Attica Prison Riot
Robert Douglass served as Counsel and later Secretary to Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller from 1965 to 1972. At Rockefeller's request, he was sent to Attica during the uprising to represent the governor and to help quell the riot and appease the inmates. Frank Smith was an inmate at the prison and acted as a guard during the uprising, trying to assure that none of the officials sent in to negotiate with the prisoners were harmed. The following excerpts are from the interviews conducted with each of these men for "The Rockefellers" film and provide their points of view about what happened at Attica.
1. Where were you when news came of Attica?
Robert Douglass: I think when Attica broke I was actually in Albany, and Governor called me and he had sent Norm Heard, the budget director was out there, and the Commissioner Oswald, who was the head of the corrections system was at Attica, and I was in Albany, and he asked me to follow it very closely, which I did, and then, he felt it was getting worse and he said, "Would you go up to Attica and be my representative at Attica?" And, being a lawyer, I think he felt that might be helpful.
So I went out to Attica and kept in constant touch with him, and he was right, the situation was deteriorating. The inmates certainly had gripes about conditions in the prison system, but if you -- it's all relative terms. It was the number of showers and the amount of fresh fruit you got, and whether or not they had alternatives to pork in the diet. They were not what I would consider the kind of complaints you might get [laugh] from some backwards states.
But there were complaints, and so the commissioner of corrections went out in the yard to explain that they were invoking some reforms and that he would deliver on his promises, and I thought we were making some headway, and the inmates had something like 24, 25 demands. Those demands had to do with conditions in the prison.
2. How did negotiations proceed?
Robert Douglass: And so on Friday of the uprising, I thought we were making progress. I thought we had closure on all 25 items. And then unfortunately one of the prison guards died from injuries during the attack, the uprising. That changed the whole picture. Right then and there, the inmates were very smart and they knew that they were an accessory to the crimes committed during the riot, and every one of them probably could have been prosecuted. And then we started a new tack, which was to negotiate with the district attorney and to assure the inmates there would be no wanton persecution, that whoever was guilty of killing the guard would be, certainly prosecuted, but there would be no just general prosecution of everyone.
And we worked out an agreement on it, and that was considered by the inmates. And then they came back and they added to their demands which we had agreed to on Friday, and the two additional demands were asylum to a non-imperialistic country and total amnesty for anything that had happened.
Well, one, we couldn't grant asylum to a non-imperialistic country. I had some second thoughts on that. Maybe if I had it to do over again I could come up with a country who would be happy to have given them asylum.
And the other was general amnesty, which the governor had no power to grant. He could grant a pardon, but that's after a conviction.
So the answer was really no on both counts, and, and I had the clear feeling, as we all did, that these were really designed to be a break point; they wanted a confrontation.
3. When the negotiations get going, what was the initial reaction?
Frank Smith: We were dealing with the commissioner, Oswald, you know. "Yeah, that's right, yeah, we did that, that makes sense, you know, we can change, and we going to do that, and we going to work on this and we going to work on that, and we going to deal with the really, really change," and all this. But then he went outside and he forgot that we on the national TV and we got a TV set up, and he go, "Oh, in there, they want everything, they want the whole world." He changes right up. So right then, you know, faith, you know, we said, "We don't want this reaction every person coming in here."
And then we start talking to the observers, you know, like Arthur Eve, Clarence Jones, Wicker, and Dunne, and all of them, that we needed the governor, we needed somebody here that really, really want to take this on, because Oswald, ex-parole commissioner, and he didn't have no faith from Jump Street, you know, and he double-dealing, you know, he want to stroke somebody.
You know, so that's when the issue, when it really came down to it, Rockefeller should be the person to come, you know, and talk to us as the chief executive of New York State, recognizing that his arm was reaching all the way to Washington, it wasn't just there, you know, because he had a little political thing in the wind, too, you know, he was scheming, you know. He could make a move in his career, too. But at that time, we didn't recognize that.
4. Why did Rockefeller not come to Attica?
Robert Douglass: Then there was a group of people that came in and volunteered to kind of broker peace in the situation. It included Herman Bedio, Bill Kuntsler, Eldridge Cleaver. And it was quite a collection of people.
And they invited me in, and demanded to see the governor, and I said, "Look, the governor has made it very clear that he's not going to come into a riot situation because -- You can talk to the governor, you're free to call him and you can discuss anything you want, but he strongly feels that he should not come into a prison situation where you're holding hostages under threat of death and negotiate, because it's not a negotiation."
"Well, he's got to come up here. Somehow something would happen if he comes here."
"Yes, I'll tell you what'll happen. He'll be invited to go out in the yard and talk to the prisoners, and if every time there's a prison uprising and they take a hostage and threaten to kill him, unless the governor comes, the governor's going to spend most of his time going to prison riots."
And well, they agreed with that, but perhaps something would happen if he'd come. I said, "Well, why don't you call him?" And they made their plea that he, he come up and he said, "Look, I feel very strongly that I've got good people, I believe in the State Police, and, and they're professionally trained, my corrections commissioner's considered the best in the country. I've got my counsel up there," and he said, "I'm following the situation but it doesn't make any sense."
And he, and then this group of negotiators, actually went into the yard and tried to, to find some peaceful way of resolving it, and they were threatened. And so they left -- this was on a Sunday -- feeling totally dispirited that this thing had gone downhill to the point where they didn't know what, if anything, could pull it out.
And we spent the rest of Sunday sending messages in, saying, "Look, if you'll release the hostages everybody will be treated decently and restore order and there'll be no recriminations."
And we got back no response, and the only response we saw was a building up of the defenses so that any of the entry points into the prison yard were starting to become barricaded with mattresses. They were fashioning weapons, they soaked mattresses in gasoline, and it looked like they were getting ready for some kind of a battle.
5. Why weren't Rockefeller's top aides good enough?
Frank Smith: I mean, it wasn't good enough, not only us, you know, it wasn't good enough for the observers. They felt that Rockefeller should be the person to come in and take charge and really deal with the situation. Because the faith of his commissioner wasn't any good, so what make his understudy going to be any better?
But now, we talk to the governor, the highest executive, then that make the whole situation more real. You know, then we don't have to go through understudies. So you say something to them, and then they say something to Rockefeller. With his hidden agenda, he's scheming anyway, you know he's thinking about another position, or thinking about going on with his career, you know, and so he was reaching really all the way to Washington that we found out later. You know, so his concern really wasn't into it.
But then, you know, it's like I said earlier, you know, the apple don't fall too far from the tree. You got to go back to what happened with his daddy, you know, they know how to deal with violence. So that's what they do, they bring it in, they bring in their troopers and say, "You get rid of the problem," and that's what happened when he gave it to Oswald. He said, "You take care of it, you know, you know what to do." He didn't say, "Well, you go in there and kill them," but he knew something was going to happen.
6. What were the plans to resolve the situation?
Frank Douglass: And it was along about 7:30 or 8:00, and I was on the phone all the time with the governor and he had, he talked to me and the correction commission and the head of the State Police to get the feel of the situation. And we delivered the message that, "Release the hostages, you won't be harmed, there'll be no recrimination unless you're involved in a crime," and they said they'd give us their answer.
And around 8:00, on Monday morning, the answer was "No," and with that they positioned several of the guards in highly visible positions on top of the ramparts and each guard had an executioner assigned to them. The guards were blindfolded, and one had a lead pipe ready to hit him over the head, another one had a knife at their throat.
And we had positioned sharpshooters on the roof of the prison, getting ready for an assault, if we had to do it, and when they positioned the guards for execution, the correction commissioner said that — got on the phone with the governor. He said, "Governor, I've done everything I can, we can't let this go on, and we should go in." The governor said, "Okay," and he said, "We've done it all."
And with that, a plan that had been, been laid out over the weekend, which was to send in a helicopter and drop a form of tear gas just prior to the State Police coming in. And I had met with the State Police just before the assault, and, and I really thought that I wouldn't see some of them again because we had Sam Nelville, the Mad Bomber, was -- I mean, these were, these were the most hardened, toughest of New York's criminal inmate population. These guys were there for long sentences, mostly murder, arsons, rapes. These were the worst of the worst.
And so they were -- the State Police, the governor made sure that I instructed them that they were not to open fire unless it was to defend themselves or to protect another officer, and they understood that, and they were -- these guys knew what they were doing and they were pretty cool.
And they started the assault, they went in, and they had to get into the yard to get to where the hostages were held, and there was gunfire; it didn't last very long. And within a matter of minutes the hostages started coming out and we were counting them as they came out. The governor said, "How does it look?" And I said, "Well, we've got so-and-so many out," and he said, "Well, as soon as we get them all out of there then it doesn't matter because we can just seal the prison off."
And, the gunfire ended very quickly. We got the hostages out, and the initial reaction to the thing was that while it was bloody, it was successful. And I think around 38 people got killed, including some hostages. And even with that, the notion was, "Look, they had to do it, they went in, they did it, they restored order."
7. What did you see on Monday morning?
Frank Smith: The first thing I seen and hear was a helicopter circling over the yard, you know, and then gas, and then a loudspeaker, "Put your hand on your head and you won't be harmed," and all that type of stuff. But shooting at the same time, you follow, and everybody hit the ground, I hit the ground over by the observers' table.
And then they were coming over the wall, the assault forces, coming over the wall, shooting, and eventually I start hearing my name, you know, and then some friends of mine told me, I should, you know, take my clothes off, because that gas that everybody burning and what we were doing we was putting milk on ourself, that supposedly, you know, prevented a lot of burns and stuff. So I finally got my clothes off.
But they were making people strip anywhere, as you come out of D Yard and go into A Block, and, and you fall on your stomach when you go through the door to A Block and you had to crawl, and I'm in A Block now and then I hear my name and the person that I worked for in the laundry said, "Here's Black, here he is," and they made me get up, beat me, and beat me into an area of the yard and laid me on the table and put a football under my neck, up under the catwalk, and told me that if it fall, they was going to kill me, and they spit on me and dropped ... on me, and went through the torture word, you know, while I was laying there, "Nigger, why did you castrate the officers, why did you bury them alive? We going to castrate you," and I'm laying on the table spread-eagle, buck naked. But everybody in the yard was naked, the majority of the people, you know, and that went on for, like, three, four, five hours.
You know, and right behind me, I'm laying here, and here's the catwalk, and right here's the hallway, they had a gauntlet set up and it had glass broke on the floor, and they was running everybody through the gauntlet, beating them — they had 20, 30 people each side — with what they called their nigger sticks.
8. Did you agree with the governor's decision to go in?
Robert Douglass: And then the next day, the coroner from, I think, Monroe County said, "Well, you know, these, these injuries, even to the hostages, came from ricocheted gunfire." And it didn't come from, from being shot by inmates, or hacked to death, or stabbed, they were really injured in the, in the melee that took place when the State Police had to fire within these confined walls.
And then I think the press had already run with the story, that it had been successful, that there'd been loss of life but it worked pretty well. And then when it turned out that most of the deaths had occurred not at the hands of the inmates but ricochet fire, there was a sudden 180-degree shift, and all of a sudden the police had used excessive power, they stripped the inmates down before they let them back into their cells, which they had to do anyway because a lot of them had concealed weapons. There wasn't enough medical care available instantly.
And, and of course the whole thing turned. The press kind of fed on it, and turned what I think today might have been regarded as a reasonably successful effort to put down a terrible prison riot into a bit of a nightmare for the governor.
But he, he never had any regrets about his decision not to go there. He honestly believed that was not the right thing to do, that you can't let somebody take a hostage under threat of death and stop all government and bring it to its knees. And I believe that as well. So I've never had any regrets about involvement in it. I feel sorry about the people who lost their lives, obviously.