In 2011, the three guards in New York state beat inmate George Williams so badly that he suffered two broken legs, broken ribs, a broken shoulder and a severe fracture of his eye socket, among other injuries. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Tom Robbins of The Marshall Project about his reporting in collaboration with the New York Times.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
What would have been an unprecedented trial of New York State prison guards on brutality charges was averted at the last moment. Three guards at the Attica Correctional Facility pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charge of misconduct yesterday, rather than go to trial. With that plea, they will lose their jobs, but will not serve time. The guards were charged with the beating of inmate George Williams in 2011. He suffered two broken legs, broken ribs, a broken shoulder, a fractured eye socket and, according to fellow inmates, was left begging for his life. The events in the case were detailed in The New York Times over the weekend by Tom Robbins. He's with The Marshall Project, and he joins me now. Tom, welcome to the program.
TOM ROBBINS: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: You spoke with this inmate, George Williams, and there are other accounts from inmates who were in his cellblock that day in 2011. How do they describe what happened to him?
ROBBINS: Inmates on C Block in Attica described three guards leading George Williams down the galley into a small room where they then assaulted him. And they described him being kicked as many as 50 times, beaten with batons at least a dozen times and struck with fists. One of them said that when they finally stopped beating him and they brought him out of the room, he thought he was wearing a red shirt. But then he realized that he was covered in blood.
BLOCK: Attica is, we should say, a maximum-security prison. The officers' version, as I understand it, is that Williams was resisting the officers. They were frisking him for a drug test. They believed he was holding weapons. Is their version plausible?
ROBBINS: Well, the district attorney of Wyoming County didn't believe so. They were indicted for gang assault for having beaten him. Their version is similar to that which is provided by guards repeatedly inside Attica - that inmates suddenly erupt while being frisked, and it forces them to put them down to the ground and cuff them. And they claim that the injuries resulted from that. I found it hard to believe.
BLOCK: In this case, George Williams was taken to the prison infirmary, and it was a nurse there who said his injuries were so extensive he had to go to the hospital. Williams told you she saved his life - that nurse saved his life.
BLOCK: What usually happens in use of force cases at Attica?
ROBBINS: In every other instance what had happened was that they were taken to solitary, known as the box inside prison. And they were then brought up on charges and usually remained there for - sometimes years. And their story never gets told.
BLOCK: And in terms of the prison guards, how often have they been punished for excessive use of force?
ROBBINS: Well, this was the first time in New York State history that New York State correction officers had been criminally charged for a non-sexual assault of an inmate. So that gives you an idea of how rare this was.
BLOCK: We're talking, of course, about Attica, which is notorious for the 1971 inmate uprising and then the bloodbath that resulted when police ultimately stormed the prison to retake control. Forty-three people died then - guards, inmates, civilians, nearly all of them killed by police bullets when they stormed the facility. How does that prison revolt overshadow practices at Attica now? It's been nearly 45 years after that.
ROBBINS: It is something that looms over everything that happens at the facility, at least as far as the employees go. At one time, it was something that inmates marked as well - the day the state police retook the facility. But that's stopped over the years because most of them don't know about it or are scared to do anything that would mark the event. So it's a pretty one-sided observation at this point. But every guard there is well aware of what happened, and it's one of the things that everybody talks about that informs their every decision and every move. They don't want this ever to happen again.
BLOCK: The three prison guards in this case had rejected a plea deal before. They claimed they did nothing wrong. They wanted to keep their jobs. But they did finally agree to this plea on the day the jury selection was about to begin. Why now?
ROBBINS: Well, you know, I think that looking at the possibility of spending years in the same kind of prisons that they were paid to police, they decided that they weren't going to take a chance.
BLOCK: They pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. They get to keep their pensions. What does George Williams, the former inmate in this case who was beaten - what does he have to say about the plea?
ROBBINS: Well, yesterday George told me he thought it was crazy. And I asked him what he would say to the guards if he could speak to them. He said, well, I'd wish them a nice life and send them a postcard. I think George is pretty overwhelmed by the whole thing at this point. He does have a civil lawsuit pending in federal court where he hopes to get some compensation for the damages that were done to him.
BLOCK: And how is he doing now?
ROBBINS: I think he's struggling. When I met George just after Thanksgiving, he had just gotten out of a secondary charge that he'd had in a Jersey facility. And, you know, he was still - he had a handkerchief that he kept using to dab at his nose. And I said, is that something to do with the beating, 'cause I knew that he'd had severe damage to his maxillary sinuses. And he said, yeah, I've got that, and I've still got some problems with my vision in one eye - is sunk in worse than the other. My leg hurts. I've got nightmares. He was not in good shape. This incident, I think, has left him permanently scarred. He felt that he was going to get killed.
BLOCK: Are the problems that this case exposed unique to Attica in New York State, or is this endemic in the prison system?
ROBBINS: Inmates and observers from the correctional associations tell me that there are problems in all the maximum-security facilities that are similar to that, but that Attica is especially bad because of this festering fear that lingers from this terrible riot that happened there so long ago.
BLOCK: Well, Tom Robbins, thanks so much for talking with us today.
ROBBINS: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: Tom Robbins is with The Marshall Project. It's a nonprofit news organization that focuses on criminal justice issues. It's named after the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.