A first-person account of what really happened at Attica prison in September 1971.
By **Tad Crawford**
Forty years ago this month, more than 1,000 inmates seized over 30 correction officers as hostages and took control of a substantial portion of the maximum security Attica State Correctional Facility in upstate New York. The predominantly black inmates demanded, in part, complete amnesty and the absence of any reprisals for the uprising, immediate transportation to a non-imperialist country, freedom to be active politically, the right to communicate with anyone, an end to censorship of reading materials, coverage by state minimum wage laws, religious freedom, competent medical care, better diets, more recreation, less cell time, and realistic rehabilitation.
On both Thursday and Friday, the Commissioner of Correctional Services, Russell Oswald, entered the inmate-controlled areas to negotiate for the release of the hostages. While 500 heavily armed state troopers and a helicopter carrying CS tear gas stood by, civilian observers and negotiators—including William Kunstler, the attorney, Bobby Seale, chairman of the Black Panther party, and Tom Wicker of the New York Times—arrived at the inmates’ request and were permitted to enter the prison.
Late Saturday night, after more days of tense negotiation in which Commissioner Oswald had conceded nearly all the inmates’ demands relating to the administration of the prison, news came of the death from injuries in the revolt of twenty-eight year old Correction Officer William Quinn. Now the negotiations narrowed to one insoluble issue—amnesty. Both the inmates and the civilian negotiators demanded that Governor Rockefeller himself join the negotiations, but on Sunday the Governor unequivocally rejected either participating in the negotiations or granting amnesty.
By Monday morning, while inmates held hostages at knifepoint in “Times Square,” the intersection of the crosswalks dividing the open prison yards, 1,000 state troopers and correction officers readied their final assault. A deadline for the inmates’ surrender passed at 8 A.M., another at 8:46, the last at 9:00. At 9:45 a circling helicopter began filling the prison yards with tear gas. At 9:46 the assaulting force entered behind a tremendous hail of gunfire that cut down inmates and hostages alike.
At 9:52 the order came to ceasefire. Immediately National Guard units entered the prison to begin the medical evacuation. The final toll of the revolt was 43 dead—32 inmates and 11 hostages—all but four of whom died of gunshot wounds during the final assault. More than 80 inmates were wounded. The violent controversy aroused by Attica was reflected in the report—one year later—of the New York State Special Commission on Attica. This report criticized “indiscriminate shooting,” “vengeful reprisals,” and the failure to have medical support units adequately prepared to immediately enter the prison. The revolt led to an examination of prison conditions that holds implications for today’s penal system where more than 2.4 million Americans are incarcerated.
The following is my contemporaneous personal account of Attica. My National Guard unit was held over Sunday night after a routine weekend drill. The next morning we left the armory in a convoy of trucks to aid in the medical evacuation of Attica.
My face stung and tears poured from my eyes. The helicopters swept back and forth, spewing their tear gas into the yards of Attica prison. We stared from the back of our National Guard truck over the 24-foot cement walls topped by barbed wire stretched from watchtower to watchtower.
“DO NOT RESIST. NO ONE WILL BE HARMED. THROW DOWN YOUR WEAPONS. DO NOT RESIST,” the loudspeaker blared from one of the helicopters while the tear gas rose from the yards in a thick cloud.
“We’re going in,” said Private First Class Wells. His eyes reddened with the tear gas and he kept a hand uncertainly on the pouch for his gas mask.
“But what about the hostages?” I asked. He and I had tried to convince ourselves ever since the convoy left the armory at daybreak that the prisoners would have to give up. Or Governor Rockefeller might still intervene. But our logic had been eroded by each event—the night in the armory, the motor march to the assembly area, the movement to where the convoy of trucks parked on the grass beyond the prison walls, the impenetrable tear gas obscuring the helicopters.
“DO NOT RESIST. THROW DOWN YOUR WEAPONS. DO NOT RESIST.”
I liked Wells, partly because he didn’t hate the prisoners. Others, like Sergeant Prenger, didn’t conceal their hatred. But Wells had sided with me.
“They shouldn’t kill anyone,” he had said to Prenger. “I hope no one is killed.”
Once Wells learned that I had just finished law school, he began to ask me questions very respectfully.
“Can you imagine being a hostage?”
No, I couldn’t. We talked of the horror of prison life, although neither of us could really imagine that either.
“Mount up. Let’s go. Mount up.” A slender lieutenant, young and worried, ran along the line of trucks.
I could feel [the trooper’s] triumph at the killing, their pride as they watched the hundreds of naked prisoners face down in the mud of one of the prison yards below.
We followed his orders without hesitation. We all piled into the trucks, our rifles left behind. The truck lunged forward and the prison wall slipped blankly past. Suddenly the truck turned sharply and we entered the prison. I saw red brick buildings like schoolhouses, neat lawns, gardens with flowers in bloom, recreation yards, and, finally, barred windows in cement block buildings. The loudspeaker had become silent overhead. I knew they had a reason for bringing in the medical evacuation, but I rationalized—excited, fearful, mainly numb with disbelief at the rush of events—that this was only preparation and nothing unthinkable could really have happened.
“Out. Everybody out!”
I stood in a bedlam of armed men. The trucks halted on a blacktop road that cut through a lawn. Troopers and correction officers with shotguns and rifles manned the prison walls above me on one side. To the other side buildings with barred windows bordered the lawn. An entranceway cut at a right angle through the lawn to meet the blacktop road. Opposite the entrance, about fifty yards back along the blacktop road, a wire fence from the buildings to the prison wall had its gates open for the departing trucks. A sidewalk on the far side of the fence led from the road to the steps of another red brick building. All about me armed National Guardsmen milled with their M-14s at sling arms.
“What’s happening?” Everyone was asking the question.
“They’ve shot the bastards.”
The news rushed through us, the new arrivals.
“They’ve shot them.”
“How do you know?”
“I heard the troopers talking.”
“What about the hostages?” I asked someone. I knew how easily rumors could grow, but I wanted any information to reassure me.
“Over here!” A Captain yelled at those of us who had just come. He sounded angry, as if we had already failed him in some way. His stomach bulged over the belt of his field gear. “Get in line over here!”
I ran with the others to the entranceway where the Captain pointed. A dozen Guardsmen formed the line ahead of me and more came behind. Across the road from us stood a small group of officials in short-sleeved shirts and ties. A priest spoke pleasantly with one of the officials, a large silver cross hanging from his neck to the black folds of his robe.
“Go ahead of me.” Wells pushed me to take his place. I didn’t ask him why, because whether he or I went first would make no difference.
Someone called out, “Four men to a stretcher. Put on your gas masks. Move the line forward.”
The Guardsmen at the front of the line pulled their gas masks over their heads. One of them picked up a canvas stretcher, and they disappeared through a doorway.
“Hey!” Someone called to one of the blue uniformed correction officers. “What happened to the hostages?”
The man had thin red hair and small beads of sweat glistened on his scalp. He smiled at us, but with fury.
“Nine of them are dead! They castrated them.”
“Did you see it?” We asked.
“I saw it all right. It was disgusting.”
“Castrated?” The word echoed through the line.
“They ought to kill every one of those animals,” someone said.
“They’re not human,” another voice agreed.
Wells stared down at the stretchers, looking like he might be sick. Nausea swirled in my stomach. The moving green and blue and gray uniforms dizzied me—the billy clubs, the shotguns, the rifles. My civilian world could not exist side by side with this prison world.
“Put on your gas mask!” The captain screamed at me. “That’s an order, Corporal.”
I unclipped the pouch, pulled the rubber straps of the mask over my head, and put on my steel helmet again.
“Inside. Get inside.”
I followed three Guardsmen, all indistinguishable in their gas masks. Through my own mask the walls, the officers, and the furniture all looked far away. A door of steel bars opened. We started through a long corridor lined with naked prisoners, their hands cupped behind their heads, their penises slack. Some were surprisingly old, many black. But all looked at us with the same disinterest, as if they had seen too much and no longer cared.
I heard my own breathing, very loud and difficult with the mask. We passed correction officers with clubs moving up and down the line of naked prisoners. The corridor finally ended in a room filled with troopers and correction officers. Four Guardsmen came toward us, struggling with the weight on their stretcher. A head with dark, crinkled hair rolled from side to side. When the Guardsmen drew abreast of me, I saw the prisoner’s black hands gripping a bloody, open chest.
“That one’s gone.” The trooper spoke with pleasure and bent to sip his steaming cup of coffee.
“Too bad,” another trooper answered sarcastically.
I hated their hatred, yet I understood how it had grown while they waited powerlessly for days with the correction officers held hostage.
“This way. Let’s go!”
We followed a correction officer through a cellblock littered with debris. A flight of narrow stairs brought us outdoors to the wide tops of intersecting walls that separated four huge prison yards twenty feet below. I saw black men lying on top of the walls ahead of us. They looked as if their bodies had lost all strength and coordination, flattened, nearly stiff. We skirted past them. An eye stared upward, but the socket beside the eye was a red, ragged hole. I had never seen dead men before.
The troopers held their shotguns and rifles on their hips or in the crooks of their arms. I could feel their triumph at the killing, their pride as they watched the hundreds of naked prisoners face down in the mud of one of the prison yards below. Wounded prisoners sprawled on stretchers or the grass in a further yard.
“Get this one.”
The black man hung on the edge of the wall. I bent under a metal railing to slide the stretcher beside him. His leg dangled in his trousers, blown off below the knee. His youth surprised me. He was no more than twenty, his dark eyes glistening.
“We ought to push the bastard over the edge.”
I turned angrily to the Guardsman standing above me, but I couldn’t speak to the mask hiding his face.
“Does this hurt?” I touched the shin swollen beneath the blood on his trousers.
“No.” He propped his head up with his hands to watch us.
“I’m going to lift it.” I spoke loudly so he could hear me through the mask. His blood wet my hands as I raised the shattered leg onto the good one. He grimaced, groaned with pain.
“Be careful,” I ordered the others.
We lifted him to the stretcher.
“Put your head down,” another guardsman finally said. “We’re taking you to the hospital.”
The man slowly unclasped his hands and rested his head back. We carried him with quick, short steps, his dead weight constantly shifting on the stretcher. I sweated and strained to hold my corner. The gas mask seemed like a gag again.
“Hold up.” The captain met us at the corridor’s end. I pulled the gas mask from my mouth and breathed again and again. The tear gas had dissipated. I didn’t understand why we still had to wear our masks.
By midday the flow of stretchers and naked prisoners had stopped. The sun blazed overhead. The wounded had been unattended for a long while. The prisoner who had shuddered and foamed at the mouth lay completely still.
We lifted the stretcher. Outside the priest waited by the blacktop in front of the same crowd of officials.
“Put it down,” the captain ordered.
I kept holding the stretcher. So did the others. I didn’t see the trucks that were supposed to take the wounded to the hospital.
“Is this one Catholic?”
I couldn’t see the man who spoke, my vision narrowed by the mask.
“It doesn’t matter. Just have them put it down.”
I set the stretcher down with the others. The priest began to sprinkle holy water over the wounded man, speaking rapidly in Latin and crossing himself. I wished he would lower his eyes to see the man on the stretcher, but he didn’t.
“Get it up. We’ve got more coming. Get it up.”
We lifted the stretcher and hurried along the blacktop road. National Guardsmen with bayonets fixed in a show of force lined each side of the road to the wire fence.
“Put it by the fence. In line with the others.”
Four or five stretchers already rested on the grass just beyond the wire fence. We set ours down at the end of the row. A Guard medic, a corporal with a red cross on his white armband, worked over the wounded.
“Where are the medical evacuation trucks?” I asked him, holding my gas mask away from my face and wiping the sweat from my forehead.
“There aren’t going to be any goddamn trucks.”
I was sure he was wrong because our company commander had explained to us the entire plan for a medical evacuation to civilian hospitals.
“The wounded are going to hospitals,” I told him.
“No, they’re not.” His hands moved quickly as he uncovered the wound. “They’re being treated here. That’s all I know.”
“At least cover them with blankets,” another Guardsman said to the medic.
“Don’t you think I would?” The medic shouted and looked up at us. He had a boyish face and tears were in his eyes. “There aren’t any blankets. There aren’t even any bandages. I’m using first aid packs to stop the bleeding. What do you want?”
We gave him our first aid packs and he turned back to his work. The September morning was clear, the air fresh. A correction officer butted a naked prisoner through the alleyway of armed Guardsmen along the road. Correction officers cheered and applauded as the prisoner ran along the sidewalk on the far side of the wire fence.
“You gonna start the world revolution, boy?”
The prisoner disappeared behind the door at the end of the walk.
“Let’s go.” The captain came after us. “Get in line.”
We ran to the end of the line.
“Put on your gas masks.”
The captain angered me, because we didn’t need the masks. But I pulled the elastic straps over my head again, the rubber damp and cool on my forehead.
“Four men. Next four men.”
The next prisoner in the yard was nearly forty, heavyset, a growth of beard covering his veiny cheeks. He watched us with bleary gray eyes as we lifted the stretcher. His hands clasped his stomach, and beneath his interlocked fingers his blood oozed through the white bandages.
Suddenly, carrying the stretcher, I felt completely disoriented. I couldn’t believe what had happened. I strained to hold the weight of the man, but his eyes blinked open each time the stretcher tilted. I wept behind my gas mask, wept for the enormity of what had happened and the inhumanity and incomprehensibility.
I rested my corner of the stretcher down in the row of stretchers by the wire fence. Now almost twenty men lay there. I pulled off my gas mask.
“Relieve a man on the road.” The captain signaled to one of the Guardsmen. “Make sure he gets his rifle back.”
I took the man’s rifle and stood in the rank by the road.
A correction officer chased a naked prisoner past me. “Hey, boy. Run, boy. Come on, boy, keep running. You tired, boy? Run, boy.”
The correction officer and the prisoner went into the red brick building beyond the row of wounded prisoners. In a few moments, as if from a great distance, I heard a rhythm of screams from the building’s interior.
“It’s the inmate leaders,” the Guardsman next to me said, “The officers are beating the hell out of them.”
I looked at the wounded prisoners by the fence. Nearest me a man frothed at the mouth, his teeth chattering uncontrollably and his body shuddering in spasms. At least they had been covered with brown blankets.
“That one’s going to die.” The Guardsman beside me spoke matter-of-factly.
I kept staring at the bodies by the fence. By midday the flow of stretchers and naked prisoners had stopped. The sun blazed overhead. The wounded had been unattended for a long while. The prisoner who had shuddered and foamed at the mouth lay completely still.
“Fall into Company formation!”
We broke our ranks along the road.
“Double time. Move it.”
“Wells.” I fell in beside him. “Where have you been?”
“Did you carry out the wounded?”
“I carried out the dead,” he answered quietly.
[T]he lawyer hadn’t asked me what I felt, and I had just told him what I had seen.
“Fall in at attention! Cut out the noise. Dress and cover.” The lieutenant turned to be certain of his orders. “B Company, forward march. To your left, to your left, to your left, right, left.”
We marched through the gate where we had entered a few hours earlier in the trucks. I had a last glimpse of the wounded on their row of stretchers in the brightness of the sun. We passed the gardens, the recreation areas, the barred windows of the cellblocks. At last we loaded into our trucks, only to halt again at the assembly area.
The battalion commander, an elderly colonel, gathered all five hundred men in a thick semi-circle around him. The colonel looked concerned, fatherly.
“At ease, men. Just gather around here.” He began to speak, choosing his words with care. “This unit saw action in two wars, but never a civil disturbance. I know how upset some of you are about what happened today in the prison. I know because I saw episodes that were excessive and wrong. But everyone praised the Guard. I want you to be proud of the mission you performed here. All of you responded with your finest and best.”
He paused to take off his cap and run his hand through his thick white hair. I felt touched by the way he expressed the very feelings I had about the excessive violence and the treatment of the prisoners—despite his rank and his age. But then he started speaking again.
“This is hard on all of us. Some will want to speak about this with friends or the news media. Others took messages from prisoners for their families. I know you all have the best intentions. But I don’t believe civilians can understand what happened inside the prison today. I can only ask you—and I am asking you—not to give those messages or speak of what you saw. Your individual consciences will decide. But I want you to know also—whatever happens, whatever the media or others may say—that I’m proud of you and this battalion. I will personally recommend commendations for every man who saw action here. Thank you very much.”
As I watched him walk with the other officers to his green staff car, I felt he had betrayed me. If only he hadn’t seemed to feel what I had felt, I wouldn’t have found his request so painful.
“You understand, corporal, that everything you say will be kept confidential. This Commission has been appointed by the Governor to fairly determine and report what took place before, during, and after the prison riot for which your unit was activated.” The lawyer behind the desk was a slender, balding, young man. His face had a sympathetic cast, his skin pale in contrast to his dark-rimmed eyeglasses. “You were chosen for an interview because of certain answers on your questionnaire.”
I nodded agreement. I had worn my dress uniform, the blue, white, and yellow ribbon for Attica pinned above my breast pocket. The ribbon, and a medal for “Service in the Aid of Civil Authorities,” had been awarded to all the men in my Company.
“You were evacuating wounded prisoners from the prison yard. Is that correct?”
“Yes.” I felt conscious of his eyes coming back to the ribbon on my chest. Some men refused the commendation, but I had accepted mine because of the medical evacuation.
“Did you see the wounded prisoners abused in any way?”
“They waited hours without medical treatment.”
“Yes, I know.” The lawyer took notes in a cramped, precise handwriting. “How long did it take to move the wounded prisoners from the yard to the outside?” he asked.
“Perhaps more than an hour. I’m not sure now.”
“You saw naked prisoners run along the blacktop road to a building beyond the wire fence. After they went into the building, you heard screaming?”
“Did you see anyone beaten?”
“Just what I heard. I saw prisoners jabbed with clubs.”
He glanced down at the questionnaire. “Did you hear racial epithets or abusive language?”
“Nigger, black boy, boy. Obscenities. Maybe there were other racial terms.”
“Did you believe the hostages to have been castrated while you were performing your duties?”
“When did you learn this wasn’t true?”
“Several days later. I read the state troopers had mistakenly shot the hostages through the tear gas.”
“Anything else at all?” he asked.
I tried to think, but I had no more facts. “When will your report be made public?”
“In several months. We’re interviewing many of the people who were involved.” He stood and offered me his hand. “Thank you, corporal.”
The interview left me empty. As I stood in the armory hallway, the facts seemed insufficient. But the lawyer hadn’t asked me what I felt, and I had just told him what I had seen.
Tad Crawford, Founder and Publisher for Allworth Press in New York City, is a graduate of Columbia Law School and has represented many artists and arts organizations. Author of The Secret Life of Money as well as many books on business and the creative professions, he has written articles for magazines such as Art in America, Family Circle, and The Nation and published fiction in journals such as Central Park, Confrontation, and The Café Irreal.