He’s 70 now and walks with a cane. But his mind remains sharp, vividly reliving those days from September 1971, the memories still raw enough to send tears down his face.
He insists on using only his first name, William. But his detailed account rings true, about the action that he took that may have helped saved up to 60 lives – 55 of them fellow inmates at Attica Correctional Facility.
During the early moments of the Attica prison riot, on Sept. 9, 1971, William quickly built an impromptu U-clamp to lock a gate between rioting inmates and the prison school’s inmate staff.
William, who lives in Buffalo after 31 years in prison, has come forward now, 42 years after Attica, for one reason:
To plead with authorities not to unseal the remaining few hundred pages of reports about the riot and follow-up investigation, which may include the names of some inmates and corrections officers.
“Just as I built that bar-locking device to help myself and other people, today I’m stepping forward to prevent the release of the names,” William said. “We don’t know the ramifications of these names being released. The way the world is today, given the random acts of violence people commit against each other, anything could happen to anyone who took a side in the Attica riot.”
No one knows for sure whether William’s action saved any lives. And although he said he has testified to an Attica commission, he can’t know for sure whether his name would be released, and, if so, what that could mean.
“Others may find it innocent or heroic,” he said of his actions, “but you may find there are animosities unresolved, against inmates or officers. We just don’t know the unknown.”
William won’t be any more specific, other than to say, “Somebody may have it in for an inmate and take it out on me.”
That seems to be the minority opinion these days.
The Other Side
Former corrections officers, family members of victims, historians who want the truth unearthed, editorial writers, those who claim prosecutorial cover-ups and New York’s attorney general all seem to be lined up against William, favoring an unsealing of the records.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman late last month filed a motion to seek the release of two volumes of a sealed report on how the state acted during and after the Attica uprising.
“The passage of time has made clear that – like the shootings at Kent State, the violent police attacks on civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s, the My Lai massacre and the Watergate scandal – Attica is more than just a profoundly tragic event; it is an historic event of significance to generations of Americans,” he wrote in summing up the prevailing view on why the report should be released now.
The Attica uprising, for those not familiar with it, began on the morning of Sept. 9, 1971 and ended four days later. The retaking of the prison, including the use of tear gas and hundreds of shots fired by state police and the National Guard, killed 43 people, including 10 corrections officers. Another 89 people were seriously wounded.
The riot, besides shining a huge spotlight on prison conditions across the nation, led to state investigations and prosecutions that ultimately yielded claims of prosecutorial misconduct and cover-ups by some state officials. Debates about that conduct continue more than four decades later.
Gary A. Horton, the Genesee County public defender, has spent years representing the Forgotten Victims of Attica, made up of surviving corrections officers and civilian employees held hostage and the families of those killed in the uprising.
Horton has applauded Schneiderman’s first step toward making the whole truth known about that historic event.
“This group has always had release of the records as a goal,” Horton said of the Forgotten Victims. “We feel that the truth of Attica should be known and shouldn’t be hidden away, wherever that truth leads.”
Horton understands that some may not want these memories and wounds reopened, but he remains hopeful.
“We’re 42 years down the road, and I would like to believe that this could be a healing and reconciliation process, rather than a rehashing of old concerns,” he said.
Horton was asked specifically about the fear of reprisals felt by some former inmates, such as William.
“I understand where the fear comes from, but I think we are far enough from the event that it can be viewed as history,” he replied. “This was a formative event, not only in New York, but in the country and in the world. There are important lessons to be learned, so we can avoid this type of event in the future.”
William, working as a teacher’s aide that fateful day, remembers looking down from the third floor of Attica’s academic building, at the smoke rising from the chapel, providing his first hints of the uprising that started in the yards and blocks below him.
Corrections officers approached him and others, ordering them down to the first floor. That’s when William learned that a guard he knew, by the name of Carl, didn’t have the proper key to lock a gate connecting D Block to the school building.
“If the inmates in D Block decided to come around the corner and saw an unlocked gate, there was nothing stopping them from coming to the non-involved inmates and getting us involved in the riot,” William said. “The potential for my being killed was very, very real.”
So William walked into a metal-fabricating classroom, where he slammed the door shut, took some metal rods and used a vise to bend one of them and create the U-clamp.
William told the guard, Carl, that he was going to lock the gate, and he wanted Carl to go with him.
“I can’t go with you,” Carl replied. “They’ll kill me.”
With his makeshift clamp in hand, William ran some 35 yards to the gate, where he applied the lock before racing back. Rioting inmates later got torches from a metal shop to slice through that lock. But by that time, William’s group had been relocated to a safer location, underneath a gun tower manned by officers with M-16 rifles.
“We bought time with the locking device,” William said. “It was only a half hour or 40 minutes, but we bought time, and all 55 of us got out safely.”
William spent the next four days assigned to an empty cell on the third floor of C Block, a cell that had housed prisoners involved in the riot. He was fed by state troopers who gave the inmates bag lunches twice a day in their cells.
“This was not an heroic act,” William said of his locking the gate. “This was done to save my own life. I may have been helping others, but my goal was to protect myself.”
The attorney general has filed court papers seeking the release of two volumes of a three-volume report written in 1975 that was largely critical of how the state handled the uprising and its aftermath. Only one of the three volumes was made public, and judges have sealed the other two, which contain mostly grand jury testimony.
Schneiderman has said that the names of grand jury witnesses and certain other names would be redacted in the release of the full report.
The attorney general’s office told The Buffalo News that because of the passage of time and the resolution of all Attica-related civil and criminal litigation, the concerns of those people cited in the report can be addressed with many fewer redactions than previously proposed.
Still, it’s not clear whose names would be blacked out in any release.
Oddly enough, those two volumes remain locked up in the attorney general’s office in downtown Buffalo, only a few miles from William’s home.
Reopening old wounds
Karen L. Murtagh, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, sees both sides of the argument over the report’s release.
Her office each year receives some 10,000 letters from inmates, and she has no doubt that some surviving Attica inmates, whether they’re still imprisoned or not, have legitimate concerns about possible reprisals.
“My guess is that those concerns would be outweighed by the need of every inmate to know what happened, so it won’t happen in the future,” she said. “If we don’t know the truth, we can’t learn from our mistakes.”
When pressed, Murtagh also talked about another reason why some inmates may not want to reopen the whole Attica tragedy.
“Attica was like a war zone,” she said, implying that some inmates living through that five-day ordeal must have endured some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through their minds and their hearts,” she said. “I would think they were absolutely petrified, so alone and so afraid and so powerless and not knowing what to do. Whose side are you on? And you know this is going to end badly.”
That’s why, without ever talking to them, Murtagh can imagine how William and some other Attica survivors might feel.
“I understand the feeling that he may just want to bury this,” she said. “It’s like a ghost in a closet, because it’s very frightening.
“Those wounds will never go away, never heal,” Murtagh added. “They will just scab over. Releasing these reports will open up those scabs.”
But like most others dealing with this issue, Murtagh still believes strongly that the whole truth needs to come out, that the need to learn the truth trumps other concerns.
That’s why William, and others like him, probably face an uphill battle in keeping the remaining records sealed.
Apart from the current debate, William’s story strongly suggests that many small, unnoticed acts from Sept. 9 to 13, 1971 may never be told publicly.
Some of those acts – whether they were heroic or not, whether or not they saved any lives – may never be told. Instead, the people who know those stories, who have lived with them for 42 years, may take them to their graves in the next couple decades.