Prison Guard Michael Smith on Attica
Michael Smith: On September 9th I was working in the metal shop on the second floor in one of the buildings in the rear of the facility where they painted lockers, metal lockers for state institutions. I was in charge of about thirty inmates and, uh, several civilian instructors were also in that area. And the prison whistle sounded. And the only other time that I’d ever heard the prison whistle sound was when an inmate had escaped.
I had started at Attica in the beginning of 1971. I transferred from the Eastern Correctional Facility to Attica, and I was probably the low man on the totem pole as far as seniority goes. So my job at Attica prison at the time was vacation relief, so that every two weeks my job changed.
And, uh, training … there was very little training. It was, it was on-the-job training in the truest sense of the expression, uh, to be a correctional officer at the time. And there was no manual to follow as far as what the blast of the siren meant. One blast, it’s lunch time. Or three blasts, there’s a riot. There was no indication why it was sounding and there was no manual to follow as far as what it might indicate.
When I worked at the Eastern Correctional Facility that was just outside New York City, the inmates there were younger, more politically motivated individuals doing for the most part short terms, mostly for drug-related crime. Attica was maximum security, and most of the inmates there were doing longer periods of time; their sentences were longer. However there was a mix. You had a younger, more politically motivated inmate coming into that inmate population. The older inmate was doing a longer period of time; for the most part that individual just wanted to do his time. That was where he lived, so he wanted to do his time without problem, without incident. The younger inmate, uh, was more politically motivated and outspoken. And the inmate population at Attica at the time was … the largest percentage was black, there were some Hispanics and the balance was white, Caucasian.
The late sixties and early seventies was a time of political unrest and protest. We were protesting the war in Vietnam, protesting for equal rights, and prisoners across the country were protesting for better conditions in the prison system. And that spring was very tense. It was … you could just feel the tension. And anyone that worked there, uh, knew it was present. The inmates were aware of it. And it was just a very tense time for everybody that was there.
I was aware that prisoners at Attica, inmates, were not … they wanted change. They wanted change within the system. They wanted improvements, and primarily in areas that struck me as, uh, mostly humanitarian. Um, food, wages, education— those were the primary areas. At that time there were no black staff. There were no Hispanics. No one spoke Spanish. The inmates felt that the training was inadequate as far as equipping them for when they got out of prison to find work and have a productive life. So those were some of the areas that I was aware of that they wanted changed.
At the time of the riot I was twenty-two years old. I had been married that previous August and we had our first daughter, she was just a few months old. I was the oldest of eight children, and we were brought up as a Catholic family. We were … we always grew up in a rural area but were brought up to respect life. And both my parents were color blind when it comes to their attitude toward people different than us. And I think that … I know that my parents had a huge impression on not just my attitude but my whole family’s attitude.
I had a very good working relationship with the inmate population and also with the staff who worked at Attica. Um, I seemed to be able to balance the two. And the job that I had, where my job would change every two weeks, afforded me the ability to meet a lot of staff, uh, a lot of the inmate population, and also become familiar with the geography of the facility.
So the whistle continued to sound, and I went to the phone located in the front of that room and tried calling the Administration Building. And the phone was dead. Then I tried calling anywhere in the institution, but it was an antiquated operator telephone system that had already been disconnected. So I couldn’t communicate with anyone. And the prison whistle continued to sound. And on the south side of that room you overlook the first floor of the garage area, and the inmates that were in the room rushed to those windows along that wall and they were watching something going on outside. And when I went over to the windows and looked myself, you could see inmates running around in, uh, an unusual manner, and conducting themselves in a way that wasn’t typical.
They were arming themselves, uh, with anything that they could use to protect themselves. Some had football helmets on. And the inmates that were in the room with me thought that it was some type of gang riot within the prison. They feared for their own safety and tried to find hiding places and take up weapons to protect themselves. I locked the civilian instructors in their offices in the rear of that room and locked the entryway doors to that room, and then just stood there and waited to see what would happen. What would come next.
A lot of the inmates found hiding places, and they were scared. And at the time I had a baton in a holster, if you will, at my side, and I also had my keys there. And you could hear a lot of commotion downstairs, and the inmates were ramming the metal gates with some type of mechanical tow motor, or some type of device they got out of the metal shop downstairs in an effort to break the gates down, which eventually they did.
The rioting inmates … it was like this huge flood of human emotion burst into the room. And, um, they eventually broke into the area where I was, and, uh, they beat me, uh, upon entry. And two inmates, Don Noble and Carl Rain, came to my protection when I was lying on the floor, when I was being beaten against the wall. And both the inmates protected me in kind of a spread eagle fashion and put their bodies over mine to protect me.
And the other inmates went to the rear of the room, broke into the offices and took the civilian instructors hostage. And this huge wave of emotion that broke in went back out, and they left me lying on the floor along with Don Noble and Carl Rain. And Don and Carl tried to come up with a plan to get me to safety, and initially they thought about hiding me but thought that may not be a good idea. So they tried to escort me through the tunnel system, through B Block, through Times Square, and through A Block to the administration and safety. And they helped me through B Block and through the tunnel, and when we got to Times Square, the intersect where the four main tunnels in Attica intersect, the inmates had set up a perimeter across the A Tunnel and directed that all hostages be taken to D Yard, one of the four recreation yards. And so I was taken to D Yard, and that was Thursday morning, and was held there as a hostage until the prison was retaken the following Monday the 13th.
Under the circumstances I was treated very well while held as a hostage. It was a very chaotic first day with the initial chaos of the takeover of the prison, and there were several hostages hurt in the process. All the hostages had been taken to D Yard, and upon our arrival all the hostages were gathered into one area. And the, uh, Muslims set up a protective guard around us, and I can recall that first day the head of the Muslims told us, “Just sit tight and we’ll protect you, and don’t worry, your people will be in to rescue you shortly.” And that didn’t happen. It was interesting watching what you thought was this formidable fortress falling as easily as it fell. And as the inmates organized, uh, I couldn’t help getting the feeling that they were organizing much more quickly and effectively than … than our people were on the outside.
I can recall that one of the inmates’ first demands was for not a negotiator but an observers committee, a civilian observers committee. And as they indicated who they wanted I was quite struck by the people that they were asking to be there— um, Tom Wicker, um, Bill Kunstler— and that they wanted it witnessed by a civilian observers committee, not to negotiate. I didn’t get the feeling that they wanted the observers committee to do anything beyond observe, and I was impressed with that. And also that they invited the press in and wanted them to be witness to, and the outside world to be witness to, this process. That indicated to me that the inmates were requesting that ethical and moral issues and real issues be addressed in the prison system and that they wanted the world past the wall, surrounding Attica, to be aware of it. You know, people on the outside. I think that the inmate population felt that they were not only locked up but that anything that goes on inside a prison is locked up and locked away from the outside world. And they wanted them to see this process and see that it was a reasonable request and how they were conducting themselves in this process so that the whole world could judge them.
Having civilians involved was a good idea as far as I was concerned, uh, personally. And the negotiations seemed to be headed in a positive direction initially. It appeared as though the state was agreeing with and going to go along with a lot of the inmates’ demands. However, um, Saturday, with the announcement of Corrections Officer Bill Quinn’s death, that was a completely different aspect thrown into it, and it went south from there. The negotiation process definitely started to break down.
With the announcement of Quinn’s death, any inmate that was involved in the riot could be potentially convicted for murder. After that point the inmates were very aware of that, and amnesty became the biggest issue for both sides. Amnesty was something that the state at that point couldn’t offer, and it was something that the inmates had to have. So when the observers committee came in and Mr. Kunstler said, “Look, this is as good as it’s gonna get,” the inmates had a negative reaction to that, and it made their job more difficult.
Until the announcement of Bill Quinn’s death I was hopeful that there’d be a peaceful resolve and an end to the riot, and it seemed to be headed in that direction. With that development, by Saturday night, a peaceful resolve was looking less likely. On Sunday the situation seemed to be more demanding. Negotiations seemed to break down more, and by Sunday night, uh, the state of New York allowed a priest to come in and administer last rites to the hostages. And, uh, that to me indicated that a peaceful resolve was not likely, that the state was not anticipating a peaceful resolve to the situation.
Uh, Sunday night I still had my wallet and I took some papers out of my wallet, some business cards and some paper money. I borrowed a pen from an inmate, uh, wrote a goodbye note to my family, put it back in my wallet, and put it back in my pocket.
Sunday night the hostages’ wrists were bound and our ankles were bound, and we were on mattresses all in one small area of the yard. And I can recall— I think that it was a general feeling among the hostages— a pretty bleak outlook as far as what was going to happen. And, uh, I thought that something may happen in the darkness of … of the night. However, the night went through without incident, and Monday morning the negotiation process was still at a standoff.
The inmates, in kind of a last-ditch effort, had randomly chosen eight hostages from the hostage circle and assigned inmate executioners to each. And they escorted those eight hostages, elevated them to the rooftop of the tunnel system, called the catwalk— it’s kind of an observatory area that’s elevated from the yard— and I was one of those eight hostages that was randomly chosen and taken to the catwalk, uh, to be executed. I don’t think anybody was thinking rationally anymore at that point. I mean, I had the impression that the inmates thought, “Well, we’re gonna take these hostages and use them as a last bargaining chip and threaten to take their lives and bargain with the balance of the hostages left in the yard,” which was totally irrational. And at the same time the state was saying, “No more negotiating. Release the hostages unharmed and put down your weapons.” So it seemed to be a standoff at that point.
When I was taken to the catwalk I was assigned three inmate executioners. And it was probably what you’d envision as a typical hostage setting. They brought me a chair at one point to, uh, make me more comfortable. I was blindfolded and I had three executioners—one on my right with a hand-fashioned spear at my chest, one behind me with a hammer, and an executioner on my left with a knife at my throat. And the executioner on my left was Don Noble. And Don had made it a point to be there that morning and be one of my executioners. And, uh, Don and I had a serious conversation that morning. We made a mutual promise to contact each other’s family in the event that one of us didn’t make it out, or one of us did make it out, and express our love. And we promised each other that we’d do that. I asked him an additional request, and that was that when the time came that I didn’t want to suffer. And Don promised me that he knew what he was doing, and when the time came or would come I wouldn’t suffer.
Shortly thereafter the state of New York sent a helicopter over the wall. Uh, gas was discharged. There was a large popping noise, and the discharge of the gas and the popping noise seemed to happen at the same time that the, uh, retaking force opened fire. And there were the retaking force: the New York state employees, New York State Troopers and Corrections Officers. The shooting went on … it seemed like forever but I guess in reality it was about ten minutes. Uh, when they started shooting it seemed like all hell broke loose, and you could identify all kinds of weapons: handguns, large caliber, small caliber, shotguns, rifles, semi-automatic weapons and automatic weapons. And, uh, it was just like they indiscriminately shot everyone.
I watched, uh, which was kind of a surreal experience. The state filmed all of this, all of the retaking, and I can recall that some months after the riot the state wanted me to view this film for, uh, prosecuting purposes, to identify people that I could in the film. And in the process they filmed me … they filmed me being shot. And it was an interesting experience to watch that. Uh, they ran it frame by frame. And when the shooting started I was sitting down in a chair, and Don Noble was on my left. And the inmate on my right with a spear was … he’d been very vocal. And, uh, he was a very angry individual— I didn’t know that inmate— but he kept prodding me in the chest with a spear, telling me he couldn’t wait to see my guts spill into the yard. And there was an inmate, an executioner, behind me with a hammer.
And as I watched the film, when the shooting started Noble grabbed ahold of my left shoulder, and he had a knife at my throat. I was blindfolded and I couldn’t see what was going on. The, uh, person with the spear drew the spear up and started down toward my chest. He got relatively close, I’d say within six inches of hitting me with the spear, and he was shot. And at that time, it seemed like that same instant, Noble was trying to pull me off the chair, and I tipped to the side. And when I did they shot the executioner behind me. And I couldn’t see what was going on, I jerked away from Noble, sat up straight in the chair, and as I did they shot me, uh, four times in the abdomen, and they shot Noble at the same time.
And it seemed that we fell like dominos. Um, one of the executioners fell down over my legs, and Noble fell on top of the cement catwalk and he laid parallel to me. And we laid there, and the shooting just went on and on and on. I was also shot once in the right arm, probably with a handgun. And as I lay there I can recall, uh, after being shot, I was pushing on my blindfold in the process. But as I laid on the catwalk I was kind of in semi-fetal position with my knees being drawn toward my chest in kind of an uncontrollable, uh, muscular reaction. And Noble lay close to me, his stomach was against my back.
And I can recall laying on the catwalk, and the shooting just seemed to go on and on and on. And bullets were hitting all around. You could hear people crying, people dying. And as the gunfire subsided a state trooper came across the catwalk, and he looked down at me and, uh, pointed a shotgun at my head as I lay there looking up and, uh, told me if I moved he’d blow my head off. And I can recall thinking, “Boy, I made it this far and now he’s gonna blow my head off.” And he no more than had the words out of his mouth, and had the shotgun at my head, and, uh, a corrections officer who knew me had followed him out onto the catwalk, and he reached under the state trooper’s shotgun and pushed the barrel up into the air away from me, said, “Don’t shoot. He’s one of ours.” With that the state trooper brought the shotgun down directly over my ear and pointed it at Don Noble’s head. And Noble said to me, “Mike, tell them who I am and what I did for you.” So I said, “Don’t shoot. His name’s Don Noble, he saved my life.” And with that the state trooper stepped over both of us and went on. A short time thereafter I was put on a stretcher and taken to a local hospital.
I was shot with an automatic weapon. The weapon issued at Attica at the time for the tower was the AR-50, which is a fully-automatic 223-caliber machine gun. Um, one very similar to the M-16 that the military uses. Uh, when I was hit … I have four entry wounds, and they’re in a vertical order, and they start just below my navel. So whoever shot me was an excellent marksman; it was intentional because the pattern was in a vertical and not a horizontal. And the bullets exploded on impact and, uh, damaged a lot of stuff inside, several organs inside me, and expanded, leaving shrapnel and exit wounds out my back. There was a long recovery period that followed; I had to learn how to walk again. I had a colostomy, um, a temporary colostomy, which I had closed a couple years later. And, uh, there were a lot surgeries involved.
I was taken directly to the hospital because of the extent of my injuries. Um, I was in and out of consciousness for several weeks, but it was very disturbing to find out what the outcome of the event was. And … and that so many people had lost their lives in the process, not just the state employees but inmates also.
The state mounted a huge cover-up campaign and gave false information. For one thing they said that I had been emasculated by Frank Smith and that my testicles had been stuffed in my mouth. And that was reported by state officials to the Associated Press, I think, before I was even out of the facility that day. Total fabrication. Never happened. I wasn’t assaulted that way. Wasn’t in Frank’s nature to begin with, I knew Frank Smith. I thought Frank was a pretty good guy, actually. And how Frank conducted the rest of his life when he left prison was pretty indicative of that, I think. Frank loved everybody, and he did his best to try to get everyone a piece of justice, not just the inmates.
The other thing is I wasn’t anywhere around Frank Smith. It just … it was a total fabrication. And as time went on there were a lot of fabrications. Hostages didn’t die from cut throats; hostages died from gunshot wounds. Inmates didn’t have guns; state employees had guns. And then as time went on and I learned more about the atrocities that were committed, it was very disturbing.
I’m not pro-inmate, but I’m not lopsided toward the state either. I believe that people should be responsible for their actions. The inmates did things that they should be held responsible for during the riot. And the state of New York and their employees should also be held responsible for what they did. Everybody makes mistakes, but you still should be held accountable for those actions. And unfortunately, in this event, I don’t think anybody was held accountable on either side. I mean, the state employees murdered people and weren’t held accountable, and the inmates murdered three of their own and weren’t held accountable. And they also murdered Bill Quinn. Somebody should be held accountable for something.
The state of New York was forced by a federal mandate to compensate, even if on a limited basis, the inmates for what happened to them during the riot and after the retaking of the prison. And the hostages and their families started a group, a grassroots movement called The Forgotten Victims of Attica, and after the state had negotiated some type of settlement with the inmates, the hostages were basically given that same settlement. And one of the things the hostages had requested prior to the settlement, one of the things that they asked the state of New York for, was the records that are held in Albany regarding what happened during the riot and the retaking. And all of our requests were denied. And during that process I FOIAed for those documents that are held in Albany and was denied access to something that I considered public record. And subsequent requests for those documents were also denied. I’m hopeful, though, with a new administration in Albany that maybe they’ll reconsider those requests.
I think for me to feel like justice has been served would require an admission of responsibility and some type of action to indicate sincerity and an apology. And not just for one side, for both sides. An apology from the state of New York would include releasing the records.
The Filmmakers: Before this happened did you think that the state was capable of doing what it did?
Smith: I think that [Commissioner] Oswald was basically a good guy and had good intentions, and I think that he really wanted to help change the prison system in New York state. And I felt initially that they were negotiating in good faith and agreed to negotiate, um, with the hopes that this could be peacefully resolved. Anything but how it turned out. And in retrospect, Oswald may have had good intentions but the powers-that-be above him dictated what happened, and I don’t think that the hostages’ or inmates’ safety was ever really a consideration. I don’t think there ever was a plan to rescue the hostages. I think that the plan primarily was, uh, “How can we make this go away and cause the least political ramifications?” I think that Governor Rockefeller had his own political ambitions that included the White House at the time, and he wanted to distance himself from this event, just absolutely as far away as he could get.
Filmmakers: Did anyone in an official capacity ever apologize to you for what happened?
Smith: I never had anybody in an official capacity apologize to me for what happened. They were part of the system, as far as I’m concerned, part of the political system, and, uh, that’s pretty much a self-serving industry. They were more concerned with what effect it was going to have on their political future than saying, “There were mistakes made, let’s fix this and we’ll do our best to let it not happen again.”
Filmmakers What happened to Don Noble?
Smith: Don Noble survived, and we passed one time in Buffalo in court. And gestured hello. And I understand that Don Noble eventually got out of the prison system and he’s since died.
Filmmakers: So, you were shot by a corrections officer? Or was it a trooper?
Smith: A positive identification of the individual that shot me I’m not aware of. However I was shot multiple times, so it may have been two different people who shot me. Most likely it was two different people who shot me. But because of the type of shrapnel that I had, the type weapon that I was shot with, uh, I believe that I was shot by a correctional officer.
Filmmakers: And what does it mean to you to be shot by a fellow corrections officer?
Smith: I think that in a hostage situation there are people that … there are people that have to take care of business. And unfortunately I think that has to be done sometimes without any emotional connection. When they retook Attica prison, there were corrections officers involved that worked in the facility, there were probably troopers that had close friends that worked at the facility, and I think that relationship implied, uh, an emotional involvement that … that disqualifies any objectivity.
Filmmakers: Who do you think ultimately was responsible for Attica?
Smith: Who is ultimately responsible for the riot? That’s an interesting question that I think … is complex. It depends on an individual’s attitude of the whole system in general. The prison system doesn’t work. It doesn’t do anything to benefit society. If you lock somebody up in a cage and don’t offer them anything to … any tools to make them any better to re-enter society, they’re going to only re-enter more bitter than they were when they went in. And it depends, I guess, on how you look at the people in prison. To me prison is just a reflection of what’s going on in society. They’re overcrowded. They’re inadequate. A lot of people in our prison system are there because of drug use. Is that a crime? Or is that an addiction? Should we put them in prison or should we offer them some type of help?
And society—I mean, who’s to blame? Society. If it’s locked behind a wall they don’t … they turn their back on it and don’t have to deal with it unless it’s directly related to them or someone in their family. So I guess, who’s responsible? The inmates, yeah, they started a riot inside a prison and took control of a facility out of desperation that maybe wasn’t the right form to bring their issues to the table. But they didn’t seem to be able to get anyone to address them in any other fashion. So through frustration they expressed themselves in riot form. Maybe if our prison system would have offered some type of meaningful reform for individuals that need it, that riot would have never happened.
Filmmakers: Do you think it’s better today, the prison system?
Smith: I’m not involved in the prison system anymore, other than occasionally to go there for somebody that I meet, that I worked with, or a legal process, uh, following the riot. I’ve been back to the prison a couple times, and other than what I know in hearsay, I’m not personally involved in the system. But I don’t see where it’s improved dramatically. Uh, it’s more overcrowded now than it ever was … not just Attica but prisons in general are overcrowded. And they seem to be putting an emphasis on security more than helping the individual and helping our society. It’s like, to me it’s a growing problem. They haven’t addressed it. And I don’t know if society doesn’t have the means to address it, but it sure seems to me that they could do something a hell of a lot better than what they’ve got right now.
Filmmakers: What did you experience at Attica teach you about the criminal justice system?
Smith: I think the United States has probably one of the best, um, justice systems in the world. However, there are problems. And it seems, it seems that the justice system is politically manipulated, and I think that’s unfortunate.
Filmmakers: What do you think people should learn from Attica today?
Smith: Well, I don’t think that people realize how important Attica is because they don’t see where they are directly affected. But what happened at Attica, and I’m using Attica as a general term, and what continues to happen at Attica affects us all. It affects us socially, it affects us monetarily, and it affects the whole health of our society.
All extended interviews were provided by the filmmakers and edited by Andrew Lutsky.