New York Judge Unseals Attica Prison Riot Records – Sort of
by Joe Watson
A New York state judge has ordered the release of hundreds of pages of documents related to the investigation of the 1971 riot at the Attica Correctional Facility, but not before striking enough information from the records as to make them meaningless – despite pleas from state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that it is time to give closures to families and victims of the uprising and its bloody aftermath.
The documents in question are volumes II and III of the Meyer Commission Report, which contain grand jury testimony related to the retaking of Attica by the New York State Police and prison guards. The commission was appointed by then-Governor Hugh Carey and headed by state court judge Bernard S. Meyer. Thirty-two prisoners and 11 guards were killed during the rebellion and scores were wounded, many critically.
The 570-page report, issued in 1975, concluded that while 62 prisoners had been indicted on various charges following the riot, a grand jury also should have considered charges against law enforcement officers. Only one state trooper was indicted by the grand jury – for reckless endangerment.
The commission stressed, however, that there were “important omissions” in evidence obtained by the New York State Police, as well as a potential conflict of interest in troopers investigating fellow officers who retook the prison. The commission faulted police for their takeover strategy and the resulting bloodshed, in which 29 prisoners and 10 guards being held hostage were fatally shot when officers stormed the facility.
After a full year of considering arguments on the issue, Erie County Supreme Court Judge Patrick H. NeMoyer ruled on April 24, 2014 that the Meyer Commission Report could be unsealed, but only after all names in the report were fully redacted and all evidence presented at the grand jury proceedings had been removed.
The decision essentially means that any information about who did the shooting when Attica was retaken on September 13, 1971, and anything learned from the grand jury’s investigation, will remain cloaked in secrecy. The retaking of the prison occurred after state officials refused to grant amnesty from criminal prosecution to prisoners who took part in the uprising.
The Meyer Commission Report was only produced after state prosecutor Malcolm Bell turned whistleblower in 1975 and alleged that not only had major crimes been committed by some state troopers and prison guards who retook the facility, but that in the aftermath, top state officials covered up abuses. Those abuses included police officers indiscriminately shooting prisoners, and savagely beating and torturing them.
NeMoyer’s ruling was an apparent victory for the New York State Police and the police union, which had both argued against releasing the remaining volumes of the Meyer Commission Report. Lavonne Williams, the widow of former State Police Col. Henry Williams, who had directed the assault to retake Attica upon the order of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, also objected to the release of the records.
When he finally agreed to petition the court to unseal the documents, Attorney General Schneiderman said the report would provide answers that have eluded victims and their families for the past 43 years.
“It is important, both for families directly affected and for future generations, that these historical documents be made available so the public can have a better understanding of what happened and how we can prevent future tragedies,” he said. “The time has come to bring transparency to one of New York State government’s darkest chapters.”
A group called the Forgotten Victims of Attica, made up of prison employees who survived the riot and families of those who died, had pushed the state for years to unseal the remaining volumes of the Meyer Commission Report.
“For families that lost their father, son, brother because they were killed in D Yard, they yearn to know the truth of how their loved one died and why they died,” said Gary Morton, an attorney representing the victims’ group. “Some of that has come out, but certainly there’s a lot more that hasn’t come out.”
In 1976, then-Governor Carey pardoned seven prisoners and exempted 20 troopers and prison guards – among the hundreds who seized control of Attica – from disciplinary action. He also commuted the death sentence of prisoner John Hill, who was convicted of beating Attica guard William “Billy” Quinn to death during the four-day riot.
In 2000, 25 years after the Meyer Commission Report was issued, the state reached a $12 million settlement with 502 former prisoners and families of those killed or injured who claimed they had been beaten, tortured and denied medical treatment after the riot. [See: PLN, June 2000, p.12]. Five years later, the state agreed to pay $12 million to settle claims filed by surviving prison employees and their family members. [See: PLN, Nov. 2005, p.33].
Some historians have termed the retaking of Attica “one of the bloodiest confrontations between the state and its citizenry in American history.” [See: PLN, Nov. 1997, p.19; Oct. 1996, p.12; Sept. 1991, p.1].
“With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War,” wrote the New York State Special Commission on Attica.
In a separate and seemingly coincidental decision, officials who manage the New York State Museum announced in May 2014 that they were removing from public view a cache of over 2,000 artifacts recovered following the riot so that family members, researchers and the general public would no longer be able to see them.
The items surfaced in 2012, discovered in a steel storage structure owned by New York State Police Troop A in Batavia, New York.
Among the objects that had been stored for four decades were personal letters to prisoners from their children, hundreds of photographs recovered by troopers from the cells of slain prisoners, notebooks containing stories of prison life at Attica and copies of prisoners’ legal records.
There were also bloody clothes, including the shirt and pants belonging to prisoner spokesman Elliott L.D. Barkley, who some insist was executed after police retook the prison, as well as baseball bats recovered from the recreation yard. The artifacts also included items that belonged to guards who were killed during the riot, such as hats, badges and a wallet containing personal photos.
In making the announcement to close off access to these items, the museum said it would rely on “officials with the state corrections department and State Police to help inventory the artifacts.” In other words, the agencies in charge of the bloodbath that resulted from storming the prison will now be responsible for deciding what the public can – and cannot – see.
Apparently, the saying “History is written by the victors,” widely attributed to Winston Churchill, remains true.
The history of what caused the Attica rebellion, however, cannot be rewritten; the causes included overcrowding, poor conditions of confinement, racial tensions between the mostly black prisoners and all-white prison guards, and the refusal by prison officials to address those serious concerns. The Attica uprising occurred two weeks after the murder of political prisoner George Jackson by guards at the San Quentin State Prison in California.
Sources: www.npr.org, www.democratandchronicle.com, The Washington Post, www.nonprofitquarterly.org, www.lifeofthelaw.org, www.salon.com, www.nydailyrecord.com
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