Attica Brother

A Survivor of the Nation’s Deadliest Prison Riot Comes to Terms With His Past

 Editor's Note: In 1974, more than 1000 inmates who claimed they were tortured, beaten, and denied medical treatment after the storming of the Attica Correctional Facility in 1971 filed a $100 million class-action suit against New York State. On January 4 of this year, after 25 years of legal wrangling, federal judge Michael A. Telesca approved the state's offer of $8 million in compensation to the former inmates. In agreeing to settle, the state admitted no wrongdoing. But how much each man will receive for his suffering depends on who you ask. Some predict that the average payout could be about $20,000 per inmate, while others estimate it at $10,000. Herman L. Robinson Jr.'s eyewitness account of the alleged beatings and killings, and his recollections of his own harrowing experience, helped launch what some say is the biggest prisoners'-rights case ever. But Robinson, a former minister in the Nation of Islam, may never see a dime. His lawyer informed him last week that only inmates who were in "D Yard," where the main assault took place, would be compensated. Whatever is finally doled out, nothing can pay off the ghosts who spook Herman Robinson's dreams. "Money won't ease my years of pain," says the Attica alumnus, who will graduate this week from Brooklyn Technical College where he has been studying to become a medical technician. "You don't bribe your demons."

Thirty years after two skull-faced rednecks stuck their .357 magnum pistols into Herman Robinson's temples and pulled the triggers in a deadly game of "Ruffian Roulette," the youngest inmate caught up in the 1971 Attica riot remains haunted by the deadliest prison takeover in U.S. history. In his nightmares, Robinson, 48, wrestles with goggle-eyed devils who try to claim his "secondhand soul."

The youngest inmate: Herman Robinson remembers the horror of the raid.
photo: Meredith Heuer
The youngest inmate: Herman Robinson remembers the horror of the raid.

"I should have been dead," declares Robinson, the barrel-chested survivor who can't shake superstitious feelings that he has been kept alive by a borrowed soul that makes the vengeful ghosts of the Attica uprising envious. "They wanna see me dead," he insists, referring to the brutal white prison guards who forced him and hundreds of other inmates to run naked through a gauntlet of state troopers at the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York. Robinson, who was 16 at the time, was serving a three-to-10-year sentence for robbing a Harlem bar.

On September 13, 1971, the fifth day of the uprising, state troopers under orders from Governor Nelson Rockefeller attacked the maximum-security prison near Buffalo. More than 2000 rounds of ammunition were fired over six minutes. When the smoke cleared, 29 inmates and 10 correction officers lay dead, most of them mowed down during the raid. Hundreds more were wounded.

At the time of the bloody assault on "D Yard," Robinson was in the prison hospital recuperating from surgery in which a ruptured appendix had been removed. He and other inmates, who were convalescing in a nearby ward, cowered in their beds. Above the clamor of screechy cell doors swinging open and then clanging shut again, Robinson heard the screams of his fellow inmates being savagely beaten and tortured. Suddenly, bodies were being dumped at the hospital. "They were bringing people up there who were damn near dead," he recalls. "You could tell by the way they were dropping them off the stretchers, letting them hit the floor."

Police yanked Robinson and the others from their hiding places and began to beat them with batons, baseball bats, billy clubs, and the butts of assault weapons. "They kept telling us that the inmates in the cell blocks had killed corrections officers and they felt as though they should get even for what the inmates had done," Robinson says. "I didn't know that officers had been killed, but that was of no concern to them—they kept on beating the hell out of us." He charges that authorities—among them members of the National Guard—beat him, rested, then beat him again. "They kicked me in my stomach and other parts of my body," he says. "My bandage fell off and I was bleeding."

The scene, according to Robinson, brought to mind images of a recrimination rampage at a prisoner-of-war camp. His torture chamber was a dank hospital ward littered with bodies, the dying, and other severely injured men in fetal positions, gasping and grunting. After two state troopers grabbed Robinson from the floor and threw him against a metal chair, the teenager felt it was his turn to die.

"They took out their revolvers, removed all the bullets and put one each back in the chambers, looked at each other, and started laughing. They pointed the guns at my temples and kept pulling the triggers. All I did was put my hands up." Robinson had surrendered, but not to the viciousness of the raiders. "I surrendered to God, man," he reflects. "I asked Him to take me or let me live." As he silently prayed, a voice crackled over their walkie-talkies ordering them to move to support troopers who were pinned down in a different part of the prison. Robinson's tormentors holstered their weapons and left. But as soon as they departed, other officers took their places. These "replacement killers," as Robinson now refers to them, "stripped us naked and marched us down to the cell blocks."

Next Page »