Frank Smith, 70; Inmate Negotiator Helped Win Damages for Attica Riot
Frank “Big Black” Smith, a former inmate who was tortured in the aftermath of the bloody 1971 Attica prison uprising and went on to become the voice of his fellow prisoners in a 25-year lawsuit against New York state, died Saturday in Kingston, N.C., after a long battle with cancer. He was 70.
Smith, who became a paralegal after his release from prison, helped steer former inmates through a legal battle with the state that ultimately ended in 2000 with a $12-million settlement.
“He persevered all of the years because he believed in what we were doing and because what happened in the [prison] yard changed him,” said Elizabeth Fink, a New York City lawyer who was the lead attorney for the Attica inmates.
A strapping man with a baritone voice, Smith was appointed by fellow inmates to keep prisoners under control amid negotiations after 40 prison employees were taken hostage during a four-day standoff at Attica that began Sept. 9, 1971.
The uprising involving nearly 1,300 inmates erupted after several months of complaints about prison conditions. It ended in the deaths of 32 inmates and 11 prison employees, most of whom died after Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered state troopers to storm the prison and assert control.
After the rebellion was put down and the guards took over, Smith was falsely accused of castrating a guard who had been taken hostage. Forced to lie naked on a table, he was burned with cigarettes and hot shell casings. He later testified that he was ordered to hold a football under his chin, and was threatened with castration and death if he allowed the ball to drop. Guards also reportedly played Russian roulette with a gun aimed at Smith’s head.
Smith, who was serving time in Attica for the armed robbery of a dice game, was indicted for his role in the riot but was granted amnesty by Gov. Hugh Carey. He was released from prison in 1973 and eventually received $375,000 as part of the settlement.
Smith later became an advocate for the Forgotten Victims of Attica, made up of surviving hostages and relatives of the dead prison guards. The group, which has long charged that families were urged to accept limited benefits that effectively barred them from suing the state, has lobbied for a settlement that is at least equal to the prisoners’ $12-million award.
“He was a real peacemaker in the Christian sense,” said U.S. District Judge Michael Telesca, who decided how the Attica settlement was to be divided.
Smith grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. After leaving prison, he kicked a drug addiction and worked as a substance abuse counselor.
He married in 1983 and studied to be a paralegal. He later worked as an investigator for lawyers.
He is survived by his wife, Pearl.