Conspiracy to Cover-up: Why We’ll Never Learn the Truth About the Attica Prison Riot

Photo by Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At The Morning News, J. Oliver Conroy reports on the aftermath of the Attica Prison riot and how the state doggedly covered up the truth: a grisly state-initiated mass murder in the name of justice and order. Of the 43 dead, 29 were inmates — many of them shot in the back or executed at close range as the state attempted to regain control of the prison.

Shortly before 9:45 a.m. on Sept. 13, 1971, the fifth morning of the Attica prison uprising, hundreds of prisoners milled in the yard, waiting with increasing dread for news of any developments in their ongoing negotiations with New York state authorities. At 9:46, they got their answer. A helicopter thundered overhead and began blanketing the yard in billowing clouds of tear gas. In fact the tear gas was partly a powder: C.S., a weaponized orthochlorobenzylidene compound then popular a world away in Vietnam, where the US military used it to flush Viet Cong out of the jungle and into the sights of waiting gunships. In footage of the Attica retaking, you can see a domino wave of people crumpling as the cloud of C.S. rolls over them.

The powder hung in the air like a dense fog, clinging to the prisoners’ clothes and working itself into their skin and lungs and further obscuring the vision of the gas-masked state troopers waiting for the signal to begin their assault. As the prisoners collapsed, choking and retching, the police opened fire. Over the next several minutes, officers poured hundreds of rounds of gunfire into the yard, including, a judge later estimated, between 2,349 and 3,132 pellets of buckshot. The prison yard was transformed into a charnel house. The prisoners, who had no firearms, were sitting ducks, as were the hostages that the police had ostensibly come to save. As hundreds of police and corrections officers stormed the prison, they sometimes paused to shoot inmates who were already on the ground or wounded. “Surrender peacefully. You will not be harmed,” a megaphone announced as unarmed prisoners were mowed down.

After the shooting ended and the gas cleared, National Guardsmen came through, collecting bodies and dumping them in rows on the muddy ground. The final death toll of the Attica riot and retaking was 43 people, including one corrections officer fatally wounded during the initial uprising, three prisoners killed by other prisoners, and 39 people killed by authorities, including 10 hostages—captive corrections officers and civilian prison staff killed by the troopers’ indiscriminate shooting.

The bloody outcome, it becomes clear…was the result, to a great extent, of conscious political choices by the state.

Mike Smith is someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about Attica. Smith, then 23 years old and recently married, had just started as a rookie corrections officer at Attica when the riot broke out and he was seized as a hostage…

Then the helicopter rose above the prison walls, showering everyone in C.S., and shooting started from every direction, and “all hell broke loose.” Smith was shot four times across the abdomen—by someone firing, he believes emphatically, a fully automatic AR-15—incidentally a rifle then issued to servicemen in Vietnam—and his arm was hit by a ricocheted pistol bullet. Noble, also wounded, pulled him to the ground. As Smith lay bleeding he watched prisoners and hostages shot to pieces around him.

Read the story