Attica Prison uprising 40 years later

Buffalo, NY – 40-years ago Tuesday one of the bloodiest and deadliest prison uprisings in U.S. history ended at the Attica Correctional Facility in Wyoming County.

43-people were killed, most by police retaking the prison on the morning of the fifth day. New details of what happened are slowly emerging.

How do we know the full truth about those days 40 years ago? More than 1,200 inmates rebelled against inhumane living conditions at Attica Prison. One guard died during the first minutes of the riot, the only guard killed by inmates.

Ten guards were later killed by police during the retaking of the prison on the morning of the fifth day. State officials at first said the dead hostages were killed by the inmates who held them, their throats cut, survivors were mutilated.

"A prison official reported to the AP that I was emasculated and my testicles were stuffed in my mouth. Never happened," said former guard and hostage Michael Smith.

Monroe County medical examiner Dr. John Edland completed the autopsies. "All eight cases died of gunshot wounds," he reported. Only the police had guns.

State officials ordered their own autopsy. The finding was the same. Police had killed their own.

"People, whoever, in the helicopter come in, dropped the gas," said Former hostage, guard Gary Walker

Former inmate Herbert X. Blyden died in 1997. "It was mass confusion, mass confusion."

"You could hear the shootin' and the hollerin' and the screamin'," said Walker.

"They came in to kill, they didn't come in just to retake the prison," said Blyden.

Inmates had wanted Governor Nelson Rockefeller to come to Attica and meet with them directly. One of the hostages, Sgt. Edward Cunningham: "If he says no, I'm dead."

On the morning of the third day Correction Officer William Quinn died of injuries sustained two days earlier.

"Negotiations went south after that," said former hostage Michael Smith.

All inmates could now face life terms or the death penalty for felony murder. They demanded amnesty. "That was one demand the state couldn't grant," says Smith.

A National Guard helicopter dumped CN and CS gas over the prison. Officers fired through the gas clouds. They hit inmates and hostages alike. Among those killed was the guard Edward Cunningham.

"It was just awful. The worst thing I've ever seen in my life," says former state Assemblyman Arthur Eve of Buffalo. He was among a group of observers brought in to oversee negotiations. He was shocked by the onslaught, and believes Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon were trying to show they were tough on crime.

"Rockefeller and Nixon were trying to prove a point," said Eve. "They didn't prove it."

In a recording stored in the national archives in Washington, Rockefeller phoned Nixon on September 14th, 1971, the day after the retaking:

Nixon: "You did the right thing and don't let em get you down,huh?"

Rockefeller: "Well, uh "

Nixon: "Listen, I think you've got great support on this, I really do."

Rockefeller tells Nixon he worries about the initial reports. "We got a little problem of identification as to how the people were killed," he says on the tape.

Nixon: "You mean "

"Rockefeller: "That's a case, it might be something where some of them were shot by the guards, but that's life."

Nixon: "You saved a lot of the guards."

Rockefeller: They say two of them got out."

"Nixon: "That's what I mean."

"Rockefeller: So, uh "

Nixon: "So it was worth it. Don't give an inch."

Rockefeller: "Don't worry."

Arthur Eve says, "Both the guards and the inmates were victimized, There's no question. they were both victims."

"It was very difficult for me to say anything kind about any of the inmates at all," said Deanne Quinn Miller. She is the daughter of the guard William Quinn who was slain by inmates in the chaos of the first minutes of the riot. In later years, she helped found Forgotten Victims of Attica, on behalf of the guards and state employees and their families.

Miller heard stories about inmates beating guards, and she heard something else. "I heard stories of inmates who came to help our corrections officers. But I hadn't known any of that, because in my world that I lived in, I had a very sheltered view of what happened at Attica."

Miller read the original list of inmate demands. "They'd like more than one roll of toilet paper a month, they would like diversity in magazines they get, they would like their officers to be bilingual so there could be adequate communication. There were many things on there that I didn't think were too bad.

"There were really no sides in the end," says Miller. "We are all people who had family members killed during this horrific event."

There were only nine convictions in the uprisings, all of them inmates. In 1976, Governor Hugh Carey pardoned eight of them and commuted the murder charge of the man convicted of killing William Quinn. He gave blanket immunity to the police.

In the 40 years since the bloodshed, no governor has apologized for what happened.

"The one thing we'd like to see is an apology and opening the records," said Deanne Quinn Miller. She adds, "That just scares a lot of people to death."