Attica Brother

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

In August 1970, after a brief stopover in Rikers Island, Robinson was shipped to a correctional facility in Elmira. Since it was felt that Robinson's age made it risky to put him in the general prison population with the state's most dangerous criminals, he was housed in a reformatory for first-time offenders.

In prison, Robinson felt that censorship of the inmates' correspondence with relatives and friends trampled on freedom of religion. But his letters violated many, if not all, of the rules. "My letters would get sent back to me because I was writing to let my family know that 'the white man is the devil' and I was using passages from the Bible and the Holy Quran to substantiate my belief," he says. According to Robinson, prison officials, angered that he was thumbing his nose at the system, "secretly and illegally decided" to transfer him to the Attica Correctional Facility. "I assumed that it was because of the letters I was writing," he chortles.

Robinson's white counselor broke the news to him. "This is where you're at now and this is where you're going," the counselor said, pointing out Attica on a map. "Your family is going to have to take a plane to come and see you." The counselor, Robinson claims, "busted out laughing." When Robinson informed the other inmates about the transfer, "Everybody was shocked that I was going up to Attica because I was so young." Then Robinson began to hear stories of gruesome rapes and beatings. He felt prison officials had thrown him to the wolves. "This counselor told me that they were going to destroy me when I got up there," he charges. The fear of mingling with imprisoned murderers and sexual predators left Robinson depressed for days.

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.

In August 1971, upon the troublemaker's arrival at Attica, he was held in a secure area for processing. "People who didn't know me would ask, 'What are you doing here, brother? You too young to be in here.' " Robinson credits a quasi-jailhouse conversion to Islam with keeping him alive. He was befriended by Talmadge X. Hayer, one of the convicted killers of Malcolm X. "He didn't say much but after we ate together, and after mess hall, he always had a verse from the Holy Quran written down on a card that he would pass to me," Robinson says.

Prison officials had not decided what to do with the kid who was beginning to attract powerful advocates to his cause. For starters, they shaved off "the three little hairs" on his chin and constantly woke him up in the middle of the night. "All lights in Attica was out by 9 p.m.," he recalls. "It was pitch black in there. A couple of times, corrections officers came up to my cell with flashlights and kept it in my eyes. I begged them, 'Please move the flashlight out of my face,' but they didn't stop." Robinson and other inmates began to complain about prison food, medical care, and alleged abuses by guards.

On August 21, 1971, San Quentin inmate and Black Panther leader George Jackson allegedly pulled a gun from under an Afro wig, unlocked 26 prisoner cells, and triggered a bloodbath in which Jackson, two other convicts, and three guards were slain. "We remember hearing the news that George Jackson was killed," Robinson says. "In protest, none of the inmates at Attica, except for the stool pigeons, ate in the mess halls." Although the San Quentin guards maintained that Jackson tried to escape, prison-rights activists and inmates say the guards assassinated him. Attica's inmates joined the rebellion that engulfed prisons across America in the wake of Jackson's death. "We wore black armbands because we knew that they killed George Jackson and lied about it," Robinson says.

A few days before authorities stormed the Attica prison, Robinson began to complain of stomach pains. He was treated at the infirmary and sent back to confinement. "I don't know what they gave me but whatever it was, a day or so later I felt this excruciating pain in my lower abdomen," Robinson recalls. "The pain was so severe that when I went back to the infirmary the next day, I fell out." He says that if it were not for his Muslim brothers, who demanded that he be treated, the guards and doctors would have left him on the floor to die.

Robinson suspected that prison officials poisoned his food. But a doctor later determined that he was suffering from an inflamed appendix, which ruptured and had to be removed. "They told me that they had to call my mother to get permission because I was underage," he recalls. Getting sick may have saved Robinson's life. Looking back, he says, he could have been the youngest leader of the nation's bloodiest prison rebellion. He could have been killed. After authorities retook Attica, guards shackled Robinson and a number of non-violent inmates and transferred them to the Greenhaven Correctional Facility. There, inmates wanted to give them a hero's welcome, but prison officials quarantined them for about a month before putting them in general population. "We were 'The Attica Brothers,' " Robinson says proudly. "They wanted to talk to 'The Attica Brothers.' "

Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas

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