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.”
“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.”
Robinson says the brutal images are imprinted in his mind—atrocities he maintains police and their apologists left out of their accounts of the storming of Attica. “I saw National Guardsmen with rifles escorting a doctor in a long white jacket, with blood all over it.” Some of these same guardsmen became enraged when a nervous inmate asked for a cigarette. “They went into his cell and killed him,” Robinson alleges. “I hid in my cell so they wouldn’t see me see them kill. I heard them in there killing him because he asked him for a cigarette. I was so thankful that I didn’t smoke.”
After the prisoner allegedly was murdered, authorities ordered Robinson and others out of their cells. Robinson says that “everybody came out butt-naked and they ran us like cattle” through a phalanx of officers lined along the hallways. The officers whooped like cowboys, yelling “Yahoo!” while pummeling and kicking the inmates as they tiptoed through shards of broken glass, spent shells, and pools of blood.
The demon who led a Harlem teenager down the path to one of the ugliest periods in criminal-justice history was a 26-year-old heroin addict and persistent felon nicknamed Poohby, who is now dead.
In November 1970, after he’d barely turned 16, Herman Robinson, a jive-talkin’ street kid who imitated the oratorical skills of soapbox legends like “Pork Chop” Davis and Carlos Cooks, vowed to retire a millionaire by the age of 20.
“Buster,” as he was popularly known, amassed a fortune selling cocaine for “Fat Jack,” a gentle behemoth who founded the Harlem World Disco on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue. According to Uptown rap lore, Fat Jack was one of hip hop’s OGs (Original Gangstas), and a kingpin of “Heroin City.” He was Robinson’s adopted daddy and mentor. On the days he wasn’t chasing after pimps and pushers, enforcing rules and collecting money owed to Fat Jack, Robinson helped out at Uncle Fat’s Chitlin’ House, a now defunct fast-food joint that he laments could have been as big as McDonald’s. Robinson dressed nattily, and moved in the fast lane. Fat Jack bought him a Cadillac and first-class tickets to Detroit where he often negotiated drug deals and hung out with a nephew of ex-heavyweight champ Joe Louis and the Motown crowd.
One day, after returning from Detroit because “a business deal” had gone sour, Robinson went to visit Poohby at his apartment in Lenox Terrace, which in the ’70s was a fashionable refuge for some of Harlem’s elite who could not establish residence on the historic Strivers Row. Robinson found his old friend shivering on a soiled bed; he did not have money for a fix and was going through the early stages of a violent withdrawal. Poohby was one of “Heroin City’s” young millionaires who squandered his money, shooting up the high-grade junk he sold to his clientele. There he lay, squirming and frothing at the mouth, his eyes “rolling upside his head.” Poohby was the perfect example of a fallen ghetto dreamer—a fate young Buster feared was awaiting him.
Robinson helped Poohby to his feet. “He needed a shot of heroin kind of bad,” Robinson says. “I said, ‘We’ll go to my father’s restaurant and get money out of the cash register.’ ” By the time they got to Uncle Fat’s Chitlin’ House, Fat Jack had already removed the day’s earnings and locked it in a safe. Robinson canvassed all of Fat Jack’s safe houses in a desperate attempt to get the money for the heroin. They wound up in a restaurant and bar on 142nd Street and Riverside Drive, which was frequented by fat-cat white landlords and willowy tricks donning fake minks. Robinson told Poohby to wait at the counter while he made a phone call. Upon returning to the dining area, he saw Poohby waving a Saturday Night Special at the patrons.
“He was robbing the place; he had everybody in there with their hands up,” Robinson says, his reminiscences tinged with anger. “We was the only blacks in there except for a black woman who was sitting with one of the customers.” Robinson lit into his friend: “What the hell is going on?”
“Man, I gotta have something,” the jittery dope fiend replied. “I gotta have some drugs.”
The white patrons were not impressed by Robinson’s rebuke of his bandit pal. Some, according to Robinson, believed that it was part of a bad Hollywood act. Poohby jumped over the counter, cleaned out the cash register, and ran. “I ran out behind him. He had all of the money in his hand and in his pocket, and I’m following him, running down the street.”
Poohby flagged a gypsy cab and dove into the back seat. Robinson followed, all the while vamping on the junkie for almost getting him killed. Two cops chased after the taxi on foot. Suddenly, the terrified driver screeched to a stop and bailed out. “Poohby and I jumped out and ran, but the police caught me, handcuffed me, and took me to the precinct,” he says. Poohby vanished. But the cops caught him about an hour later. At their trial, the judge, according to Robinson, showed no mercy. He sentenced Poohby to 10 years behind bars. “Li’l Buster” from the projects, Fat Jack’s bagman, the street-smart kid who had dreamed of franchising Uncle Fat’s Chitlin’ House, now was a convicted thief. Three to 10. Up the river for the luckless accomplice in a two-bit stickup.
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.
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
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 11, 2000