Tuesday, September 09, 2014



On Sept. 9, 2011, I wrote of the uprising at Attica State:

For days, prison inmates banded together in what could just as well have been called the Attica Commune although I remember no one referring to it that way.  They took care of each other and their hostages.  They negotiated in peace and with honor.  They evolved into what we should all strive to become.  However, just as the Paris Commune struck terror into the hearts of the  bourgeois while striking a blow in the historical struggle for freedom, justice and liberty, so did the Attica Commune a century later.  It simply couldn't be allowed to live...and it wasn't.  

Three years have passed since then, forty-three years have passed since the uprising itself...and you know what, it still ain't over.  We are still fighting the lies, the cover ups.  We still have not seen justice.  Let's face it, we never will.  Hell, we never could.  There can be no justice for what happened that day in September now so long ago.

So our fight is to remember, for some degree of justice, and for those still alive.

I couldn't figure out which of several articles to add here, so I decided to add them all.  I'd suggest reading them all, but that is up to you.  I am saving the longest and most comprehensive articles for last to try and trick you into reading them all.   

In the order in which they appear, the following come from:

Attica uprising items being sent back to families

Personal effects to be given to families 43 years later

  • Artifacts from the Attica Correctional Facility uprising of 1971. The artifacts were recently given to the State Museum after being held as evidence by the State Police for 40 years. (NYS Museum)
    Artifacts from the Attica Correctional Facility uprising of 1971. The artifacts were recently given to the State Museum after being held as evidence by the State Police for 40 years. (NYS Museum)

Hundreds of personal items from the 1971 Attica prison uprising including blood-caked clothing, handwritten letters, eyeglasses and watches are being returned to family members after a contentious 43-year struggle.
The objects were picked up from the bullet-pocked, bloody prison yard after the bodies were removed.
The personal effects languished in storage for decades before being passed between state agencies.
Now, about 400 items have been moved from the State Museum — which collected them in 2011 from an unheated, forlorn State Police Quonset hut near the maximum-security prison in Wyoming County — to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
"We're trying to do the right thing and see what families might want," said Mark Schaming, director of the State Museum. "It's a tender balance between transparency and discretion."
About six months ago, State Museum and State Archives officials rescinded an earlier directive and denied public access to the objects related to the five-day insurrection in September 1971.
The uprising left 32 prisoners and 11 prison employee hostages dead, and 100 more people seriously injured after Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller gave the order to retake the prison by force after lengthy negotiations broke down.
It was the worst prison riot in U.S. history and one of the darkest chapters in the state's past.
It remains unclear how successful DOCCS will be in locating the families.
"We have the personal items and a process in place to reach out to the families to coordinate the return of their loved one's effects," said a DOCCS spokesman who asked not to be named. "We are handling this quietly and respectfully, and have no time line for the return of all of the personal property."
Craig Williams, a retired State Museum curator of history who brought the artifacts to Albany after extensive talks with family members, was critical of the recent shuttling of the objects between agencies. He understood their historical value and rescued the items three years ago as State Police officials were set to destroy what they considered surplus evidence from a closed case.
The objects were never examined during a bitter, decades-long cycle of state investigations, congressional hearings, charges of a government cover-up and several lawsuits. The state paid a settlement of $8 million to inmates in 2000 and $12 million to guards and other workers in 2005.
"Corrections is now doing what the State Museum should have done," said Williams. "This could have been done in a more trusting, respectful way three years ago."
Williams had begun returning some personal items to family members on his own when his superiors at the State Museum ordered him to stop. He disputed Schaming's claim that the delays and policy reversals were due to the additional time required to finish an inventory of the more than 2,000 items.
"We had a detailed inventory two years ago," Williams said. "The State Museum was a safe, comfortable place to keep the items. Given the circumstances, some of the family members of prisoners who were killed had concerns about dealing with Corrections."
The latest transfer of objects to DOCCS troubled some members of the Forgotten Victims of Attica, a group of employees who survived the inmate rebellion and recapture of the prison as well as relatives of those who were killed. The group for many years urged the state to release all records and material related to Attica.
"We have no idea what's going on behind the scenes, but it's more of the same frustrating runaround we've been getting from the state for more than 40 years," said Dee Quinn Miller, whose father, William Quinn, was a corrections officer killed during the uprising. "We always seem to be caught up in some sort of political struggle."
Miller expressed confidence in Anthony Annucci, acting commissioner of DOCCS, whom she has known for 15 years, and who has been attentive to Attica families. She said DOCCS officials have started contacting family members who are given a choice of collecting the item, donating it as a State Museum artifact or having the state destroy it.
An additional 1,700 items that range from baseball bats to makeshift weapons, as well as dozens of boxes of books and printed material stored at the State Archives are expected to be available to the public again in coming months, Schaming said.
"It's a historically significant collection, but we need to balance that with returning personal items," he said. "We're trying to be fair to everybody and standing aside while DOCCS does its work."
pgrondahl@timesunion.com • 518-454-5623 • @PaulGrondahl

Attica Whistleblower Still Pushing Full Disclosure

WESTON, Vt. – The whistleblower who spurred a state investigation of the 1971 Attica prison uprising is still on the case four decades later.
Ex-prosecutor Malcolm Bell, now 82 and retired to the Green Mountains of Vermont, recently filed papers in support of opening long-sealed investigation volumes about the retaking of the prison in western New York that left 29 inmates and 10 prison staff members fatally shot.
Bespectacled, his hair now gray, Bell remained soft-spoken and matter-of-fact while discussing his aggressive pursuit of the full story and suspension as a prosecutor in 1974. He has also recently finished a new epilogue to his 1985 book about the case.
"I am certain that my superiors in the investigation were afraid that the system was going to work, and that's why they shut me down," Bell said.
Bell joined Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz's Organized Crime Task Force in 1973 and spent the next year building grand jury cases toward indicting a half-dozen state troopers for murder or manslaughter, 60 or 70 for reckless endangerment, and several ranking officers for what he believed was a cover-up. He was first reassigned from the shooting cases to the cover-up cases, then reassigned out of the grand jury, then suspended, in what he now regards as an effort by Lefkowitz to protect GOP Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
The 1,300 inmates who rioted over conditions and controlled part of the maximum-security prison had clubs, knives and makeshift weapons and had killed a guard and threatened to kill hostages. Negotiations broke down. They were tear-gassed. Police had rifles, shotguns and pistols and wore gas masks. Some guards also fired guns.
Rockefeller gave the order to retake the prison. Two years later, he was on his way to becoming vice president.
"The officers of Attica fired over 450 times, hitting 128 people and killing 10 hostages and 29 inmates," Bell wrote in a 1976 newspaper column. "Insofar as those shots were not fired to save someone from an imminent threat of death, they were not justified and were probably criminal."
Bell, an Army veteran, Republican and former corporate lawyer, came to the task force looking for a new career direction. When he became convinced his boss deliberately thwarted his efforts to indict officers, he complained directly and then through channels. He was suspended for an unauthorized meeting with a confidential source and resigned.
He wrote to Lefkowitz and later sent a 160-page report to Gov. Hugh Carey, describing in detail what he believed was a failure to pursue justice and a cover-up.
Carey appointed Judge Bernard Meyer to investigate Bell's allegations. Meyer found "important omissions" in evidence gathered by state police but no intentional cover-up by prosecutors. He was later appointed by Carey to the Court of Appeals, New York's highest court.
"Though Bell's charge of a cover-up has proved not well founded and in some parts was based more on emotion than on fact, a substantial portion of the public shared his misgivings," Meyer wrote.
Bell found himself with few options and started a private law practice. He says he has no regrets.
Michael Smith, a corrections officer taken hostage and shot when the prison was retaken, called Bell one of the most morally committed people he's ever known and said Bell's account squares with his own recollections.
"His position cost him his career," Smith said.
In 1976, Carey pardoned seven inmates, barred disciplinary action against 20 troopers and guards, and commuted the murder sentence of one inmate. A reckless endangerment indictment against one trooper had already been dismissed. Lawsuits ended years later.
Bell wants the last two Meyer Commission volumes out in the open now, even if any details prove him wrong. What he really wants to see is how Meyer justified his conclusions, what evidence he cited or left out and "how he managed not to see the role of the people in charge — Rockefeller and Lefkowitz."
The union representing 3,500 uniformed troopers and 3,000 retirees, including about 40 who were at Attica, opposed releasing the volumes, saying painstaking investigations concluded no criminal wrongdoing by troopers.
"I heard a lot of shooting, but it was tough to tell who was shooting and who was shooting at who," recalled Thomas Constantine, an investigator who went into the prison yard behind uniformed troopers. His handgun was out, but he didn't shoot; the gas masks, tear gas and rain added to the confusion, he said. A sergeant at the time, he later rose to become police superintendent. "I never saw anything in the way of a cover-up," he said, noting it would have been way above his pay grade.
A state judge ruled in April that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has the last two volumes, can make them public after removing grand jury testimony. Schneiderman has said it's time to reveal the full history of the nation's bloodiest prison rebellion.
According to Bell, among Attica's chief lessons is that the best way to cover something up is to investigate it.
"You've got to go through the appearance of doing the job," he said. "That's what they did.


Empire State disgrace: The dark, secret history of the Attica Prison tragedy

Dozens were killed at Attica prison in a bloody 1971 clash. So why is New York state trying to hide the truth?

Empire State disgrace: The dark, secret history of the Attica Prison tragedyInmates at Attica State Prison in Attica, N.Y., raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity, September 1971, during the Attica uprising. (Credit: AP)
In the wee hours of Sept. 13, 1971, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered hundreds of state troopers to storm the Attica State Correctional Facility in bucolic upstate New York rather than continue to negotiate. Inside were almost 1,300 inmates who four days earlier had managed to secure control of more than half the prison, holding many guards hostage in the hopes of forcing the state, finally, to hear their concerns.
These prisoners had already tried to work through the system to get their basic needs met — that they be allowed to practice their religious beliefs, to be paid fairly for the labor they were forced to do, to have enough toilet paper each month. They got nowhere. And thus, on Sept. 9, 1971, the state of New York found itself facing one of the nation’s most dramatic civil rights protests of the 20th century. And, even though the hostages themselves supported continued negotiations and a peaceful end to this standoff was within view, on Sept. 13, the state decided to end the protest with one of the most extraordinary shows of force in American history.
Within minutes of Rockefeller’s green-light call to the head of the New York State Police, a huge chopper rose ominously over Attica’s 30-foot concrete walls, dropping powerful gas as angry and tired state troopers donned heavy masks and headed out onto the prison’s catwalks. Then, over the next 10 frenzied minutes, these heavily armed men proceeded to shoot over 2,500 hollow tipped and deer-slug bullets down into the confines of the 50-by-50-yard enclosure where inmates and hostages alike had congregated. Seeing the carnage splayed before them, it was immediately clear to all present at Attica that the retaking had been disastrous. And tragically predictable. Whereas the Rockefeller administration always maintained that it had no choice but to retake the facility with force and, more important, that it did so first and foremost to rescue the hostages, it well knew that deaths were inevitable. As the head of the New York National Guard, Gen. O’Hara, later confessed, “It was the general consensus of opinion by all the officials present that the hostages would be killed one way or another … everybody had that impression.”
Though barely visible through the fog of chemicals that still hung thickly in the air, bodies littered the muddy earth inside of D Yard. Thirty-nine, in fact. Some were prisoners lying shirtless with football helmets askew on their lifeless heads. Some were hostages lying motionless in the now filthy and tattered garb given them by their inmate captors. Several of the dead lay crumpled high above the ground on the catwalks like so many heaps of discarded rags. Others had fallen below, sprawled face down alongside the fetid, hand-dug trench that encircled the yard. Notably, none of the dead in neither D Yard, nor any of the hundreds that now lay there severely wounded, had been carrying a firearm.
Of course the bodies covering D Yard were cleared away long ago but the nightmare of Attica has lived on.
Seventy-year-old Cleveland “Jomo” Davis still finds it hard to sleep. He has hoped, desperately, that telling the story of what happened to him at Attica might one day allow him to heal. Of course, doctors still would not have been able to remove all of the .270 bullets, high-caliber pistol slugs, or .00 buckshot that New York state troopers had shot into his neck, back and arms. Some of those projectiles were simply lodged too close to his spine and kidneys. Still, he had clung to the promise of some sort of closure.
And yet, this May, almost 45 years after the ordeal itself, men like Jomo are still haunted. Even with the approach of a new spring these men find themselves replaying that awful day, Sept. 13, in the horrifying flashbacks that come to them unbidden and unexpectedly. The cloying and sickly smell of trauma can surround these men today as suddenly and powerfully as it did when they were tossed semi-unconscious on top of the rest of the dead and dying in a hallway of the Attica State Correctional Facility back in 1971. As these men see it, how can anyone ever fully heal from all that happened at Attica until the truth is finally told about what that was? How can anyone have closure when the state of New York has yet to admit that crimes were in fact committed there?
Dee Quinn Miller has found it excruciatingly difficult to heal from Attica too. Being an adult has never dulled the vivid memory of the siren blowing and blowing over at the prison that fateful morning back in September 1971, when she knew that her father was inside working. Nor has she ever been able to shake the painful memory of the school principal coming to get her from the classroom, or her neighbor, Mrs. Beal, then taking her to her grandparents’ house. She can still see the fear and shock in all of their eyes. That evening, all of the grown-ups surrounding 5-year-old Dee whispered worriedly until they finally explained to her that her daddy had been badly hurt. She would stay there, her grandmother explained, until he got better. But when Dee finally was reunited with her mother, her heart sank. In a voice almost unrecognizably hollow and weary, Nancy Quinn looked down at her daughter and confirmed her very worst fear: “Deanne, Daddy’s not coming home.”
This May, though, Dee finally had the possibility of feeling a whole lot better than usual — she might have felt like celebrating. Not only had families like hers managed — finally, in 2005 — to get some compensation from the state for all they had suffered back in 1971, but it seemed that the state of New York was, at last, going to allow Attica’s survivors to see some records related to the tragedies that had befallen their loved ones at Attica.
Dee had fought hard, for years, to gain access to the state’s records related to Attica so that Attica’s survivors — like hostage Michael Smith who had almost died from brutal gunshot wounds to the abdomen — might finally learn more about what, exactly, had gone so wrong on the day of the Attica retaking. They might finally discover who, exactly, had been responsible for the fatalities and injuries there. Indeed, just like the prisoner survivors, hostage family members such as Dee and Mike are determined to get the Attica story fully told. Without doing so, the past will just continue to haunt the present in ways almost unbearable.
Those not close to the events that took place at the Attica State Correctional Facility back in 1971 might well question why this tragic but seemingly local episode in our nation’s past still matters. Why has it not just faded away — if not back in the 1970s, then at least by 2000 when the state of New York agreed to a monetary settlement with the surviving inmates? And, if not by 2000, why not in 2005 when Attica’s surviving hostages, and the widows and children of those who were killed, settled with the state?  After all, New York Gov. Hugh Carey had thought that he had actually “closed the books” on Attica, ostensibly forever, back in 1976, after he ordered it investigated and then, thereafter, formally ended any future state inquiries into the catastrophe. And, well before that, Nelson Rockefeller himself had been persuaded that Attica would fade from the headlines the minute that “radicals” and “militants” got over their supposed obsession with it.
But Attica was a particularly ugly stain on the state of New York, and state officials were simply naive to think it would easily be removed. Despite every official attempt to make the Attica uprising fade from memory over the last nearly 45 years, the nightmare of its horrific end doesn’t go away. It still consumes those who survived it, and still shapes the evolution of the nation as a whole, in ways both inspiring and tragic. What Rockefeller, Carey and even Pataki and Cuomo have failed to understand is that Attica can’t go away until its survivors finally get what they need to heal. And, as those survivors have pointed out time and again, what they need to heal is for the full Attica story finally to be told, and for the state of New York finally to take responsibility for the devastating role that it played in that tragedy.
* * *
When New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman agreed a year ago to pursue the opening of certain key Attica-related records –specifically volumes 2 and 3 of the Carey-commissioned Meyer Report that had previously been ordered sealed, first in 1977 and then again in 1981 — survivors and family members alike were newly hopeful that finally some truths would be revealed and some responsibility could be assigned. The Meyer Report had itself come about only because one of the state’s own prosecutors, Malcolm Bell, became a whistle-blower in 1975, charging not only that major crimes had been committed by state troopers, and some correction officers, during the retaking of Attica; but, just as important, that top officials had gone to great lengths to cover up those crimes and protect those members of law enforcement.
Notably, and despite the hopes of survivors that new evidence might finally come to light, getting access to the volumes of the Meyer Report would reveal but a hint of the many thousands of boxes of materials that the state of New York has accumulated over nearly four decades investigating and litigating matters related to the Attica rebellion. Still, such access would have been an important, if largely symbolic, victory for those still haunted by the events of that day. Finally they might learn what had really happened to their loved ones — who was ultimately responsible for such suffering.
And so, for the last year, Judge Patrick H. NeMoyer has been assessing the wisdom of opening volumes 2 and 3 of the Meyer Report to public scrutiny. The judge has heard compelling arguments from the attorney general’s office that “The time has come to bring transparency to one of New York State government’s darkest chapters”; and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made clear that he too believes that enough time has passed that such a release of records should cause little concern. The judge has heard a great deal as well from those who opposed the release of the Meyer Report — particularly from the leaders of the New York State Police Department and its union, as well as from individual members of law enforcement who worried greatly about what might be contained in that report.
Just a few weeks ago Judge NeMoyer finally issued his decision, one that on the surface seemed to be a victory for the Attica survivors — but was in fact not. Although he did order the release of the two volumes of the Meyer Report that the survivors had wanted opened, he also made clear that none of the evidence therein that had originated in the grand jury investigations into Attica — the most important evidence — could be released. Just as significantly, he also stipulated that even the names of the individuals mentioned in the “non-grand-jury-referencing-portions” of the report could be redacted at the attorney general’s discretion. Indeed, it would seem that the secrets at Attica remain safe.
The former members, as well as current leadership, of the New York State Police have devoted considerable energy to preventing the opening of anything related to Attica Prison, and the rebellion or retaking of 1971. Not only have they weighed in loudly on the question of whether the Meyer Report should be released each time that question has been posed — first in 1977, then in 1981, and most recently in NeMoyer’s chambers in 2014. It also seems that, incredibly, they may even have managed to wield influence over at the New York State Museum and Archives in Albany, since that institution has suddenly rescinded all public access to a cache of rebellion-related artifacts that it had made available to scholars and survivors alike since the fall of 2012.
And that was quite a collection of objects. In the hours and days after their bloody retaking of the Attica facility, rather than collect the thousands of shells and bullets that lay strewn around D Yard, and rather than draw chalk impressions around the dead bodies where they lay, and even rather than determine which officers had used which firearms, the New York State Police instead scooped up everything in that yard that they thought might be useful to them in the event of an official inquiry, and buried or hid everything else. Fast forward 40 years: In 2012, more than 2,000 of these objects surfaced in a 30-foot steel structure owned by NYSP Troop A in Batavia, New York — the troop primarily in charge of the retaking. Clearly naively, someone in the NYSP decided to turn everything over to the New York State Museum in case it had historical value.
They did indeed. Among the items held for decades by these troopers were personal letters written to prisoners from their children, and hundreds of personal photographs that troopers had scooped up out of cells, trashing and tearing them during the retaking. There were notebooks with accounts of life at Attica. There were legal records that prisoners had meticulously copied and kept so that they could get parole or file a writ. There were hundreds of baseball bats that troopers collected hoping to show that these items from the rec areas of the prison were deadly, and justified their assault. There were hats, badges and even a wallet with personal photos in it from the slain hostages. There was an original copy of the Attica Manifesto — undoubtedly one of the very few of those still to exist. And there were bloody clothes — stiff bloody clothes such as the pants and shirt of L.D. Barkley, famed Attica spokesman, who many observers insisted had been murdered well after the police had control of the prison.
And from 2012 until just this week, Attica’s survivors, and the family members of survivors and victims alike, were able to see these many heart-wrenching objects at the State Museum, while scholars such as myself, filmmakers such as Christine Christopher, and even former Attica prosecutor-turned-whistle-blower Malcolm Bell have met with state archivists to help them to fully understand and accurately catalog what they have. Suddenly, though, this access was shut down.
Now, rather than have Attica scholars and researchers help with the cataloging of the collection, and rather than allow the survivors to see what has been found after more than 40 years, the museum has now decided to enlist “officials with the state corrections department and State Police to help inventory the artifacts.” In other words, the same body that retook the prison with guns blazing, and the same body whose bullets killed 39 people and wounded hundreds of others, will once again be deciding what the public can see and what it can’t.
Yet, no matter how hard the state police try to control access to the information explaining what happened at Attica, they are on a fool’s errand. Despite the enormous lengths that countless officials as well as rank-and-file members of law enforcement have gone to in order to keep the true story of Attica from being told, they simply will be unable to contain this story indefinitely.
In short, the story of what really happened at Attica can’t be contained because simply too many different people suffered it and too many people have already told their stories to too many official bodies — with too much corroborating evidence of the ugliness that was done there. No institution and no official body could possibly put this genie back in the bottle now — the countless pieces of powerful evidence in the form of memos, ballistics reports, and more that confirm not only the horror of what happened at Attica on Sept. 13, 1971, but also point clearly to the parties who are responsible for it.
This story wasn’t just told in the more than 33,000 pages of this testimony heard by the two Attica grand juries, nor does it exist merely in the 500 exhibit folders that the Meyer Report assembled, nor in the 10,000 pages of transcript that it was based upon. The truth of what nightmare the prisoners endured was also told in 14 suits that prisoners managed to file before the Court of Claims — nine of which were resolved in favor of those same prisoners — as well as in the nearly 30-year-long civil rights case that Elizabeth Fink argued on their behalf in Federal Court — a case that made quite clear just how egregiously their civil rights had been violated by the state of New York during the retaking and rehousing at Attica. The prisoners in this suit were eventually awarded $8 million for all they had suffered and their lawyers made their case by drawing from the very documents — a most ugly and comprehensive paper trail — that the state imagines that it alone holds today.
Then, of course there were the hostage cases. By 1980, 28 hostage cases had been filed and were winding their way through the Court of Claims as well — each carrying its own thick evidentiary record of trooper abuses and their use of excessive force during the retaking at Attica. In addition there was the case of Lynda Jones, wife of slain hostage Herbert Jones, who fought a case from 1977 until 1982 when her powerful evidence of trooper abuses — much of it stemming from state-owned documents — resulted in the state having to pay her more than a million dollars. And finally, there were the stories told and evidence that was brought to bear when Attica’s surviving hostage and hostage families tried to be heard as well by the state of New York from 2000 to 2005. Not only are the thousands of pages of their testimony before the Attica Task Force a record of extraordinary and excessive state force mounted against its own unarmed citizens, but this case is laid out as well in the paper trail that led the state of New York to settle with them as well for $12 million.
And so, in fact, no state official in New York — no politician, no judge, no member of law enforcement — can ever possibly contain the true story of what happened at Attica. In addition to the thousands of pages of evidence that were brought to bear in over 30 years of legal proceedings related to the Attica rebellion, there are thousands more Attica-related documents still sitting in county courthouses across this country as well in seemingly unrelated archival collections the world over. And then, of course, there are the personal items that keep surfacing — everything from materials kept under wraps for years by New York state troopers who then decided to sell them on eBay to private correspondences and memos and even autopsy reports that others as well had sat on for years but finally decided to share.
To imagine that the truth of what happened at Attica can be corralled is, ultimately, as arrogant as it is foolish. When the state of New York made the decision to storm the Attica State Prison on Sept. 13, 1971, it forgot that there were people in there who would never rest until they could tell exactly what they had seen to lead to so much death and injury that day. When troopers tore off all of their identifying badges before entering Attica that same day, precisely so that they couldn’t be identified, they failed to realize that some in their midst would be so traumatized that they wouldn’t be able to live with themselves until they reported the wanton abuses they had witnessed. And even though so many people died at Attica that day, what every state official in New York failed to fully grasp was that those who had survived — be they prisoners, hostages or family members of both groups — were never, ever going to rest until they brought every piece of evidence they had of wrongdoing to light as well.
Judge NeMoyer’s ruling is, therefore, largely irrelevant — as is the New York State Museum’s move to rescind access to its Attica artifacts. These decisions are sad, infuriating and deeply dispiriting, but they are not going to stop the truth of what happened at Attica from being told. Not only is this truth known, but it will eventually and inevitably be public. And, this is a good thing. Without a full reckoning there can be no justice, and without justice, there can be no true peace for anyone who survived the state’s assault on the Attica State Correctional Facility on Sept. 13, 1971.
Heather Ann Thompson is a professor of history in the departments of African-American Studies and history at Temple University. She writes regularly on the history as well as current policy implications of mass incarceration and is currently completing the first comprehensive history of the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its legacy for Pantheon Books.

Forty Years After the Bloodiest Prison Uprising in US History, the Attica Cover-up Continues

Attica Prison
Armed officers enter the occupied Attica prison in September 1971. (AP Photo)
At first blush, the ruling looks like victory. On April 24, a state court judge in Buffalo, New York, ruled in favor of releasing portions of a long-sealed report on the state’s handling of the 1971 Attica prison rebellion. But in a defeat for survivors and their relatives, the judge also ruled that the report’s most controversial content—long-suppressed courtroom evidence about atrocities committed by law enforcement during the uprising—must remain off limits to the public.
The 570-page “Meyer Report” was cobbled together nearly forty years ago after a New York State prosecutor named Malcolm Bell publicly accused officials of covering up evidence of police and prosecutorial misconduct in their handling of the episode. According to a former high state official who has read the full report, it contains “a lot of very detailed derogatory information about many people who were never charged with a crime.” Some were members of the state police or corrections department who were alleged to have shot inmates in cold blood. Others were officials who may have fabricated or destroyed evidence, committed perjury, ignored incriminating evidence, or been guilty of other serious misconduct. The report names names—at least, some names—of central actors who were never held to account.
While a single, sanitized volume of the report was released in 1975, two remaining volumes, including evidence gathered during grand jury testimony, have remained locked away ever since.
In his forty page decision, Justice Patrick H. NeMoyer conceded what many Attica critics have said for years—that the one public volume of the Meyer Report “does not set forth the full story dealing with Attica.” NeMoyer nevertheless refused to allow the release of any information taken from the two panels that heard testimony back in the 1970s—even if the passages are redacted by the New York State Attorney General to protect individual rights. 
NeMoyer’s ruling is the long-anticipated result of a request by the Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, to open parts of the hitherto sealed volumes based on the public’s right to know that history. In a statement responding to the ruling, Schneiderman commended NeMoyer's decision to unseal part of the Meyer Report as “a step forward in our effort to shed more light on one of the most tragic events in the history of our state” and pledged to “review the court's order to determine how best to move forward with releasing the redacted version of the report.”
So far there is no indication that he will appeal the ruling.
The legal wrangling over the Meyer Report is just the latest in more than four decades of attempts to pry open the secrets of the Attica assault. On September 13, 1971 Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered an end to a five-day hostage-taking stand-off at the prison, unleashing an assault force of state troopers, deputy sheriffs and guards who stormed the facility with tear gas and guns, firing more than 2,000 bullets and pellets. Some of the convicts were armed with shivs or baseball bats. Immediately after the assault, state officials announced that all ten hostages killed during the assault had died from slashed throats and another had been castrated. But medical reports later established that they and twenty-nine convicts were shot to death and eighty-nine others were wounded by police fire. Sixty-two prisoners were indicted on 1,300 felony charges, and one was convicted of killing a guard at the start of the riot, yet no law enforcement personnel were prosecuted (although one trooper would ultimately be singled out for “reckless endangerment”). The one-sided prosecution would have continued were it not for Bell’s heroics.
The Meyer Commission, named for its chairman, state Judge Bernard S. Meyer, investigated Bell’s claims that the state had covered up homicides, torture and withholding of evidence by law enforcement. Meyer’s staff reviewed 33,000 pages of secret grand jury testimony and other evidence, including sworn depositions from Rockefeller, his aides, the prosecutors, and others—without acknowledging that much of that work was itself tilted in favor of law enforcement officials and Rockefeller.
Meyer released a volume of broadly worded findings that chided Rockefeller for “inappropriate” praise of the State Police, concluded that the police made “serious errors in judgment” and characterized the prosecution as “imbalanced” in favor of the police. But he insisted “there was no intentional cover-up in the conduct of the Attica investigation,” as Bell had claimed. “[P]rosecution of law enforcement personnel for murder or other shooter crimes and for perjury was not intentionally obstructed by the Attica prosecutor,” Meyer wrote.
(Significantly, Judge NeMoyer’s April 24 decision raises questions about these claims, even as it refuses to lift the lid on the whole story. In his decision, NeMoyer wrote that Meyer “cherry-picked and editorialized” from the available evidence in order to support his conclusions.)
At the time of its release, a state judge ordered the entire last two volumes containing the “supporting evidence” sealed—on the ground that they contained secret grand jury testimony. The remaining indictments against twenty-four inmates and one state trooper were dismissed, and on December 31, 1976 Governor Hugh Carey announced he was pardoning and commuting all sentences and disciplinary actions related to the riot and its aftermath, saying this would “close the book” on Attica. Rockefeller became Vice President of the United States. Meyer was elevated to the Court of Appeals. And two attempts to convince judges to unseal the volumes were defeated in court all the way up to the appellate level, thereby keeping the lid on Bell’s allegations.
The latest Attorney General brief argued that several things have changed since then. Decades-long costly criminal and civil litigation has finally ended, and the passage of time has removed many privacy concerns. Bell is now 82 years old. Schneiderman’s office had proposed specific redactions of certain names and other identifying information stemming from the grand jury, but NeMoyer rejected that offer.
The passages of the Meyer Report containing grand jury evidence are not the only Attica-related records being held back by state officials. The Attorney General's office continues to withhold more than 100 boxes of Attica-related files from Freedom of Information Act disclosure. The New York State Archives blocks access to the bulk of records that were compiled by the New York State Special Commission on Attica, also known as the McKay Commission. And higher-ups in the New York State Education Department continue to deny public access to artifacts which the State Police removed from bloody D yard and transferred to the state museum; they have also removed these artifacts from state catalogs and refused a request by the Smithsonian Institution to exhibit any of the objects.
Meanwhile, Rockefeller’s Attica records, tape-recorded or otherwise, are nowhere to be found. According to Amy Fitch, archivist of the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York, The state attorney general took possession of much of the Governor’s documentation on the matter while he was still in office, and those records were never returned to be included into what eventually became the Rockefeller family archives. The Archive Center was never a part of the chain of custody of these records and therefore has never been in the position to seek their post-litigation custody.”
When asked for his thoughts on NeMoyer’s decision, Bell offered skepticism in the guise of a tautology. “Meyer said I was wrong about my allegations of a cover-up. You can accept that on faith or not accept it, depending on your degree of faith in public officials.”

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