Remembering Attica

Thirty Years Later, the Story of America’s Worst Prison Riot Continues

The history of the 1971 rebellion at Attica state prison has been written and rewritten, edited and censored, distorted and forgotten. Everyone agrees, though, that on September 9, 1971, Attica's prisoners overpowered their guards and seized control, gathering in D Yard. The inmates were angry about the prison's conditions and had a long list of demands, including minimum-wage pay for prison work, better education, healthier food, and more black and Spanish-speaking guards.

For four days, the prisoners ran their own prison. They held guards hostage, conducted negotiations with numerous officials, and repeated their demands to reporters. By September 11, one guard, Officer William Quinn, was dead. The prisoners wanted Governor Nelson Rockefeller to come to Attica and negotiate with them. He refused. Instead, he ordered state police officers to retake Attica.

The officers climbed onto the prison's roofs, armed with pistols and shotguns. In six minutes, they fired more than 2000 rounds of ammunition, killing 29 inmates and 10 hostages. An investigatory commission later called this fusillade the "bloodiest encounter between Americans since the Civil War."

photo: courtesy of Liz Fink

To the reporters outside the prison, state officials told a different story: that the guards had died because the prisoners slit their throats. Eventually, the truth emerged when a local coroner refuted officials' claims. Meanwhile, inside Attica, prison guards sought revenge, beating and torturing the inmates.

The final death toll for the uprising was 43, including three prisoners who had been killed by their fellow inmates. Over the next three years, many more chapters were added to the story of Attica, as the state indicted more than 60 prisoners for crimes ranging from sodomy to murder. State police officers and prison guards were not charged.

Even today, the story of Attica has not ended. Last year, after a 27-year legal battle, New York State finally compensated the prisoners who were injured. Five hundred and two former prisoners and relatives shared $8 million. In the wake of this settlement, the families of the hostages formed their own organization: the Forgotten Victims of Attica.

Next week marks the 30th anniversary of the rebellion. Showtime and Court TV plan to air films about the subject. Near the prison, there will be a vigil and march to commemorate the 11 slain prison workers. And in Albany, a group of former inmates will gather on the Capitol steps. Meanwhile, the tales of Attica endure—not only in myriad books, films, and news reports, but also in the memories of those most intimately involved. Here, a few of these people share their stories:

Ann D'Arcangelo Driscoll

Driscoll's husband, Officer John D'Arcangelo, was killed during the retaking of Attica. She now works as a nurse in a state prison and is a member of the Forgotten Victims of Attica.

Where were you when the rebellion began? I was a brand-new mother with a three-month-old baby and was living in an apartment. My mom had one of her friends drive her up to Attica, and we waited around the apartment that day. We thought maybe it was going to be over by the end of their shift.

Around midnight, I got a phone call from a priest who was employed by Attica. He told me that John was a hostage and he had heard John's confession. The next morning, we found a babysitter and my mom and I went to the prison.

We saw army people and state police, and we heard chanting from the other side of the walls. They were chanting, "Attica! Attica! Kill the pigs!" I was absolutely terrified.

We stayed that whole day into the early evening. Then we thought maybe they would try to get ahold of us, and no one knew we were out there. So we went and stayed at the apartment, glued to the TV, thinking it was going to be like a movie ending, when the white horses go in and bring everyone out. But it didn't work out that way.

What was it like watching the TV coverage? That was almost worse than being there. It was absolutely horrific. You saw so many angry people from both sides. The inmates looked mean. Some of the families that were waiting out front were getting very hostile with each other—inmates' families and officers' families.

For the next three days, it just seemed to get more and more tense. Once they announced [Officer] William Quinn had been killed by inmates, then people really got fired up.

What do you remember about the state police officers' retaking of the prison? It was a rainy day. You heard all these helicopters overhead and people with bullhorns telling the [the inmates] to lay down and give up. Then you just heard all the shots.

I was at my apartment. Around 10:30 in the morning, I received a phone call from Attica Correctional Facility that said that my husband was out on his way to a hospital and to stay off the phone.

I thought, "Oh my God, they saved him." So I waited and waited and waited. Finally, around two in the afternoon, I started frantically calling every hospital in the phone book from Buffalo to Rochester because the news reporters were saying all the hospitals were filling up. The hospitals had never heard of him.

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