Attica, plus 36
The situation at Attica Prison had been deteriorating all summer, with inmates angry over conditions they found infuriating.
With the gunfire came the sound of a helicopter, and a firm order spoken over a loudspeaker: ‘This is the state police! Put your hands in the air–you will not be harmed!’
Photo from www.democratandchronicle.com
Attica, plus 36
A reporter’s retrospective on the 1971 prison riot
By John Winthrop
There was something strange and ominous about that day from the very beginning. It was Sept. 13, 1971, and my assignment that rainy Monday morning was the Attica Prison rebellion, which had started the Thursday before when rampaging inmates took 38 guards and civilian employees hostage in a spasm of violence that simmers to this day in that rural, western New York prison community.
I was a 30-year-old reporter at WOKR-TV Channel 13, an ABC affiliate in Rochester, New York. The situation at Attica Prison had been deteriorating all summer, with inmates angry over conditions they found infuriating: one roll of toilet paper per man per month; only one shower per week; no religious services for Black Muslims; an over-abundance of pork at both noon and evening meals; and assembly in the prison yard by more than three Muslims punishable by a stretch in solitary confinement.
These and other grievances had been presented to New York State Corrections Commissioner Russell G. Oswald on July 2 that summer, but nothing had been done about any of the complaints when frustrated inmates took matters into their own hands the morning of Sept. 9, breaking down a key internal gate, taking over two cellblocks and shops, and setting up camp in an outside area known as D-yard.
In the four days the inmates occupied and controlled these areas, three prisoners were murdered, correctional officer William Quinn died of injuries suffered in the first minutes of the uprising, and several guards were beaten, some seriously. But almost immediately, the guards were then isolated and protected by the rebelling inmates, and tense negotiations with prison officials began.
The inmates had 31 demands on their list, including amnesty. Twenty-eight of the demands were said to have been already agreed to by Oswald, but many of the prisoners feared he would break his word and not meet with them as promised. The previous November, at a correctional facility in Auburn, New York, a prisoner’s request for permission to hold a Black Solidarity Day observation had been denied. A sitdown strike ensued, several guards were captured, then released when officials promised no reprisals. But those promises were almost immediately abandoned, and retribution, including beatings, solitary confinement, and transfers to other prisons, were enacted. At Attica that fateful September, Oswald’s perceived betrayal weighed heavily on the rebelling inmates’ minds.
Coverage of the uprising had been front-page news for weeks, leading the news on every television and radio station in the state. My station was no exception, and that Monday morning I headed early to the prison with photographer Joe Paladino, apprehensive about the situation but looking forward to covering the story nonetheless. It was huge, and getting bigger by the hour. Journalists were showing up from Europe, and network requests for footage and stories were escalating. The Attica Prison rebellion had become international news.
We packed up carefully, taking plenty of extra film and equipment. It looked like a long day and we wanted to be ready for whatever happened. Joe drove the news wagon, and we took the Thruway to Batavia, then turned south on Route 98 towards Attica. It is a homely, rural route, with little of interest on either side of the road, just bleak farmland. Neither of us talked much, and it seemed like it was taking a very long time to get there. Suddenly the scanner erupted with the unmistakable sound of gunfire, a barrage of noise that could only come from many high-powered weapons. With the gunfire came the sound of a helicopter, and a firm order spoken over a loudspeaker: “This is the state police! Put your hands in the air–you will not be harmed! Repeat! Put your hands over your head–you will not be harmed! Put down your weapons; do exactly as you are told! You will not be harmed!”
“Jesus Christ,” I said to Joe. “Floor it! They’re firing on the inmates right now–we gotta get there fast or they’ll never let us on the property, and we’ll be shut out!”
Immediately we were rocketing down that rural roadway at 90 mph, and we made it through the outside perimeter gates of the prison just as they were swung closed. It was a wild scene on the grounds outside the prison walls, helicopters whirring overhead as the sound of gunfire continued, clouds of tear gas wafting over the walls, photographers and reporters scrambling, choking, gasping, trying to escape the gas yet get it all on film before it was over. Then came the interminable wait for official word of what had gone on inside. In my case, that came from Monroe County Undersheriff Andy Meloni, who emerged from the prison ashen-faced and somber. “There are many dead inmates,” he said to me in answer to my obvious first question. “Over twenty, at least.”
“Were any of the hostages killed?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “They had their throats cut by the inmates!” And that night, on Channel 13 and elsewhere, including the New York Times, that’s the way the story was reported.
But the very next day, Monroe County Medical Examiner and pathologist Dr. John Edland announced to a virtual horde of reporters that none of the hostages had died of a cut throat, that all had perished as a result of bullets fired by police and corrections officers. Reporters were incredulous. There was a rush to the phones like in the movies, and soon the world knew what had really happened the day before. In all, there were 39 killed in the Monday uprising, 29 inmates and 10 hostages. Over the four days of the uprising, the total was 43 dead. And Dr. Edland was soon the target of many attempts to discredit both his findings and his politics.
What followed was a huge investigation, then another, and a series of hearings, trials, lawsuits and rulings that went on for years. Finally, in 1976, then-governor Hugh Carey ended the legal morass by terminating the grand jury that had taken up the police and correction officer felony charges, and called a halt to all criminal prosecutions. On Aug. 28, 2000, 502 claims were approved by Federal Court Judge Michael Telesca in Rochester, and the monetary awards for inmates killed or injured in the rebellion ranged from $6,500 to $125,000, depending on the severity of the injuries and the amount of suffering endured. Injured and slain guards got nothing.
As for me, I never looked at a news story the same way ever again. I was more skeptical than ever of explanations made by so-called “authorities,” especially police officials. And prisons, never high on my list, have been forever relegated to the category of Places To Be Avoided At All Costs.
Thirty-six years later, that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it. §
John Winthrop writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif.