Search About Newsletters Donate

Revisiting the Ghosts of Attica

A wrenching new book recounts the bloodiest prison battle in our history.

Inmates at Attica shouted their demands during a negotiating session with state corrections officials in September 1971.
Inmates at Attica shouted their demands during a negotiating session with state corrections officials in September 1971.

On the morning of September 13, 1971, shortly after state police launched an armed assault to retake Attica prison from its rebelling inmates, a trooper emptied his .357 magnum pistol into a prisoner named Kenneth B. Malloy. As Heather Ann Thompson recounts in her wrenching and minutely detailed recounting of that day, Malloy’s death was one of the most hideous on a morning of hideous deeds, one that saw 39 people killed by police, another 89 wounded. Malloy, an autopsy later showed, was shot twelve times at close range by at least two guns. He was hit with so many bullets, Thompson reports, “that his eye sockets were shredded by the shards of his own bones.”

Published in partnership with Longreads.

Forty-five years ago this week, inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, N.Y., started an uprising. Follow along as we live tweet the standoff: @atticasghosts

Not far away, an inmate named James Robinson was fatally wounded with a .270 caliber bullet fired by a police rifle. As he lay dying, another trooper stepped up and finished him off, firing a load of buckshot into Robinson’s neck. Afterward, a police sergeant snapped a photo of Robinson, who, like many inmates, had donned a football helmet in feeble hope of warding off the baton blows they imagined were the worst they might suffer in the retaking. His body lay splayed on its side, a state police tag looped around his empty right hand. A second photo, taken moments later, shows Robinson in precisely the same position, except that a curved sword has now appeared beside him. The trooper who shot him later insisted he did so because the inmate had charged him with such a weapon.

“Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy,” Heather Ann Thompson, Pantheon Books 2016

“Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy,” Heather Ann Thompson, Pantheon Books 2016

The name Attica still registers dread and sorrow in Americans old enough to recall that drizzly and blood-flecked week at the upstate New York prison. No matter who you blamed for the carnage, the slaughter that gray September morning in a tiny rural hamlet thirty-five miles east of Buffalo, a place few had ever heard of, evoked anguish and fury. Photos and film clips of raincoat-clad troopers stepping through the mud amidst tangles of dead and wounded men, of long snaking lines of inmates stripped naked, their hands atop their heads, settled deep into the marrow of those who saw them. Charles Mingus and John Lennon set music to the tragedy. Muhammad Ali composed a fierce bit of doggerel that he read on TV: "Better than of this prison rot / If there's any chance I've got / Kill me here on this spot."

Even those innocent of any knowledge of the riot and the rage it inspired, can still recognize its incantatory power in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 “Dog Day Afternoon,” as Al Pacino riles up a crowd outside the Brooklyn bank he is robbing by crying out, "Attica! Attica!"

<b>Uprising: Understanding Attica, Revolution and the Incarceration State</b>, Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly, Kindle Books 2011.

Uprising: Understanding Attica, Revolution and the Incarceration State, Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly, Kindle Books 2011.

Almost all of those killed in what was then a mind-boggling body count died in the span of a less than a quarter of an hour as state troopers, correction officers and sheriff’s deputies, under a thick fog of pepper gas, directed a withering fire from rifles and pistols at rebelling inmates who had held the facility for four days. The McKay Commission, the first of several state panels appointed to investigate the riot, hauntingly described it as the “bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans” since the Civil War and the Indian massacres of the late 19th century. Unlike those conflicts, however, only one side had guns at Attica.

The police assault came after Governor Nelson Rockefeller, whose decade-old presidential ambitions were still burning brightly in 1971, refused to come to the scene to help resolve the standoff, despite pleadings to do so by some of his own Republican allies. The surge was supposed to be a rescue operation as well as a recapture of the facility. As such it was an appalling failure: Ten of those slain by police bullets were state employees, guards and civilian staff who had been held as hostages since September 9th when inmates first seized the prison. Several other hostages were grievously wounded.

“The Turkey Shoot: Tracking the Attica Cover-up,” by Malcolm Bell, foreword by Tom Wicker, Grove Press 1985 (scheduled for re-release in March, 2017, with a new introduction and epilogue by the author as “The Attica Turkey Shoot: Justice On Trial.”) (pictured)

“The Turkey Shoot: Tracking the Attica Cover-up,” by Malcolm Bell, foreword by Tom Wicker, Grove Press 1985 (scheduled for re-release in March, 2017, with a new introduction and epilogue by the author as “The Attica Turkey Shoot: Justice On Trial.”) (pictured)

After state officials surveyed the scene, they went outside and told waiting reporters perhaps the most nefarious lie ever uttered by American public servants: The hostages had been murdered by the inmates, they said, their throats slit. Another had been castrated. Within hours, the story was around the world. None of it was true.

All of that grim history is tellingly replayed in “Blood in the Water.” A professor of history at the University of Michigan, Thompson spent thirteen years excavating the ruins of what remains America’s most deadly prison riot. Her trail took her through investigative files, voluminous court dockets, the testimony of survivors, as well as the recordings of phone conversations as Rockefeller kept Richard Nixon and the White House abreast of events during the siege. Both men were convinced the uprising was part of a vast radical conspiracy, ranging from anti-war protests to the Black Panthers. “The whole thing was led by the blacks,” Rockefeller told Nixon after the prison had been retaken. “We’ll do the mopping up now.”

In fact, as Thompson makes clear, while radical views inspired many of the leaders, the rebellion’s roots lay in the many daily indignities of prison life: lack of showers, insufficient toilet paper, inadequate medical care and the near-constant disrespect expressed by many of their keepers. As for Rockefeller’s benign sounding “mop-up,” it was as gruesome and criminal, if not as deadly, as the opening salvo of police guns: Thompson reports that one inmate was sodomized with a Phillips screwdriver; others had plasma tubes ripped from their arms and lit cigarettes tossed onto their chests. All were forced, after crawling face down through the muck, to run a gauntlet of club-swinging guards while barefoot and over broken glass.

Such terrors were not completely one-sided: After the assault, officers found the mangled corpses of three other prisoners, slain by the inmates themselves during the takeover.

John Cudmore, a physician in the National Guard who tried to attend to the many injured that day, told his wife late that night that he now “understood how the massacre at My Lai had happened.”

Part of the strength of “Blood in the Water” is the many pungent details Thompson paints into her portrait of the central event. Some are moments of farce: As the riot was erupting, with fires already burning, an inmate in the prison laundry picked up a ringing telephone to hear the warden’s wife ordering clean bed linens for the large brick mansion on the hill next door to the prison where she and her family resided. At least that phone worked. When a guard at Times Square, the prison’s central hub where the riot broke out, tried to call for help the line was dead.

Others are of horror: in the first minutes of the riot, two inmates - brothers - were seized by a clutch of predatory prisoners and repeatedly raped in a bathroom. There are also heroics: Leaders of the uprising, many of them later singled out for retribution by guards, braved the wrath of their fellow inmates by guiding at least eleven injured hostages to safety. Among them was correction officer William Quinn, whose death two days later from the beating he took as the riot began was to hugely complicate negotiations aimed at resolving the siege.

And there is awe: One elderly inmate stood in D Yard the first night of the occupation and stared at the sky. It was the first time, he said, that he’d “seen the stars in twenty-two years.”

This is the Attica tragedy with which most are familiar, a massive bloodletting marked by spasms of sadism. Thompson chose for her title the image of the blood that glistened in pools of rainwater in the ditches inmates had dug in vain to protect themselves. But it’s no coincidence that so many earlier works about the riot and its aftermath have invoked the word “ghosts.” “You probably don’t believe in ghosts,” Elizabeth Gaynes, a lawyer who defended inmates charged with crimes after the riot told me in an interview a couple of years ago. “But I do. The ghosts there won’t go away.”

Ghosts linger, of course, where terrible crimes have been left unresolved, and few places are as filled with as much ghastly and unpunished wrongdoing as Attica. After the riot, the state vigorously pursued convictions against inmates for crimes including murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. In exchange for paroles, some inmates agreed to testify in those cases, although most ultimately admitted they were just guessing when it came to identifying defendants. Thompson cites one prisoner who tried to name a perpetrator of one of the vicious murders carried out before the assault. The investigator wasn’t interested, however. The only suspects he wanted to hear about, he said, were leaders of the uprising.

There was substantially less enthusiasm for making cases against law enforcement officials. Only one police officer was ever charged, for reckless endangerment. And that indictment, along with the other convictions and pending charges, was wiped away in 1976 by a new governor, Hugh Carey, who pardoned all involved saying he wanted to “close the books.”

That’s the other, less familiar, tragedy of Attica, and Thompson takes that part of the story a major step further than previous accounts, by naming some of the officers, state police as well as correction guards, who, at one point, faced potentially serious charges by grand juries.

To explain how and why those juries stopped short of indictments, Thompson draws heavily on Malcolm Bell, the whistle-blowing former special prosecutor who presented much of the evidence to the panels, before his bosses ordered him to stand down. Bell eventually resigned, taking his tale of obstruction to New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, who had gone through his own searing experience as one of the outside observers during the riot (and who wrote one of great books of participatory journalism about it, “A Time to Die.”) Wicker brought in investigative reporter Myron Farber whose stories appeared on the Times’ front pages in April, 1975.

Bell’s own account, “The Turkey Shoot: Tracking the Attica Cover-up,” is to be reissued early next year. In the small canon of whistleblower literature, the book is a classic, a kind of nonfiction police procedural whose protagonist is initially overwhelmed by doubts and confusion, only to be filled with outrage once he realizes that justice has been purposely thwarted. A Republican who voted for Nixon in 1968, Bell found himself, by the end of his brief stint as a special prosecutor, pondering possible conspiracies reaching into both Albany’s executive mansion and the White House.

Given what he learned in his digging, such notions weren’t much of a stretch. Police had taken purposeful steps to obscure who did what that day, Bell found. Before storming the prison, police commanders ordered officers to remove their name tags. And although standard policy called for a record to be made of which weapons were issued to which officers, no one kept track when rifles were handed out to troopers. Also ignored was a requirement that officers fill out reports detailing the number of times they had discharged their weapons and why. When Bell pressed senior police officials about why no such reports were compiled after Attica he was told, with a straight face, that the reports were used only when officers had shot at animals.

The absence of such records helped frustrate efforts by prosecutors to tie shootings to specific shooters. More frustrations arose when investigators finally received a cache of photos and film footage of the retaking that had been taken by police. Pictures that should have captured officers in the act of firing on slain inmates were oddly missing, as though the cameras had turned away at crucial moments. Actually, the cover-up was cruder than that: When an investigator peeled back the cardboard corners of the Kodak slides the police provided, he found gaps in the numbering, breaks that corresponded to shootings that were likely crimes. But at least many photos were handed over. Logs and tapes of radio messages between police during the retaking somehow went missing altogether.

Among the missing slides, Bell and investigators noted, were those that would likely have recorded two of the most blatant inmate executions that morning, the shootings of Malloy and Robinson. In his own book, Bell scrupulously kept to his oath of grand jury secrecy, referring to his chief suspects only as “Trooper A” and “Trooper B” etc. But as part of his effort to press state officials to continue the probe, Bell wrote a lengthy memo to Carey after his 1974 election in which he laid out the specifics of the “shooter” cases he had been presenting to the grand jury, as well as broader “hindering prosecution” charges he had expected to bring against high level state police officials involved in the cover-up.

This memo, including the names of suspects, was one of those that surfaced during Thompson’s own painstaking search, when a court clerk in upstate Erie County mistakenly gave her access to sealed records. This is the kind of kismet that researchers live for, and unsurprisingly, Thompson has included much of the memos, along with the names of the suspects, in her book.

Her revelations are even more notable since they come just one year after a much-publicized bid by relatives of hostages and New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman to win release of two previously secret volumes compiled by one of the state panels that investigated the riot. A judge in Erie County agreed to unseal the volumes, but ordered that all grand jury information be redacted.

Bell, who is otherwise admiring and supportive of Thompson’s accomplishment, even helping to fact-check the manuscript, said he disapproved of her decision to name names. “The memos were works in progress in many cases,” he told me from his home in Vermont last month. “They were not the end of the story.” As examples, Bell cited two individuals whom he said were incorrectly named as shooting suspects in the book. But he acknowledged that the book was “probably right about who the shooter was” in other instances.

As it happens, many of the suspects’ names were not all that secret. Stories in upstate New York papers in the late 1970s and early ‘80s about the criminal and civil litigation that followed in the wake of the riot included the names of many of those cited in Thompson’s book as suspects. As early as December, 1975, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported that seven officers had been cleared of crimes committed at Attica by the grand jury. According to Bell, those votes to “no bill” the suspects came after his former supervisors rushed his unfinished cases through in a bid to minimize the public embarrassment stemming from the Times articles about the cover-up.

Whatever the reason, among those the newspaper reported had been cleared was New York State Trooper James R. Mittelstaedt, the man alleged to have fired the shotgun blast that finished off an already dying James Robinson, according to “Blood in the Water.” Mittelstaedt, the newspaper article stated, was cleared of four counts, including second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter.

Even more details appeared concerning one of the former officers alleged to have shot Kenneth B. Malloy, the inmate whose eyes were obliterated by bullets. In July, 1981, the Democrat & Chronicle and other papers covered testimony at a hearing for a civil lawsuit filed by the widow of one of the slain hostages. There, a state police captain testified that a trooper under his command named Aldo Barbolini had used his own .357-caliber revolver to shoot an inmate. The article noted that Malloy was the only victim killed by .357-caliber bullets. State police captain James Patterson testified that Barbolini told him he had “shot a Negro” at least three times. Trooper Barbolini had initially lied, Patterson said, claiming that he had retrieved a shotgun from the slain inmate, a rifle that he then used to kill another prisoner who was cowering in one of the trenches inmates had dug. He later admitted he had borrowed the shotgun from another trooper.

Inmates of the Attica Correctional Facility negotiating with Russell G. Oswald, lower left, the state prisons commissioner, in September 1971.

Inmates of the Attica Correctional Facility negotiating with Russell G. Oswald, lower left, the state prisons commissioner, in September 1971.

State police officials were sufficiently alarmed about Barbolini’s actions that they told him he could resign or face criminal charges. On September 17, just four days after the assault, Barbolini tendered his resignation. But none of that was ever relayed to Bell or the investigators trying to determine culpability in the deaths of Malloy and others. Barbolini, however, court records show, refused to go away quietly. In 1977, after Carey announced his pardons, he filed suit seeking reinstatement, claiming that he had been wrongly coerced into his resignation. A court ruled he had waited too long to file his suit.

Become a Member

Join the community that keeps criminal justice on the front page.

Thompson has said she did not contact those named in the prosecutorial memos for fear that they might take legal steps to block her book’s publication. In many cases, including that of Trooper Mittelstaedt, she needn’t have worried. After retiring from the state police, Mittelstaedt died in 2005 of kidney failure. His obituary noted that he had been “among the legion of officers” that helped take back control of Attica after the uprising. In retirement, he had taught criminal justice at a local community college.

Aldo Barbolini, however, is still with us. After he failed to get his job back with the state police, he served as a postmaster in Highland Falls, N.Y., and worked part-time at the Palisades Interstate Park Commission. Subpoenaed as a witness in 1991 in a lawsuit brought by former Attica inmates, Barbolini took the Fifth Amendment forty-four times. He retired to Florida in 2001 with a small state pension. He did not respond to numerous messages last month.

“Blood in the Water” reminds one generation, and informs others, that this willful failure to pursue justice for the victims of Attica remains one of the bleakest, if least acknowledged, chapters in New York history. That cycle of killing, torture and cover-up all happened not in some backward, faraway place, but in a deep blue state.

New York’s dismal performance is brightened only slightly by efforts made in the wake of the riot to respond to some of the inmates’ grievances. Officials did so, Thompson makes clear in her epilogue, out of recognition that the men and women they were locking away for years needed to believe they had some means of being heard. It was either that or risk more uprisings. To that end, in addition to basics such as more showers, soap, medical care and family visits, officials introduced some of the rudiments of fairness the rebels had demanded: For the first time, inmates were allowed to elect a liaison committee to speak for them; a grievance procedure, complete with hearings, was enacted. A statewide network of lawyers to assist inmates, Prisoners Legal Services, received funding. Access to higher education was made available.

For a time, those changes helped ameliorate some of the prison system’s worst failings. But it wasn’t long before those modest reforms were swamped in the surging tide of new prisoners swept into the system by the draconian new drug statutes that Rockefeller introduced in 1973 in one more bid to be accepted by national leaders of his party as a true law and order Republican. That plan succeeded for Rockefeller when Gerald Ford picked him as vice president a year later. It proved a disaster for thousands of New Yorkers, however. It is stunning to reflect that at the time of the Attica riot, the state’s prison population was all of 12,500. By 1999, that number had grown to 72,600. Today, eight years after Rockefeller’s drug laws were finally rolled back, the population is 52,000.

Forty-five years after the uprising, Attica’s ghosts remain palpable behind its soaring walls. A granite marker outside the front gate lists the names of the employees who died. Those of the inmates who perished, almost three times in number, are nowhere to be found. The racial disparity between the keepers and the kept remains as stark as it was then. At the time of the riot, there was a single Hispanic among 500 guards, while 63 percent of the prisoners were minority; today, 80 percent of the prisoners are black or Hispanic, and while there are 100 more guards than in 1971, less than two dozen are minorities.

Last year, three guards there pleaded guilty to having beaten an inmate so badly he needed surgery to repair one of his broken legs. Yet the sanction they received was the same as Kenneth Malloy’s executor: they had to quit their jobs. Still, it was the first time officers had been criminally charged for such an incident, and when I went to Attica to talk to inmates about it they told me their only surprise was that word of the beating had reached beyond the prison’s walls. Such incidents were common, they said. Most despaired of winning outside help. Perhaps another riot was the answer, they said.

One of those still haunted by Attica’s ghosts is Clarence B. Jones, the former Amsterdam News publisher who had earlier served as a lawyer and advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. When the riot broke out, Jones was summoned to Attica by Rockefeller himself to join Wicker, radical attorney William Kunstler and others requested by the inmates to aid negotiations with state officials. In his short book, Uprising, Jones writes that the last time he had spoken with Rockefeller prior to Attica was in 1963 when the governor had, secretly, given him $100,000 in cash to help bail out King and others jailed during the Birmingham civil rights protests. For political reasons, the governor didn’t want his generosity known. But Jones hardly viewed him as racist.

The day before the assault, however, he personally pleaded with Rockefeller to come to the prison. The governor, coldly and crisply, Jones recalls, simply thanked him “for his service.” That night, in an interview with David Frost on CBS, Jones said “The hands of the Governor of the State of New York are dripping with blood.” After the show aired, Rockefeller called him at home to say he understood Jones’ anger. “You did what you had to do. I did what I had to do as governor,” Rockefeller told him.

“Those people were under your care,” Jones responded.

“You can’t save everyone, Mr. Jones,” the governor replied.

Tom Robbins is investigative journalist in residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His reporting on violence in New York prisons, a collaboration of the Marshall Project and The New York Times, was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Investigative Reporting and won the 2016 Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism. Robbins has been a columnist and staff writer at the Village Voice, the New York Daily News, and The New York Observer.