Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the Attica Rebellion, the bloodiest prison uprising in U.S. history. The riot began spontaneously after prison officials had consistently ignored demands from prisoners for better living conditions.
That same day, 50 years ago, Joe Heath was in his third day of law school at the University at Buffalo. Like everyone else, Heath was transfixed by what was unfolding at the prison.
At the start of rebellion, a young guard, Bill Quinn, was beaten and trampled by prisoners.
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Four days after the rebellion began, as negotiations between the prisoners and the Department of Corrections were making some headway, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered the state police to take the prison by force.
It was a decision that left 10 hostages and 29 inmates dead. From his home, Rockefeller directed the deputy commissioner of corrections to mislead the public about what had just transpired.
“The deputy commissioner of corrections went out in front of the prison on the 13th, before the gas has cleared and claimed that all the prisoners had died of slashed throats and that one of them had been emasculated,” Heath recalled. “Any look at any one of those bodies would have told an intelligent person that that was a lie. It was a lie to gin up the racism that was then inflicted upon the prisoners once the prison was retaken.”
According to the results of the autopsies, the dead had been shot; none of the prisoners had guns.
Bill Quinn grabbed his keys. Severely injured, Quinn was later taken to a nearby hospital.
As a first semester law student, Heath volunteered for the legal team that defended the inmates. He interviewed thousands of them for court records. The picture that emerged from those interviews was one of horrific retaliation meted out by prison guards.
When asked what happened to the prisoners, Heath responded like this:
“One of the best ways to answer that question is to quote the Second Circuit, which is a relatively conservative federal court of appeals. Once they got to look at the evidence that was presented there in the fall of 1971, they labeled this ‘an orgy of brutality,'" Heath recalled.
Prisoners were stripped and made to run through a 100-yard gauntlet of broken glass, while guards struck them with baseball bats and clubs. According to Heath, elsewhere within the prison complex, behind closed doors, the torture was more horrific.
By 1976, all the charges against the prisoners had been dropped.
On Friday, Capital Tonight will speak with Heather Thompson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy” about the cover-up that followed the uprising.
After Thompson accidently discovered a cache of Attica-related grand jury documents, she worked with Heath to navigate the legal issues surrounding using them in her definitive history of the rebellion.