “silent majority” point of view is unmistakable:

“Tell me,” Nixon began one of the conversations. “Are these primarily blacks that you’re dealing with?”

“Oh, yes,” Rockefeller replied. “The whole thing was led by the blacks.”

“I’ll be darned,” President Nixon replied affably. “Are all the prisoners that were killed blacks? Or are there any white . . .”

“I haven’t got that report,” the governor replied, “but I’d have to — I would say just off hand, yes. We did [it] though, only when they were in the process of murdering the guards, or when they were attacking our people as they came in to get the guards.”

“You had to do it,” Nixon said, as if he were reassuring himself.

In reality Rockefeller didn’t have to do it. After four days of unrest and disorder, things were starting to fray. The weather was horrible. Conditions in D yard were bad and getting worse. Nixon was wrong. I was there. Rockefeller wasn’t. Everyone just needed to be patient. If we couldn’t talk it out, we could wait it out. Rockefeller didn’t want to wait it out. He wanted to make a point. As New York City’s most prominent Puerto Rican politician at the time, Herman Badillo, said, “There’s always time to die.” The claim that prisoners were “in the process of murdering the guards” was a bald-faced lie. Whether Rockefeller was repeating bad information or made it up out of whole cloth is unclear. After the lie became accepted truth in the public imagination, autopsies showed that troopers — not the prisoners — killed the nine prison guards that Monday morning. As for the racial makeup of the prisoners, Rockefeller was wrong about that too, unless he unconsciously lumped Puerto Ricans and blacks together under the heading of “minority” and never got word of the whites in that ocean of rage.

Either way, you get the picture.


A few hours after troopers retook the prison, I was in the back of a cab heading south on Central Park West feeling defeated, angry, and depressed. I came home wearing the same suit. I stank. Where there had been a toehold to push against what looked like an impending disaster and a sense of mission when I left, there was now a massacre. I feared Maynard was dead. I wondered if any of the inmate leadership had survived. For days afterward my calls to the prison went unanswered.

While we were waiting for the light to change, I remember looking at the Dakota where the rich and famous lived, with its Victorian gas lamps and bathysphere-like guard booth. We rolled to a stop at my building six blocks south, just above Columbus Circle. I don’t recall who the doorman was that night, or the floor captain. I noted the difference between the stewards’ room at Attica, where the observers’ committee was camped out, and the shimmering terrazzo floors of the lobby as I trudged toward the elevator at the far end of the southern hallway. The elevator man deposited me on the semiprivate landing my family shared with one other apartment. I could hear the sounds of daily life on the other side of our door. My three kids and Kitty were in there safe and sound. The door was unlocked. That familiar feeling that I led a double life was strong as I stood there with my hand resting on the doorknob. I turned it and opened the door. In the foyer my four-year-old, Patrick, came shooting past with a quick hello. I went to our bedroom to change, gathered all the clothes I’d been wearing, and threw them in the garbage.

There was a message waiting for me on the table from The David Frost Show, a big television program at the time. They wanted me to be a guest that night. Frost was hosting a special panel on what had happened that morning. I would join Senator John Dunne, Leo Zeferetti, the head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, and Clarence Jones. Although I was on the show, you won’t find my name in the online listing of who appeared that night. David Frost turned to me early for comment, which is the one and only reason I’m not listed as one of the guests. I was exhausted and angry, and to this day I don’t regret a thing about what I said. I don’t remember what Frost asked me. I do remember attacking Rockefeller: “He only cares about his class prerogatives. The white guards didn’t matter any more than the black prisoners to him. They were all expendable.”

Cutting me off, Frost turned to cooler, safer voices for the rest of the discussion.

From THE BUTLER'S CHILD by Lewis M. Steel and Beau Friedlander. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted with permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC. 

By Lewis M. Steel

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