50 years after Attica uprising, families want apology

ATTICA, N.Y. (WIVB) — Thursday marked 50 years since the start of the Attica prison uprising. By the time it was over, dozens were dead and people were demanding answers.

It began on Sept. 9, 1971, when inmates at Attica rioted and demanded better prisoners’ rights. Forty-three inmates and workers died, most of them on September 13, when—within minutes—New York State Police took the prison in a gunfire-filled raid.

The gunfire killed 29 inmates and 10 hostages. “It is very hard to wrap your head around 50 years,” said Deanne Quinn Miller.

State officials initially claimed, falsely, that prisoners had slashed the throats of hostages as police began storming the prison, and news reports at the time, including The Associated Press, quoted those false accounts. But autopsies a day later found that all the hostages had been shot by their would-be rescuers. Accounts of prisoners having castrated a guard also later proved to be false.

In all, 11 staff and 32 inmates died in the riot and siege. No law enforcement officers were put on trial for their roles in the massacre. A state commission organized to investigate noted no safeguards were developed to avoid shooting hostages and unresisting inmates.

But by that time, 28-year-old Billy Quinn was already dead. The prison guard had been seriously injured in the first moments of the riot. The Official Report of the New York State Commission on Attica noted that he had been hit on the head. Quinn was eventually let out of the prison, but died in a Rochester hospital two days after he was attacked.

“Who is Billy?” Miller asked. “That’s exactly what I didn’t know.” Quinn was Miller’s father, but that was about all she knew about him, because he died when she was 5. “I got limited knowledge from my family. My grandparents, his parents—once my dad was killed in the riot—they just literally stopped talking about him. I think it was their way of dealing with his death. I mean literally stopped talking about him. Like he didn’t even exist.”

“I was never really comfortable asking my mom because I could tell how sad it made her when I asked questions about my dad.”

Deanne Quinn Miller

A key component of the 1971 takeover of Attica was prisoners’ rights. Officials at the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which operates the correctional facility, insist that Attica in 2021 is “markedly different.”

DOCCS specifically noted that, among other things, there are 600 fewer inmates in Attica. The prison is also reportedly outfitted with nearly 1,900 cameras to protect staff and incarcerated individuals alike. And corrections officials say the incarcerated population has better access to health care than in 1971, and that it’s delivered at the community standard.

FILE — In this Sept. 1971 file photo, Inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility, in Attica, NY, raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity during the Attica uprising, which took the lives of 43 people. Fifty years after the Attica prison uprising, the families of slain and injured prison guards say they’re still waiting for an apology from the state. (AP Photo/Bob Schutz, File)

DOCCS says they’ve implemented de-escalation tactics training for security staff and a pepper-spray program. The prison has hosted events such as a TEDx event, an evening with cast members of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and it has an on-going relationship with the Glimmerglass Opera Company. They’ve also invested millions of dollars to install fixed cameras in some DOCCS prisons. Attica has nearly 1,900 of them.

But Miller wonders if more can be done. “I think, at times, DOCCS would like to think that everything is okay in our prisons,” she said. “We can clearly see that it’s not.”

“The department has made significant changes, at Attica and at its facilities across the state, to more humanely supervise and prepare incarcerated individuals for a successful release back to the community.”

DOCCS

“I don’t think that that’s a job that you can ever make not dangerous,” Miller said of corrections work. “Although I think the department thinks they’re doing a good job, there is probably plenty more to be done.”

The annual commemoration on the prison’s front lawn is scheduled for Monday. Miller will be there, along with other members of the group Forgotten Victims of Attica. The acting commissioner of DOCCS will be there, and Miller also hopes Gov. Kathy Hochul will show up. “The one thing I would like to say I would like is an apology,” she says.

Miller says an apology would acknowledge the toll this has taken on state workers, their families, and others. In her quest to learn more about her father and how he died, Miller contacted several sources, including other family members, family friends, prison guards, and inmates.

She also turned to veteran journalist Gary Craig. “Ultimately, where I ended up getting a lot of the information was, Gary Craig helped me make some amazing connections with inmates who were there that day, that assisted my father within the prison,” she said. “And gave me a lot more of the puzzle pieces that I was missing.”

She would find many of the answers she was looking for, including how her father ended up getting out of the prison after being assaulted with the help of an inmate. “He got a mattress out of A-block,” Miller said. “He got three other Muslim inmates to help carry my dad on a mattress to the administration building. They brought him to safety. That was something I never knew.”

Miller and Craig chronicled their search for answers in a book called “The Prison Guard’s Daughter: My Journey Through the Ashes of Attica”.

She’s chronicled her journey in a book, “The Prison Guard’s Daughter.” It was released this week, with Craig helping her write it. “If I was going to help anybody write a book and tell their story, I wanted it to be Dee,” Craig said. “She and the story are both so special and remarkable.”

Miller still hopes there is another chapter to that story. “An apology is the easiest thing to do. It doesn’t cost anything. What you give to people when you apologize is a sense of peace and maybe a little bit of—I don’t know about forgiveness, but it just gives you a feeling that you can let down your guard a little bit and not always be so mad,” Miller said.

An apology seemed like perhaps the easiest of five demands that Miller and other members of the Forgotten Victims of Attica sought from the state after organizing in 2000 as a voice for slain and injured prison employees and their families.

Their other demands have been met: for financial restitution, counseling, permission to hold an annual ceremony on the prison grounds and the unsealing of riot-related records, although some containing secret grand jury material remain locked.

Any fear of liability that may come with an apology seems moot, Miller said, after a $12 million settlement with the Forgotten Victims in 2005 and an $8 million award to inmates and their survivors.

“I’m tired,” said Miller. “It’s particularly poignant that [an apology] would come on the 50th,” said Miller.

When asked by whether Hochul had plans to acknowledge the 50-year mark, or offer the apology Miller was seeking, a spokesperson for the governor did not immediately have a response. Hochul grew up in Western New York and once represented Wyoming County, where the prison is located, in Congress.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whom Hochul replaced in August, would not, nor did three other former governors who held office while the request was pending: David Paterson, Eliot Spitzer and George Pataki.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie has proposed legislation allowing for the release of certain grand jury proceeding materials “on the basis of enduring historical importance.”

The Brooklyn Democrat’s bill, which stalled last year, does not specifically refer to the Attica case but Myrie has noted that grand jury proceedings after the uprising resulted in numerous indictments of prison inmates but not against law enforcement.

Supporters point to the release earlier this year of transcripts of grand jury proceedings in Attorney General Letitia James’ investigation into the March 2020 death of Daniel Prude, who died after being detained by police in Rochester. It was the first time in New York history that grand jury proceedings in a police-involved death were made public.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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