Eye from Albany
Attica’s Untold Story
By Paul M. Bray
Americans generally don’t have long memories. The good side of this is we don’t carry the simmering grudges that last for centuries in places like the Balkans. On the other hand, this characteristic can lead to injustices being swept under the rug and hard lessons learned being easily forgotten. The prison uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in September 1971 that included “the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War” is a case in point.
Justice delayed is justice denied and that has happened in the case of the Forgotten Victims of Attica, the employees of the New York State Department of Corrections slain or injured while held hostage and their families. After more than three decades, justice may finally be unfolding for these victims of one of greatest human tragedies in State history.
The Attica uprising and what followed is an epic story that includes “deceit, cover-up and injustice.” On September 9, 1971, Attica inmates took control of the prison including forty-two hostages (correction employees and civilian employees) and held out for nearly five days. Four of the hostages were released and one corrections officer was killed in the initial take over.
For four days the inmates were in control of the prison. Negotiations were conducted with numerous officials and demands repeated to reporters. One of the convicts declared to the ad hoc committee of observers during the standoff, “We do not want to rule; we only want to livebut if any of you gentlemen own dogs, you’re treating them better than we’re treated here.”
State troopers retook the prison on September 13th firing more than 2000 rounds of ammunition. Thirty two inmates and eleven state employees were killed and more than eighty others were wounded during the 15 minutes it took to retake the prison from the convicts. At first the prison officials claimed that inmates killed ten hostages after castrating some of them. Autopsies showed that the hostages were killed by gunfire, mostly from the state police and some from correction officers. None had been castrated. The cover-up unfolded after the McKay Commission investigating the events at Attica concluded that there had been unjustified shooting. No indictments were handed down. Gov. Hugh Carey pardoned in 1976 everyone involved and sealed the state’s records of the incident for fifty years.
The families of the slain and surviving hostages were offered limited death benefits like $347.62 a month for a widow with four children and surviving hostages were offered paid leave. These offers included workers’ compensation funds, the acceptance of which barred the recipient from suing the state. Only Mrs. Herbert Jones, one of the widows, rejected the state’s offer, sued the state and was awarded $1 million in damages for the death of her husband
Twenty nine years after the assault, February 19, 200, widows, survivors and family members who were to organize as the Forgotten Victims of Attica gathered for the first time to talk about the prison riot and the state’s treatment of them. They were stirred to action by the State’s agreement to a $12 million settlement, $8 million for 1,280 inmates who claimed to have been beaten in reprisals and $4 million for their lawyers. The state admitted no wrongdoing or responsibility and made no offer to these survivors.
The Forgotten Victims have made a five point call for justice to the Governor, legislature and the public. They want the state to acknowledge responsibility for injuries inflicted, to open the state’s records on the riot, provide adequate counseling for those affected by the event and who still suffer emotional consequences, guarantee the right of survivors to conduct their own memorial service at the monument on prison grounds every September 13th and fair reparations. Long-denied justice is on the horizon.
Commissioner of Correctional Services Glenn Goord declared in his opening remarks before a hearing on May 9, 2002 in Rochester before Governor Pataki’s Attica Task Force that, “For 30 years, the state of New York did not hear from the employees who survived being taken hostage at Attica in 1971. It denied a voice to the survivors of the employees killed there”. The Commissioner went on to say “Governor Pataki intends that you will be forgotten no longer.” The Task Force is made up of Commissioner Goord, Senator Dale M. Volker and Assemblymember Arthur O. Eve.
The testimony in Rochester was poignant. Hostage, John Stockholm spoke about not being able to clear his head of the sounds of September 13. “You could hear the sounds and smell of pain and death,” Stockholm is reported in the Democrat and Chronicle as telling the task force. “And they’ve haunted me for over 30 years. It keeps replaying in my nightmares.” Hostages and their families offered testimony “that the hostages were allowed six months off from work and told they’d continue to be paid. What was not made evident to them, they said, was that there were receiving workers’ compensation.” The lawyer for a hostage widow said the state appeared determined to ensure that Attica hostages received as little as possible. The state even refused to pay hostages for all of the time they were held captive.
The hearings have adjourned to reconvene in Albany to hear testimony for outside parties that the Forgotten Victims want to be heard. One of these witnesses will be Malcolm Bell, a Special Assistant Attorney General in the Attica investigation who wrote a powerful expose of the obstructed Attica investigation entitled Turkey Shot.
Legislation to compensate the victim hostages and their families deemed too little, too late has previously been introduced in the State Legislature. Now that the victim’s story is beginning to be heard, let this process not end before full justice is provided for them. The ball is now in the court of the Governor and Legislature to provide reparations.
Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is PMBRAY@aol.com.