BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
"With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the ... assault [on the Attica Correctional Facility] which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War."- New York State Special Commission on Attica, 1972.
September 9 marks the 43rd Anniversary of the start of the Prisoner Rebellion at Attica, located upstate in western New York. After four days of negotiating, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ended what appeared to be productive sessions by ordering 1,000 National Guardsmen, prison guards, and state and local police to storm the facility, resulting nearly 40 people killed, the vast majority of whom were incarcerated.
"Nearly half of Attica prison's approximately 2,200 [prisoners] rebelled and seized control of the prison. Some were angry over the death of an African American activist at another prison, while others revolted because they were unhappy with the brutal living conditions inside Attica," The Huffington Post's David Lohr wrote two years ago. Racist behavior amongst the prison guards was rampant, hygienic conditions were horrific, and medical care was virtually non-existent.
The deadly raid began with the dropping of CS gas putting everyone on the ground, and was followed by the indiscriminate firing of 4500 rounds of ammunition, unloaded on basically unarmed people. The raid did not end the brutality: "Guards beat and tortured prisoners after the revolt, resulting in a wave of prison rebellions nationwide," Scott A. Bonn, a crime expert and assistant professor of sociology at Drew University, told The Huffington Post.
"In 2000, 27 years after the lawsuit was filed, the state of New York agreed to pay $12 million to settle the case," Lohr pointed out. "The state also recognized the families of the slain prison employees in 2004, with a $12 million settlement."
Despite these financial settlements, critical information about what happened in the four days between September 9 and September 13, 1971, remains undisclosed.
In April of this year, The Nation's Scott Christianson reported that Justice Patrick H. NeMoyer, 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."
Portions of the 570-page "Meyer Report" - named for its chairman, state Judge Bernard S. Meyer - which was completed nearly forty years ago, remain undisclosed.
According to Christianson's report, titled "Forty Years After the Bloodiest Prison Uprising in US History, the Attica Cover-up Continues", a former high state official who has read the full report, maintained that it contains "a lot of very detailed derogatory information about many people who were never charged with a crime."
Christianson pointed out that "Some were members of the state police or corrections department who were alleged to have shot [prisoners] 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 — at least, some names — of central actors who were never held to account."
As Christianson reported, and many historians have noted, the mysteries of what happened during and after Rockefeller's attack on the Attica prisoners still remains secreted away.
"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.'"
In 1971, there were 300,000 prisoners in US institutions. Today, there more than 2 million people incarcerated in US federal and state prisons, and county jails. A 2014 report published by the National Research Council asserts that the prison population of the United States "is by far the largest in the world. Just under one-quarter of the world's prisoners are held in American prisons."
More information on the Attica Rebellion can be found at:
Two years after the Attica prison rebellion, I wrote this poem:
"Attica: Two Years Ago" (September 1973)
Rosa teeter-totters along, her hand wrapped around my finger.
She scurries six steps to one giant step of mine.
We slide along cause we're both wearing sneakers.
The sun, begins to cut the greyness,
piercing blue sky like prisoners streaming from their cells.
The newsman reports changes at Attica prison.
Two years ago, Governor Rockefeller ordered his militia out to slaughter,
like the slaughterhouse in The Jungle.
Forty-three men dropped like cattle.
And nearly fifty years ago in New York City, big daddy Rockefeller stopped giving out shiny new dimes to the kids on the street and ordered the killing of coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado.
Dead miners, dead miner's wives, and dead miner's children.
Elliot, a prisoner at Attica, told his mother
that he would die rather than be treated like a dog.
At eighteen, he was in prison for driving without a license.
He broke parole, was sentenced to Attica, and was murdered.
Rosa stoops to pick up a walnut just fallen from the tree,
still green in its shell.
Breathing walnuts, season after season
living in this oasis of green just off Massachusetts Street.
Green walnut in one hand and my finger in the other,
Rosa, the little tipsy toe-dancer, skedaddles out of the park.
Grey clouds in the West look ominous.
Rosa drops the walnut and my finger;
an empty pack of Salem's clings to her hand.