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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
How did you become involved? I decided I was interested in criminal law, and the best way to learn criminal law is in a prosecutor’s office. So I answered a blind ad — it didn’t say what it was about; it just said it wanted prosecutors — on the back page of the New York Law Journal. That would have been August of ’73.
A bunch of inmates who had been indicted were going to trial pretty soon, and [Assistant Attorney General Anthony Simonetti] needed more lawyers to try those cases, so he hired me and a bunch of other guys.
What signs led you to believe there might be a cover-up? We had a minuscule staff. And there was a decision to investigate the four homicides by inmates before the 39 homicides by the law officers. In other words, it was a chronological investigation of the crimes, which was superficially logical, but it obviously protected the police, who [had] killed people. And for a long time our office was using state police as investigators — how was that going to work? Those were things I put together when I began to smell a live rat.
August 1974 was the turning point. I had three cases [of officers] I wanted to get indictments on. [My boss] wouldn’t let me do it, and he wouldn’t explain why. Then we went on recess. During that recess, Nixon resigned, Gerry Ford became president, and Gerry Ford nominated Rockefeller [as vice president]. I was called back early from vacation and told that we’re stopping these shooter cases dead in their tracks.
Why did you leave the job? It was one thing after another, and finally a person called me who I knew should know what he’s talking about. He said the tapes that the state police had made of their conversations between the prison and their headquarters in Albany during the riot existed. (We had been told under oath that they had been routinely reused, which makes no sense — that the state police would destroy their tapes of the biggest day in their history, the only day they shot 128 people ever.)
I went back to the office and said, “Look, we’ve got to go to the police and get these things right away.” For that, I was suspended.
Who was behind this cover-up? I am certain that Simonetti was not the intellectual author of this cover-up. I believe that it was Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, and I would not be surprised if there was participation by members of Rockefeller’s executive chamber. Whether Rockefeller was involved or just sat back and enjoyed the benefits of what his minions were doing, I cannot say.
What did you do next? I wrote a report of all the stuff I’ve been telling you and a whole lot more, and I sent it off to newly-elected Governor Carey. Nothing happened. I called his secretary, and she said it’s sitting on his desk. And nothing happened. So I got disgusted and went to Tom Wicker at The New York Times and went public.
Do you feel your struggle has ended? As far as prosecuting any of the shooters or the obstructors of justice, that’s not going to happen. The people who could be convicted of murder — there are five of them, I think, maybe six — there’s no statute of limitations, but I just don’t see it will ever happen.
Quinn is the daughter of Officer William Quinn, the only guard killed by prisoners. She is a member of the Forgotten Victims of Attica.
Where were you when the rebellion began? I was five years old at the time, so I must have been in first grade. I remember being at home and my mother running around. From the day of [September] 9th on, myself and my sister stayed at our grandparents’ because my mother was at the hospital with my dad.
Did anyone tell you your father had been killed? My mother says she just told us flat-out that he’s not coming home, [but] I have no memory of that. I think that’s something my psyche decided to black out.
As you grew older, what did you learn about the rebellion? The riot was a fiasco. There were plenty of things that could have been done to make sure the riot never occurred. My father was so sure that something was going to happen in that prison that he actually sat down with my mom two weeks before the riot and said, “I have to go over all the bills, the insurance we have, everything. I need you to know this stuff.”
My grandfather was a guard at the time. He was a meat cutter within the prison. My grandmother used to bake cookies for the inmates that my grandfather used to work with. My grandfather, I think, regarded some of those inmates as friends. Certainly when the riot went down and my grandfather was in the prison, those inmates saved his life by getting him out.
How was your family treated by the state of New York? Our parents were completely gypped out of the opportunity to sue the state of New York. The state of New York filed a workman’s compensation claim on behalf of my father, [and] within days after they buried my dad and the other men, the widows received a compensation check. Upon cashing them, they lost their right to sue the state.
We received $112 every two weeks — that was for myself, my sister, and my mother. After my father’s funeral, my mother couldn’t figure out why she was always ill. The doctor said, “I think we need to do a pregnancy test.” Six weeks after my father was buried, my mother found out she was pregnant. So I have a sister who never knew her father.
Besides state officials, how did other people treat you in the wake of the rebellion? The community of Attica was amazing. People were very, very supportive. The other widows lived in Attica, so when we went to school we weren’t alone. There were 11 families that lost their dads.
People from all over the world sent money into a fund for widows because they knew, in the 1970s, women didn’t work. So who’s going to help pay the bills? My mother tells me of a time when our furnace no longer worked. She went to this fund and got enough money to replace the furnace in our home.
How many people are members of the Forgotten Victims of Attica? Maybe 50 to 70 people. We meet every Monday night, and at those meetings there are anywhere from 20 to 40 people. These are all survivors. They could be brothers and sisters of a slain correction officer. They could be relatives of a hostage.
We each have our own beliefs. [Some] people [say]: “The [state] troopers were right. They went in. They did their job. They didn’t want to kill anybody.” And you have people who say, “The troopers sucked. They wanted to kill everybody. They didn’t give a rat’s ass for anybody’s life.” I have family members who still think the guards were killed because the inmates slit their throats. But, you know, we’re respectful of everybody’s opinion.
What does your organization want? One of the things that our group wants more than any kind of money is [to be] acknowledged for who we are — people who got totally screwed out of this deal — and for the truth to be told.
The premiere of Ghosts of Attica, a documentary, will be held at the Museum of Television and Radio at 25 West 52nd Street on September 5 at 6 p.m. Afterward, there will be a panel discussion about the film, featuring Frank Smith and others. Call 212-621-6600 or visit media.paleycenter.org.
Ghosts of Attica will air on Court TV at 9 p.m. on September 9. The Killing Yard, starring Alan Alda and Morris Chestnut, will air on Showtime at 8 p.m. on September 23.