A SHAMEFUL HISTORY LAID BARE: ‘Blood in the Water,’ which has been nominated for a National Book Award, details the harsh conditions that led to the 1971 Attica prison riot, actions by those who stormed the correctional facility that resulted in the deaths of 10 hostages and 29 inmates, and attempts to cover up what occurred by claiming the hostages had been fatally stabbed when in fact they died of bullet wounds.

The uprising at Attica State Correctional Facility happened 45 years ago, but the case was still in the news in 2015. The decades of investigations and litigation that followed the four-day revolt produced to a sorry story of brutality, lying and fraud by government officials from correction officers and State Troopers right up through Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. It is a tale that the state has fought to suppress.

It is this story that University of Michigan historian Heather Ann Thompson tells in “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy” (Pantheon Books). She spent 10 years researching it, and it shows. The publisher billed it as “the first definitive history” of the rebellion and its aftermath.

‘Kept From the Public’

“Blood in the Water,” a finalist for the National Book Awards, is very readable—not in academic style at all—but its scenes of attacks on prisoners may make the reader want to put it down and take a break.

“The most important details of this story have been deliberately kept from the public,” Ms. Thompson wrote in her introduction. “Literally thousands of boxes of documents relating to these events are sealed or next to impossible to access.”

She was surprised to find two sources of data that were unexpectedly open: court documents and state records stored away in a dim file room at the Erie County Courthouse, and bloody clothing and other physical evidence collected by the State Police that was kept in a warehouse of the New York State Museum in Albany. Both of those collections are no longer available to the researchers or the public.

Conditions at Attica were ripe for a rebellion in 1971. The food was not sufficient to nourish adult men, and with prison jobs paying as little as 6 cents an hour, many inmates could not afford to supplement their diet at the commissary. Clothing was inadequate for the harsh winters 30 miles east of Buffalo. Prisoners were issued one roll of toilet paper a month.

Indifferent Medical Care

Two part-time doctors whose racism and indifference were more obvious than their medical skills provided what little health care was offered. Inmates were disciplined by being locked in their small, dark cells for days or weeks.

Black and Latino prisoners were given the lowest-paying jobs and the harshest discipline. Officers who did not speak Spanish—virtually all of them—discarded letters written to Latino prisoners because they could not read them to censor them.

The prison was understaffed, and officers were given no training, just a baton, before being assigned to a cellblock. “Attica’s correction officers barely spoke to prisoners—preferring instead to convey their wishes with the butt of their batons,” Ms. Thompson wrote.

Finally, revolts had sprung up in jails in New York City and at the state prison at Auburn. Hundreds of inmates from Auburn and the city wound up in Attica.

Bottom Line Over Safety

Despite all these indicators, the prison Superintendent, Vincent Mancusi, and his deputies had no plans for dealing with an inmate uprising. One of the assistants responded to the concerns of a Lieutenant seeking additional security by complaining about overtime costs.

The pot boiled over Sept. 9, 1971, after a dispute between an inmate and a Correction Lieutenant turned physical and other prisoners fearing violent retribution resisted officers, then seized control of “Times Square,” the intersection of four main corridors.

William Quinn, a CO who saw the rebellion develop from inside a locked control room, could not seek help because the outdated phone system handled only one call at a time. Inmates broke through a defective gate and demanded his keys. He and two colleagues were then attacked with wood planks, fists and feet. Inmates carried the grievously wounded officer near a gate to the outside, but state officials took so long to remove him that doctors said the delay aggravated his injuries.

About 1,300 inmates gathered in D Yard. They had 42 hostages, both officers and civilian staffers. Many prisoners surrounded the hos­tages, protecting them from attacks by fellow inmates.

Civilian ‘Messengers’

Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald reluctantly agreed to talk to the prisoners, accompanied by Arthur Eve, a State Assemblyman from Buffalo, and prisoners’-rights lawyer Herman Schwartz. The inmates demanded that several outsiders be brought into the negotiations, including lawyer William Kunstler, Tom Wicker of the New York Times and a number of black and Latino activists.

The civilian observers gathered, but their effectiveness was limited. They basically ran between Mr. Oswald, who met face-to-face with the inmates once and refused to go back, and the prisoners’ negotiating committee. The state acceded to some of the prisoners’ demands, but refused to grant amnesty, a condition that grew in importance after Officer Quinn died.

Mr. Rockefeller refused to visit the prison despite entreaties from inmates and observers. He still had hopes of winning the Republican presidential nomination at some point, and knew that any appearance of being soft on prisoners would put them to rest.

Troopers Shot COs, Too

Hundreds of State Troopers, armed COs and Sheriff’s Deputies stood outside the prison for days, waiting for the order to go in. When Mr. Rockefeller decided to unleash them, many were exhausted and on edge. The operation was so poorly planned that no signal was prepared for officers to start and stop. (The State Police commander later burned the plans in his home fireplace, Ms. Thompson wrote.)

Law-enforcement officers moved in through a haze of tear gas, acting with minimal supervision through the catwalks and the prison yard, shouting racial epithets. They shot prisoners and hostages alike, using rifles and shotguns loaded with exploding bullets and deer slugs. Later, observers expressed horror that state officials had so little concern for the lives of their employees.

Prisoners, even those with untreated gunshot wounds, were stripped and beaten with batons before being driven back to their cells. Angry officers destroyed their personal property, including years’ worth of legal papers, and smashed dentures and eyeglasses. Inmates were denied medical care, starved and further abused. Both of the two part-time doctors cursed the inmates in racial terms, and at least one of them joined in the physical abuse, kicking an inmate in the face.

All this was attested to by National Guard members and outside physicians called to the scene. Appearing in response to a suit filed by prisoners in 1982, Mr. Oswald testified that Troopers and COs had used excessive force.

Top state officials met at Mr. Rockefeller’s house to get their stories straight. DOCS and Mr. Rockefeller lied to reporters and even to President Nixon, saying that the hostages were slain by inmates with knives. In fact, all 10 hostages who died when authorities stormed the prison were killed with bullets, and the prisoners had no guns. Twenty-nine inmates were shot to death. But prisoners and some outsiders said at least three of the inmates were alive when State Troopers took control of the facility, then shot afterwards.

Castration Claim False

Mr. Rockefeller told Mr. Nixon that an officer had been castrated. Mr. Oswald told reporters the same thing. One of his deputies, Walter Dunbar, announced that authorities had the supposed castration—which was important in forestalling public sympathy for the prisoners—on film.

In fact, the officer, Michael Smith, was shot four times by State Troopers and his intestines were falling out of his body. Even so, he survived. Officers who tortured inmate Frank Smith (no relation) after the state regained control referred to the castration that never happened, threatening to repeat it on him.

Mr. Rockefeller was dismayed by the results of the autopsies that showed the hostages were killed by law-enforcement bullets, not by inmates cutting their throats. His office fueled a whispering campaign against the Monroe County Medical Examiner, Dr. John Edland, who was called a Communist and received telephoned death threats. However, his findings were confirmed by a well-known expert, Dr. Michael Baden, who a few years later would become Chief Medical Examiner for New York City.

Meanwhile, State Police and DOCS investigators—and no one else—interrogated the prisoners. In the process, they not only violated inmates’ rights but destroyed or buried evidence such as shell casings that put state employees in a bad light, Ms. Thompson wrote.

Evidence vs. Cons Shaky

After a couple of convictions, attempts to prosecute the prisoners collapsed because jurors refused to accept the flimsy evidence collected by the Troopers. Malcolm Bell, a prosecutor working for the Deputy State Attorney General in charge of the Attica cases, Anthony Simonetti, became a whistleblower, charging that the state was going after inmates but ignoring wrongdoing by Troopers and COs.

In testifying before one of the commissions set up to investigate the uprising, Mr. Rockefeller “explained that he personally had little involvement with any decisions that had been made at Attica because of ‘his belief in delegating authority to subordinates in whom he had faith,’” Ms. Thompson wrote. “Rockefeller repeatedly dodged any personal responsibility for the debacle, but it was none­theless clear…that his office had complete agency over the event.”

She used the word “swindled” to describe the way the state treated the hostages’ survivors. Mr. Oswald and aides to Mr. Rockefeller assured them they would be taken care of, but told them to register for Workers’ Compensation. By doing so, they gave up their right to sue the state. One woman was awarded $36 a week, payments that would end when her daughter turned 16.

A Measure of Justice

In 2000, U.S. District Judge Michael Telesca—one of the few government officials who acquitted himself well in the Attica story—approved a $12-million settlement to be divided among survivors of prisoners who had died. Five years later, after hostage survivors demanded to be taken care of as well, he set up a compensation scheme for the same amount of money covering widows as well as hostages living and dead. The state agreed to these latter payments under pressure.

When three COs finally went on trial in 2015, for a brutal assault in 2011 on an inmate at Attica, they were allowed to plead to a single charge of misdemeanor misconduct, and none served prison time. But it was nonetheless historic: the first time in the state’s history that officers were prosecuted for brutality against a prisoner.


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