Death and Politics at Attica
by Dominique Hessert | published Apr. 15th, 2014
Forty years ago, on September 9, 1971, the inmates of the New York Attica Correction Facility took over, taking correction officers and other employees hostage. On September 13, the state police assaulted the prison, ending the four day uprising in the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.
On April 9 Rochester’s own Chris Christopher and Dave Marshall’s documentary was presented at RIT, which was dedicated to revealing the true story of what happened during the Attica Riot. The hour long documentary included interviews with: Michael Smith, a correction officer that was taken hostage during the uprising; Dee Quinn Miller, the daughter of a corrections officer who was killed in the uprising; an inmate of Attica at the time of the uprising; Senator John Dunne; and many others who had a connection to the event.
The documentary told of how the inmates of Attica Correction Facility held several protests due to the lack of safety and respect. The documentary shared an interview with an unnamed inmate, who stated that they were given only one roll of toilet paper per month. He described Attica as a “horrible and unsafe place.”
The prisoners eventually rebelled and took over the prison, holding officers and employees hostage. Governor Nelson Rockefeller and authorities stated in the documentary that they met 28 of the 32 requests that the inmates requested.
During the four days of the uprising, rumors circulated within the FBI. The President was told that the hostages were lined up against a wall and shot one by one. This, however, was untrue. The inmates threatened to execute one to two hostages each day. The hostages were then all blindfolded and tied at the ankles.
Rockefeller responded to this threat by ordering 600 State Troopers to storm the prison and retake it by force. Smith was shot five times by one of the troopers. According to both Smith and the anonymous inmate, gunfire was sustained for approximately 10 to 15 minutes. “Shooting went on for a long time, but there was no plan that seemed to be made to save the hostages. No life was a priority, it was just a shooting spree,” said Smith in the documentary. At the end of the shootout, 39 were dead.
Once the uprising and assault were over, Rockefeller and the state of New York stated that deaths were the result of stab wounds. The truth, proven by the revealed autopsy records, is that they all died of gunshot wounds.
At the end of the film, Christopher, Smith and Miller came to the front of the auditorium to answer any questions and offer additional information. The first thing Christopher explained was how even 40 years later they continue to learn more and more about this event. “A lot of people worked so hard to hide things, but save certain things, like an autopsy record,” he said. “It’s easier for people to talk about it 40 years later, because sometimes they have to wait. Some felt unsafe at first, but now that the truth is coming out, more and more want to contribute to the story, and send me evidence and stories. The truth must be told.”
When Miller was asked what made her want to push to discover truth, she said, “As a kid I wasn’t allowed to research my father’s death. I think it’s because the explanation we were given was easier for my mother to accept. I always thought something seemed off though.”
To Miller and others who were affected by the uprising, discovering the truth of the uprising has been a long and tedious process. Many will never forget what happened that day. “I don’t think I’ll ever be done with Attica,” Miller stated. “It’s who I am.”