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50 years after Attica: The unfinished business of our nation’s deadliest prison uprising

Is there anything more to learn about the Attica prison uprising? Until New York releases its files, the truth will never really be known.

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New York State Archive

Is there anything more to learn about the Attica prison uprising? Until New York releases its files, the truth will never really be known.

Published Updated

On Sept. 13, the family of late Monroe County Medical Examiner Dr. John Edland will join dozens of others at the grounds of the maximum-security Attica prison.

It was on those same grounds where, 50 years before, imprisoned men revolted, wresting control of the Wyoming County prison and taking 42 men hostage; where four days after the initial uprising, helicopters rose ominously above the prison walls, appearing, as one inmate said, like massive grasshopper-like "monsters"; where CS tear gas, the same powdered chemical weaponry used in Vietnam, dropped from the copters into the prison yard, creating billowing waves of choking smoke and fog; and where police then surged into the prison behind a fusillade of hundreds of rounds of gunfire.

Once the chaos cleared, more than three dozen men were dead.

And it would be John Edland who later told the world the truth: The hostages killed on Sept. 13, 1971, did not die at the hands of inmates, as corrections officials first claimed. Instead, they were all slain by law enforcement. In all, 39 men — 29 incarcerated men and 10 hostages — were fatally shot in the retaking, which made Attica the nation’s deadliest prison riot and a lasting stain on the legacy of corrections history and penal reform. Four others also died.

Though not at Attica in 1971, Edland became a casualty of sorts of the uprising: His family was taunted, harassed, and threatened in the weeks and months after his autopsies revealed how the men at Attica were killed. His truth was not accepted by many, regardless of his expertise and definitive proof. 

"It wasn’t long before some abuse started happening, people calling the house and saying that he was pro-prisoner, saying he was a 'n---r lover,' if you will," remembered his daughter, Gretchen Edland Perry, who was 9 at the time of the uprising.

Dr. John Edland, left, and Ed
Riley with an X-ray image in Monroe County Medical Examiner's Office in 1972.
Dr. John Edland, left, and Ed Riley with an X-ray image in Monroe County Medical Examiner's Office in 1972. T. GORDON MASSECAR/File photo 1972

Gretchen Edland Perry and other members of Edland's family, including his 20-month-old namesake great-grandson, will join the late afternoon memorial at Attica on Sept. 13.  There have been many previous anniversaries and many remembrances of the Attica uprising — there are annual memorial services at the prison — but this one has brought a resonance unlike most others. 

"Fifty years, it's a big landmark," Perry said.

There have been at least three documentaries this year about the riot, one by acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Nelson that will kick off the Toronto Film Festival. And, though the pandemic will surely limit some travels, dozens of people whose lives were forever impacted by the riot are expected at this year's memorial.

"There will be honor guards from all around the country as well as Attica's honor guard," said Deanne Quinn Miller, whose father, William Quinn, was a corrections officer killed at Attica. "I know that there are people who traveling from all over."

Deanne Quinn Miller, daughter of corrections officer killed at Attica
I do think that many of the issues surrounding Attica and why Attica happened are still issues potentially within our prison systems not only in New York, but all around the country.

The tragedy of Attica was a threshold moment in the history of prison reform, pushing officials and the public to reconsider how men and women were imprisoned. But 50 years later, many maintain that the same corrections issues have yet to be resolved.

The United States locks up more people and at a higher rate than any other country.

"I do think that many of the issues surrounding Attica and why Attica happened are still issues potentially within our prison systems not only in New York, but all around the country," said Miller, who, as a member of a group the Forgotten Victims of Attica, has been a key architect of the 50th anniversary memorial. "I still think Attica is a cautionary tale as to what can happen."

As well as the memorial at the prison, a coalition of social and criminal justice organizations is holding two virtual events — one on the anniversary of the initial uprising and the second on the retaking's anniversary — to highlight the issue of prison conditions and question how far we have or haven't come since 1971. 

"My personal hope is that people will start to understand that, with all the intelligence and the technology we have, we must have ways to incentivize positive human behavior other than mistreating them," said Soffiyah Elijah, the executive director of Alliance of Families for Justice and one of the organizers of the September virtual events, called "Attica Is All of Us."

Unedited footage of Attica prison uprising with commentary
Provided, New York State Police, Courtesy of New York State Archive
The September 1971 uprising

The September 1971 uprising

For months before the September 1971 uprising, if not longer, the conditions confronted by inmates at the Attica prison had worsened, driven by constant overcrowding.

Inmates were limited to a shower a week, a roll of toilet paper a month, and the food was often unsanitary if not uneatable as the prisoners were fed on less than a dollar a day. Basic human and constitutional rights were violated; Muslim inmates, for instance — the very same incarcerated men who would protect hostages during the uprising's standoff — were often denied the right to practice their religion.

The medical care was so subpar that some prisoners "lost all their teeth for lack of dental care by the time they served their sentences," said Heather Ann Thompson, a historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2017 book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. "People had just very basic health problems left to linger to the point where they got sicker and sicker."

Corrections officers, aware that the conditions were simmering and unrest growing, also warned union and corrections officials, but to no avail.

Nationally, Black people were pushing for civil rights and an end to societal inequities, and the anti-war movement was also in full fervor. Those movements impacted the prison population, resulting in a clash of cultures behind prison walls. There also was unquestionably bigotry at the prison, with an inmate population largely of Black and Hispanic men and an almost-entirely white staff.

"It was a terrible dichotomy between urban and rural people," said Tyrone Larkins, who was a 23-year-old prisoner at the time of the uprising. "The urban people were the people that were confined and the rural people were the people doing the keeping, the prison guards."

In the months before the riot, inmates tried peacefully to get conditions improved, sending a list of demands to corrections officials.

"From the months leading up to what became the Attica uprising, but actually the years leading up to the Attica uprising, the men inside had been writing letters to try to get this addressed, begging to have these conditions addressed," Thompson said. "Every step of the way they had largely been ignored. Nothing had really changed. The level of frustration, the level of really despair, was accumulating daily, day in and day out."

On Sept. 9, 1971, the prison exploded, the rebellion sparked by punishment doled out to some incarcerated men the day before. Inmates took control of the prison, grabbing up 42 hostages. William Quinn, the father of Deanne Quinn Miller, was beaten and trampled by prisoners as he tried to secure a gate.

Inmates and corrections officials, working with prisoner-chosen civilian observers, tried to find a peaceful resolution to demands from prisoners. But Quinn died on Sept. 11 in a Rochester hospital. Negotiations stalled, as many inmates knew they could be prosecuted for his murder.

William Quinn: Her father died in the Attica prison uprising. 30 years later she began to learn the truth

On the morning of Sept. 13, the incarcerated men took hostages to prison catwalks, holding knives to their throats in hopes of heading off a police assault the inmates feared was near. Police snipers took positions in response.

Police then rushed the prison after two National Guard helicopters dropped tear gas into the prison yard. Minutes of helter-skelter gunfire ensued, with police often firing through near-blinding smoke.

Larkins, an inmate at the time, remembered a sense of foreboding before the assault.

"You could feel something was not right," he said. "I was walking and talking with people and all of sudden this big helicopter flew over once and circled back.

"This gas knocked me to my knees and it cleaned my whole sinus cavity out. Then you heard a guy with a megaphone say, 'Lay down, put your hands on your heads and you will not be harmed.' As you started to comply, it felt like an earthquake was happening because the ground around me was shaking."

Those tremors were the incoming State Police and National Guard. "I heard and seen pieces of bullets hit the ground, the wall, and everything else," Larkins said.

A flashpoint in prison reform: Visual story of how the Attica prison riot unfolded

He was shot three times in the siege, and a surgeon told him one shot was fractions of an inch from killing him or leaving him in a vegetative state. 

"These police went forth as if there were no tomorrow," said Malcolm Bell, an attorney whom state officials chose to investigate possible crimes, including murder, by police in the retaking. "They fired their weapons at least 450 times, with almost no justification after the initial (sniper) shooting. 

"These 450 shots included a great many rounds of shotgun ammunition, something like 200 rounds of shotgun ammunition that spewed forth ... with lethal pellets."

New York State Police video of the Attica prison assault
Provided, New York State Police, Courtesy of New York State Archive
The need for an apology

The need for an apology

The deadly Attica uprising spawned multiple lawsuits and investigations. In 1976, Gov. Hugh Carey brought an end to prosecutions of inmates and police, granting pardons and amnesties and commuting sentences in an effort to close the books on the riot. No police were ever tried for the killings in the retaking.

In 2000, the state paid out $12 million to settle a lawsuit from inmates that was first filed in the mid-70s. Five years later the state agreed to pay $12 million to the Forgotten Victims of Attica, an organization of injured prison workers, their families, and the families of Attica employees killed in the retaking.

In 1971, state officials had convinced the widows of slain hostages to accept workers' compensation payments. What the widows, trying to head off poverty, did not know was that by accepting the money — or other payments, such as funeral costs — they were then legally blocked from suing state officials. The one widow who refused the payments received more than $1 million in a lawsuit against the state.

Malcolm Bell, Attica prosecutor
If ever a government owed an apology to a group of people — its servants who were doing their best to serve the state — this is the time.

Restitution was simply one of the demands from the Forgotten Victims of Attica. Two others — counseling for anyone who wanted it and assurances of a yearly memorial at prison grounds — were also accepted by state officials. But two are still unresolved: The organization sought an apology from the state and the opening of all Attica-related records.

Members of the Forgotten Victims see the 50th anniversary as an opportune time for an apology from the state, but the resignation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo amid a sexual harassment scandal has made it difficult to approach state officials.

"I personally think that the apology is very important," said Deanne Quinn Miller. "I know there are some that probably view the apology as just words. However, words of apology for such an egregious historical wrongdoing, I think, is part of the path to healing."

Families still waiting for apology from New York 50 years after Attica prison uprising
Shawn Dowd, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Attica prosecutor Malcolm Bell agrees. "If ever a government owed an apology to a group of people — its servants who were doing their best to serve the state — this is the time."

Memoir: Attica memoir opens the door on grief and reconciliation, adding to our understanding

Under seal are still grand jury investigations into possible police crimes during the retaking. Courts have ruled that grand jury secrecy prevents the release of the records. However, there have been recent rulings questioning how long such secrecy should prevail, or whether, if there is a pressing societal reason, the grand jury records should remain sealed.

"At 50 years it is stunning and extraordinary that a public prison and a public event such as the Attica prison uprising would have records related to it that are still not disclosed to the public," said Attica historian Thompson. "It is shocking, it is unconscionable, and at 50 years, by all measures and practices of archives in all countries, including this one, 50 years is the benchmark when all archives are open — period."

There were efforts to get the records unsealed in the most recent state legislative session, and they will likely resume. The union for State Police has opposed the release of the records, maintaining that grand jury secrecy should be sacrosanct and it would be a slippery legal slope to open the grand jury investigations.

Recently, a judge ruled the release of grand jury minutes in an investigation into the death of Daniel Prude at the hands of Rochester police. The grand jury declined to indict three police officers in connection with the death of Prude, who was unarmed when restrained by police and whose death was partly attributed to asphyxiation.

New York Attorney General Letitia James sought the unsealing of the records.

Malcolm Bell, who as prosecutor is familiar with many of the Attica sealed records, supports their disclosure, but maintains that information that would identify individuals should be redacted.

Aftermath of the Attica prison uprising
Provided, New York State Police, Courtesy of New York State Archive
The future

The future

The quote which the "Attica is All of Us" forums are using as a rallying cry was supposedly said by Frank "Big Black" Smith, an Attica inmate who was one of the leaders of the lawsuit against the state. Smith, who died in 2004, was brutally tortured after the retaking.

In 2000, Smith was one of the former incarcerated men who appeared in Rochester federal court, where the late U.S. District Judge Michael Telesca was deciding how to divide the $8 million state settlement for hundreds of prisoners who'd been at Attica in September 1971. (Of the $12 million state settlement, $4 million went to lawyers for the inmates who had not received compensation over a quarter-century of litigation.)

Speaking of his beatings, Smith told Telesca, "I just felt a lot of times that it would be better just to go on and let them kill me if that's what they were intending on doing rather than to be suffering and punished and assaulted."

After the retaking, police set up a gauntlet, and beat inmates with batons as the incarcerated men were returned to their cells. Larkins saw the beatings from a stretcher, as he was being taken from the prison grounds. Larkins said after the uprising he was labeled an "insurrectionist" as have been the men and women who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, but the treatment of those individuals stands in stark contrast to what he endured.

While the Jan. 6 rioters wanted to upend a government, "we were just talking about prison reform," Larkins said. "We were just talking equality; that's what we were talking. ... They didn't suffer nowhere near the brutality that I suffered."

The organizers of "Attica is All of Us" want to spark a conversation about prison reform, and rehabilitation. The prison population in the United States has surged tenfold since the uprising, increasing to almost 2 million, though decreases have been seen in recent years. 

"The conditions in New York prisons are still frighteningly inhumane," Elijah of the Alliance of Families for Justice said.

At the same time, prison corrections officers say they are dealing with more violence than in recent years. The state prison system is on pace for a record number of inmate assaults on prison staff, according to the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, the officers' union. While the prison population has decreased in the past eight years, the number of inmate assaults on staff has more than doubled, with more than 1,000 in 2020, according to records.

One corrections officer at the Auburn Correctional Facility recently had his face slashed by a prisoner; the cut required 30 stitches.

The corrections union maintains that the closure of prisons — 19 were shut down during Gov. Andrew Cuomo's tenure — has pushed more violent incarcerated men into fewer facilities, making the prisons dangerous for all.

Heather Ann Thompson, Attica historian
One of the most startling things about 50 years after Attica is that we are once again in this position where we look across the nation and yet again … we are witnessing men, women, and children in these correctional facilities telling us, ‘We need help.’

The debate around the state's prisons is typical of the conflicting beliefs that have long persisted in the United State. Some, like the union and its supporters, say more prisons are needed, while others, including the "Attica Is All of Us" organizers, see prisons as a repressive and unsuccessful method of response to crime. 

The "Attica is All of Us" organizers, for instance, are calling for the closure of the prison, saying it it still a hellhole for inmates. In 2015, three corrections officers pleaded guilty to misdemeanors after being accused of beating an inmate so ruthlessly that he suffered two broken legs.

The aftermath of the Attica uprising brought some reforms to prisons, attempts to treat inmates more humanely and to reduce the risks of violence to those inside, whether prisoners or workers. And corrections systems used the chaotic and lethal riot response at Attica as an instructive template of what not to do at prisons during unrest.

Historian Thompson said that the issue of prison reform has, however, now faded from the public view and consciousness.

"One of the most startling things about 50 years after Attica is that we are once again in this position where we look across the nation and yet again … we are witnessing men, women, and children in these correctional facilities telling us, 'We need help,'" she said.

Lasting trauma: For survivors of the Attica prison riot, the trauma of those agonizing days lasted for life

There will be many voices heard at the 50th anniversary of the Attica uprising, both in the virtual sessions focusing on prison reform and at the Sept. 13 solemn memorial at the prison. Many of the survivors have never escaped the trauma of those 1971 days, though hope that the anniversary can somehow illuminate a better path forward.

Attica prisoners took guards as hostages during uprising at the prison September 9, 1971 over living conditions and their rights. Color photos of the riot have not been widely circulated but are preserved at https://www.atticamassacre.com/, The estate of Elizabeth Fink.
Attica prisoners took guards as hostages during uprising at the prison September 9, 1971 over living conditions and their rights. Color photos of the riot have not been widely circulated but are preserved at https://www.atticamassacre.com/, The estate of Elizabeth Fink. Elizabeth M. Fink Estate

Gretchen Edland Perry, for one, will be at the memorial remembering both the courage of her father and the psychological scars he endured because of the uprising. The abuse inflicted upon him afterward brought on a severe depression, requiring institutionalization. After his recovery, he taught in universities.

In recent decades, Perry has read all she could about the uprising, and has, she said, become the "family historian" about the prisoner rebellion.

Her research often leads her to thoughts of her father, who died in 1991. "Every time, I feel that pain for him all over again," she said.

"And I know a lot of people who experienced Attica feel the same pain."

(Reporter Gary Craig has written extensively of the aftermath of the Attica uprising over the past 20 years and is the co-author with Deanne Quinn Miller of "The Prison Guard's Daughter: My Journey Through the Ashes of Attica," which is published by Diversion Books and released this month.)

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