Legacy of Deadly Attica Riot Is Nonviolence : Prisons: Authorities say they learned the value of patience in hostage situations. Twenty years later, conditions at the New York state penitentiary are better.
It was the most violent episode in an unusually violent time of American history, the bloodiest one-day clash of this century.
Yet the most lasting legacy of the deadly riot at New York’s Attica state prison may have been one of nonviolence. Authorities confronted by hostage-taking prisoners say the events of Sept. 13, 1971, taught them to be patient and peaceable.
No prison riot in the 20 years since has ended in as lethal a fashion as when state police and corrections officers stormed Attica after a four-day standoff, killing 10 hostages and 29 inmates in the process of regaining control.
When prisoners at Southport Correctional Facility, New York’s toughest prison, took three guards hostage in May, authorities talked to them and waited. They met the prisoners’ demand to be interviewed on television, and the inmates surrendered.
“I think it took something like Attica to show people in the corrections business that there’s a better way to do it than (with) guns,” state Corrections Commissioner Thomas A. Coughlin said.
Authorities in Maryland remembered the lesson of Attica when inmates at a prison in Baltimore held two guards hostage for 23 hours in July, said Greg Shipley of the Maryland Division of Corrections.
“It’s something that I think has affected hostage situations all over, whether in prison or in the street,” Shipley said. “Time is on our side and there was certainly no rush to end it through the use of force.”
The Attica uprising began as most prison riots do. Overcrowding, boredom and what prisoners felt was a lack of attention to their complaints created a tense situation that exploded after a minor altercation between guards and two inmates.
A group of inmates overpowered their guards and charged toward the prison’s control center, a corridor junction known as “Times Square.” A faulty gate gave way and the inmates were in control. They took 40 guards and civilian employees hostage and poured into a recreation yard.
Corrections officials negotiated with the inmates for the better part of three days, but talks broke down when a corrections officer, William Quinn, died of injuries suffered during the takeover and Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller refused to grant the inmates amnesty.
Rockefeller, ignoring pleas from a group of observers that he come to the prison, ordered state police to retake the prison on the morning of Sept. 13.
The police, backed by a few corrections officers, opened fire on inmates who were armed only with homemade knives and clubs. They shot to death 10 of the hostages and 29 inmates. Three other inmates were later found to have been murdered by other prisoners.
Most of those involved in the riot believe now that Rockefeller, who died in 1979, moved in too soon. They said he should have come to the prison to see the situation before ordering the assault.
“Had he made his presence known, I think he would have defused that radical element and there would have been no need for a massacre,” said former inmate Herbert Blyden, one of the rebellion’s leaders.
The inmates sued Rockefeller and 11 other state officials, but a federal judge in Buffalo two years ago ruled that Rockefeller’s estate was not liable because the governor was not involved in planning details of the attack.
The judge refused to dismiss the suit against two lesser state officials and the estates of two others. That trial is to begin Sept. 30.
Attica, 35 miles east of Buffalo, is still one of New York’s most feared maximum-security prisons.
“When I first came here, I was a little intimidated by the name alone,” said inmate Mark Thompson, 34, of Buffalo, who is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.
The prison, whose best-known resident today is Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s assassin, is not the hellhole it was in 1971.
It houses about 2,100 inmates, about 200 fewer than at the time of the riot. Their pay has been raised. They spend more time out of their cells. Visiting hours have been extended and the inmates are allowed to have black-and-white televisions in their cells.
The cellblock that was most heavily damaged in the riot has been rebuilt as an honor block for well-behaved inmates. It is lined with potted plants. The cells are 50% larger than others and the inmates can cook in them.
“Pretty comfortable, for jail,” said honor block inmate Kenneth Zerweck, 44, of Brooklyn, who is serving 25 years to life for second-degree murder.
Billy Booker, an inmate who was at Attica during the riot and was returned on a new conviction eight years ago, said that not all the changes have been for the better.
“I would have to say there’s more permissiveness now,” he said, “but you don’t know where you stand. . . . Today, you don’t know what you can or can’t do. Rules are made on the spur of the moment. You get certain rules and guidelines that are applicable only when the individual feels like it.”
Sgt. David Beitz, a corrections officer who has worked at Attica since a year before the riot, said the changes have made another riot less likely.
“It keeps them occupied,” he said. “Back in ’70, ’71, people were locked in their cells after the supper meal and they stayed locked up until the next morning.”
The uprising left deep wounds in the town of 2,630 in New York’s dairy country. Many people knew a guard or civilian who was killed or injured.
Robert Kirkpatrick, who took a job as a guard at Attica two years after the riot that killed Quinn, his next-door neighbor, said townspeople do not like to remember the uprising except on the anniversary. This year, guards will conduct a memorial service at a monument outside the prison’s front gate.
“It was a real bad experience those guys went through,” said Kirkpatrick, now a supervisor at the prison. “You have to realize, they lived hell, not just for one day but for several weeks afterward.”
Some inmates commemorate the event each year by fasting. On major anniversaries there often is some sort of demonstration within the prison, corrections officers said.
Other inmates, fearful of antagonizing the guards on whose good will they depend, plan to ignore it.
“I’m going out for a visit with my wife,” Zerweck said. “I stay out of it. I’ve got a nice, comfortable setup.”