By William M. Kunstier
September 13th marked the 20th anniversary of the retaking of D-Yard at the Attica State Correctional Facility—a maximum-security penitentiary in upstate New York—by the authorities. The military assault on the yard by an army of state troopers, correction officers and sheriff’s deputies resulted in the deaths of 33 inmates and 10 hostages, as well as severe injuries to scores of other prisoners. Many died from loss of blood or lack of adequate medical attention because of the state’s failure to provide enough physicians, nurses and plasma for the anticipated number of casualties. Following the attack, inmates were forced to run a gauntlet of baton-wielding officers or were otherwise brutalized.
Some 17 years ago, a devoted band of attorneys who had been involved in the legal proceedings that followed the retaking of the facility, filed a class action suit on behalf of the affected inmates in federal court in Buffalo, NY. The suit sought damages for both the brutality practiced against their clients and the lack of planning for adequate medical and personnel resources. The original defendants included the estate of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Correction Commissioner Russell Oswald, Warden Vincent Mancusi and his chief deputy. Although the Rockefeller attorneys succeeded in obtaining an order of dismissal for the estate, the suit against the other defendants has just been sustained by a federal appellate court, which also directed that a prompt trial take place.
In order to prepare for this trial—which, it is estimated, may take as long as six or seven months—an Attica Justice Committee has been formed. Among its hundred or so members are Susan Sarandon, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Spike Lee, Father Daniel Berrigan, Ramsey Clark, Bishop Paul Moore and painters Leon Golub and Nancy Spero. The committee’s purpose is to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the uprising and to support the Attica plaintiffs and their families during the Buffalo trial. The trial’s budget is being estimated at $100,000, out of which the expenses of transporting many witnesses to Buffalo will be met. These include Dr. Michael Baden, the former New York City medical examiner; New York Times columnist Tom Wicker; and Malcom Bell, who, as an assistant New York state attorney general, exposed the unfair prosecution of the Attica inmates in his book, Turkey Shoot, which led Governor Hugh Carey to order the dismissal of all the charges against them.
As one of the observers requested by the inmates, I, along with the other members of our small group, spent the four days prior to the September 13 invasion attempting to persuade Gov. Rockefeller not to retake D-Yard by force until all efforts to effect a peaceful resolution had been explored. Tragically, we were unsuccessful. On the morning of the 13th, a Monday, I stood at the entrance to the prison watching officers stream through the gates, many shouting “Save me a nigger!” I could smell the CS gas dropped from hovering helicopters and listened, with tears in my eyes, to the staccato popping of what I later learned were rounds of double-O buckshot being emptied into the bodies of inmates and hostages alike. As long as I live, I will never forget those sounds and smells. Nor can I forget how a trooper tried to run me down with his car as I left the gate after the shooting had stopped.
Our last contact with the rebellious prisoners took place on Sunday, September 12. On that day we entered D-Yard along with a television crew from WGR-TV in Buffalo, who would eventually tape the pleas of some of the hostages that the authorities hold off any attempts to end the takeover until further negotiations could be held. Just before we left the facility, Commissioner Oswald showed us a document he was about to send into the yard. It contained a false statement that we were in agreement with him that the inmates should surrender. We implored him not to deliver it, because we felt that it might cost us our lives.
Despite his assurance that he would not send it in, he did so anyway. We were then asked, for the first time, to sign a general release on behalf of ourselves and our heirs indicating that if anything happened to us inside the yard, the state could not be held liable. I am firmly convinced that Commissioner Oswald and others in the correction hierarchy—and perhaps the Governor as well—were hoping that we would be branded as traitors by the inmates and slain, so that a planned attack by the state could be legitimized in the public view. Fortunately, the inmates were far more understanding than the authorities, and did not fall for this grotesque attempt to give justification to an assault. After the latter had taken place, the press was told it had been necessary because inmates were cutting the throats of their hostages. This turned out to be a lie. Two days later, the Monroe County Coroner announced that there had been no throats cut, and that all of the casualties were the result of gunfire.
It is hoped that the pending lawsuit will reveal not only the perfidy of the prison officials, but their refusal to respond to the many grievances filed by the inmates until their frustrations led them to explode during that September of so long ago. But its real value will be to emphasize that conditions in our penitentiaries are, if anything, worse than they were in 1971, as can be seen from the recent rebellion at the Southport Correctional Facility near Elmira, NY. It is sad beyond words that, as Santayana once put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
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