Remembering Attica

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

Then around four or five in the afternoon, I received a phone call from [Attica] Superintendent [Vincent] Mancusi. He told me that John was a casualty.

Did you know how your husband and the other officers died? At this point in time, we still didn't know who killed them. We thought inmates killed them. There were all kinds of crazy reports that they had their throats slit and were stabbed.

What was the cause of death on your husband's death certificate? Gunshot wounds. [But] at that point in time, I was so naive and young—I was 22 years old—I thought inmates brought guns in there. There were so many conflicting stories.

photo: courtesy of Liz Fink

They didn't release the body for a long, long time. They kept taking it to Albany for autopsies. I realize now they were desperate to find one officer there who had been killed by the inmates.

What did the corrections department do after your husband died? They sent Commissioner [Russell] Oswald with some of the deputy commissioners to all of our homes. They arrived at my mom's house five to six weeks after Attica happened and told me they were going to take care of my baby and me for the rest of my life.

They said, "Sign this paper" and, like an idiot, I did that. What I really didn't understand was that I just relinquished my right to sue the state [because] I accepted workman's compensation.

How did you find out the truth about how your husband was killed? I was still in denial for probably 25 years. Up until the Forgotten Victims of Attica group formed, people did not talk about it. They just tried to bury it. I was absolutely mortified when I found out what really happened. I think I just didn't want to face that.

Frank "Big Black" Smith

Smith was serving a prison sentence for robbery at the time of the uprising. His fellow prisoners appointed him their chief of security. After his release in 1973, he became a paralegal and investigator for attorney Elizabeth Fink and worked on the civil lawsuit that resulted in former inmates and relatives receiving $8 million from New York State.

Where were you in the prison when the riot started?

I was working in the laundry. I heard the whistle blowing. People were running in the hallway. I was smelling gas. I went to D Yard to see really what was going on.

Why were you chosen to be the chief of security? I was pretty well-known in the institution by inmates and correction officers. The representatives from different [cell] blocks asked me would I organize some people to set up some security in the yard, and I accepted that position.

I made sure that anyone that was coming into the yard [for negotiations]—from the commissioner to the governor all the way down—could come and feel comfortable. And anyone in the yard could feel like they could be in the yard without any bodily harm coming to 'em. I had 250 to 300 people working with me as part of the security team.

Where were you when the state police officers opened fire? I was in the middle of the yard, right by the negotiating table, when the helicopter came over: "Put your hands over your head and. . . . you won't be harmed." The shooting started and the gas started. People started coming over the wall—the retakers—shooting and killing people and calling my name: "Where's Black? Where's Black?"

What happened to you after the shooting stopped?

I went through the doorway and into A Block, and that's when the man I was working for in the laundry saw me and made me go over to the table on the side of wall. He laid me on the table and put a football under my chin and tortured me for four or five hours. [The guards said] if the football fell, they would kill me.

Over me, they were dropping hot cigarettes and gun shells. And [they were] spitting on me. They kept telling me, "We're going to kill you, nigger. You done had your day and now we're going to have ours."

They made me get off the table, and they beat me and ran me through a gauntlet, which was set up in the hallway. Everybody had to go through that, with glass broken on the floor. Five officers beat me and broke my wrist and opened my head up and knocked me just about out.

They took me to a room next to the hospital, laid me on the floor, spread-eagled me, and played shotgun roulette with me. Then they took me and dumped me on the floor in the [prison] hospital.

Malcolm Bell

Bell is the former chief assistant to the special Attica prosecutor. He became a whistleblower and, in 1985, published The Turkey Shoot: Tracking the Attica Cover-Up.

Where were you when the rebellion began? I was just working away, living in Darien, Connecticut, and commuting to my law office in New York City. I thought it was terrible, [but] it was just one of the terrible stories that comes along. No big deal from the standpoint of one who was not at all involved.

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