(Artvoice 9 September 1999)
(click here for rev. version with postscript in Ácoma: Revista internzionale di studi nordamericani, September 2000)

An Anniversary of Death

by Bruce Jackson

September 13 is the twenty-eighth anniversary of the infamous New York State Police slaughter of 39 men in Attica prison's D-yard. It is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of the prisoners' civil rights lawsuit filed because of State Police and prison officials' atrocities after the slaughter.

For reasons that probably make sense only to lawyers and judges, that lawsuit against four former state officials didn't come to trial for twenty years. The trial began in Federal court in Buffalo, Judge John T. Elfvin presiding, in mid-October 1991 and ended February 4, 1992. Karl Pfeil, former deputy assistant superintendent of Attica, was found liable; the jury hung on most of the other charges. Since the State of New York would ordinarily indemnify any employee and pay whatever damages were assessed anyway, there was no need to have new trials on the dangling charges: one verdict for the plaintiffs against any state employee was all that was needed to move to the trial that would assess the money damages.

It took the lawyers and Judge Elfvin five years to get that one together, during which time several of the principal plaintiffs died (including Akil-al-Jundi for whom the lawsuit was named, and Herbert X. Blyden). Judge Elfin ordered two money damage trials before two juries, one to consider a particularly egregious case, the other an ordinary case. The idea seemed to be that if the juries refused to assess damages everybody might as well go home and forget it, and if the juries assessed money damages those would be the boundaries for settlement discussions with the State.

The egregious jury awarded $4 million, the ordinary jury $75,000. Then the State's attorneys decided they didn't want to negotiate after all. They appealed, and on August 3, 1999, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City threw everything out: the verdict in the 1991 liability trial and the verdicts in the two 1997 damages trials. The Circuit Court said Elfvin's verdict sheet in the liability trial was defective, and the damages trials were invalid because Elfvin let the juries revisit matters already settled by the liability jury, thereby violating Pfeil's Seventh Amendment rights.

At first it seemed like one more cruel blow by a justice system that hasn't ever come close to honoring its name in this sorry affair, but this reversal is probably the first stroke of legal luck for the thousand or so surviving ex-convicts who were tortured by New York State officials nearly three decades ago.

What Happened at Attica
The uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in New York's rural Wyoming county began Thursday morning, September 9, 1971. It ended four days later in a barrage of gunfire that left 29 convicts and 10 hostages dead and 89 wounded. Later that morning and over the next few days convicts were beaten and terrorized by State Police and prison guards and officials. In the years since, federal and New York state courts, the New York State Police, the FBI, and several commissions and agencies attempted to provide legal and political cloture to the violence that occurred at Attica prison that rainy Monday morning. None of those attempts succeeded. Attica remains an open wound.

In 1971, Attica inmates were allotted one roll of toilet paper per man per month. They were allowed one shower per week. Black Muslims were not permitted to hold religious services, and any assembly in the prison yard of more than three Muslims was punishable by solitary confinement. Pork was in the main dish in most noon and evening meals. The prison library took no newspapers but some prisoners subscribed to periodicals with their own funds; officials routinely scissored out anything having to do with prisons or prisoners' rights.

On July 2, 1971, Attica prisoners asked Corrections Commissioner Russell G. Oswald, who had taken office only seven months earlier, to do something about these matters. That is, they asked him to provide rights and conditions most of which had already been guaranteed them by the courts but were routinely denied them capriciously and illegally by prison officials.

Oswald promised to meet with convicts to discuss their grievances but he kept not quite finding time to do it. On August 22, Attica prisoners held a silent fast in memory of George Jackson, the black radical prisoner who had been shot to death the previous day by guards in San Quentin. There was no violence in the Attica demonstration, but the silence and black armbands made superintendent Mancusi and his staff nervous and angry.

Oswald came to Attica on the morning of September 2. He met with prison officials, then returned to Albany, an hour's flight away, leaving behind a taped message played that afternoon over the prison's PA system saying he had to go home because his wife had taken ill. Oswald said he would return on another occasion for his promised meeting with inmates.

That promise was kept, but not in a way anyone could have foreseen. At 8:50 in the morning of Thursday, September 9, prisoners coming out of A-block broke through a key gate.Instantly, the elaborate interconnected system of mechanisms supposed to keep the four quarters of the prison isolated from one another collapsed. Inmates rushed into the yards, took over the cellblocks, and raged through the church and the shops. They took 38 guards and civilian employees of the prison hostage. The center of convict life moved from the cellblocks to D-yard. It all happened in the moment; there has never been any evidence that any of this was planned beforehand.

Several guards were beaten in the initial moments of the uprising, some of them seriously. The Muslims put them in a circle in D yard and set up a protective human chain around them. After the initial moments of violence, no hostage was harmed by any inmate except for two injuries in the last minute of the uprising. During the four days prisoners controlled D-yard, Times Square, and two cellblocks, three prisoners were murdered; no one was ever convicted of those murders.

The prisoners set up a council to negotiate a settlement--some members were appointed by acclaim, others were elected by cellblocks. They were young: most members of that council were under 22. In retrospect they seem very much young men of their time: outside the prison walls opposition to the Vietnam War was resulting in massive marches and demonstrations against federal government policy. The anti-war movement grew in part out of the Civil Rights movement in the South. Young people were at the heart of both those movements.

The prisoners did not trust Oswald. He had broken his promise to meet with them, and they were aware of a betrayal the previous November at nearby Auburn Correctional Facility. The Auburn inmates had requested permission to hold a Black Solidarity Day observation. The superintendent denied their request. The prisoners staged a sitdown in the yard, in the course of which they captured several guards and took their keys, clubs, and bullhorns. They held their celebration and then, after the administration promised no reprisals, they released the guards and returned peacefully to their cells. The administration's promises were immediately abandoned: prisoners were beaten, locked up in solitary and many were transferred to other prisons summarily and without most of their personal possessions. The Auburn inmates transferred to Attica were kept in isolation until a federal judge forced Superintendent Vincent Mancusi to release them to general population. These men cautioned their fellow prisoners about taking prison administrators at their word.

Some D-yard prisoners thought Oswald really wanted to make changes and they were willing to give him a chance. But they needed insurance, so they demanded a group of outsiders to act as observers of what went on. That 33-man group included Congressman Herman Badillo, State Assemblyman Arthur Eve, Tom Wicker of the NY Times, civil rights attorney William Kunstler, Clarence Jones (publisher of the Amsterdam News), John Dunne (chairman of the Senate Committee on Crime and Correction), and representatives of the Young Lords, the Fortune Society, and the Black Panthers.

Late Sunday morning, after two days of extensive negotiations between prisoners and Commissioner Oswald, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the prison retaken by force. Congressman Badillo, certain that further negotiation would lead to a peaceful settlement, and banking on Rockefeller's presidential ambitions, told Rockefeller that news bulletins about casualties broadcast during the afternoon's network football games would be bad politics and bad for his image. The governor agreed to a brief delay. Badillo had bought the prisoners and hostages time, but not enough.

By then, prisoners had a list of 31 demands, 28 of which had been agreed to by Oswald. As with the 2 July list, many of these were for things that the courts had already mandated. One demand-- transportation to a nonimperialist country for anyone in D yard who wanted it--probably wasn't taken seriously by either side. Two demands were problematic: total amnesty for everyone in D yard and immediate removal of Superintendent Mancusi. The prisoners knew Mancusi couldn't be fired or transferred immediately, but many of the observers believed they would have settled for a promise by Oswald to give the matter serious consideration.

Amnesty was the key issue because correctional officer William Quinn, seriously injured in the first minutes of the uprising, had died early Saturday morning, thereby rendering all prisoners in D yard subject to a charge of felony murder, and all lifers in D yard subject to the death penalty. (Felony murder is the rule that any participant in a felony that results in a murder is as guilty of the death as whoever pulled the trigger or wielded the knife or club: the driver of the getaway car in a robbery can get the same penalty as the person who shot the clerks.) The prisoners knew someone would have to go down for Quinn's death but they wanted a limit on the potential retribution.

The Candidate
On Sunday the observers begged Rockefeller to come to Attica to meet with them. Negotiations were stalemated, in part because of the prisoners' deepening mistrust of Oswald. The observers were convinced that Rockefeller's presence would get the prisoners to settle for the 28 met demands. Rockefeller said that he had confidence in Oswald and he wasn't about to give amnesty, fire Mancusi or ferry convicted felons out of the country, so there was no point to his coming to Attica to meet with the observer group or anyone else.

Those were the public reasons why Rockefeller wouldn't go to Attica. He had another reason apparently far more compelling.

Nelson Rockefeller in 1971 was about to begin his third attempt to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from Richard Nixon, and he was fighting a charge in the right wing of the Republican party that he was a hopeless liberal. At their 1964 convention, between their 1960 and 1968 nominations of Nixon, Republicans had nominated Barry Goldwater and had booed Rockefeller for his presumed liberal proclivities. In September 1971 Rockefeller's staff was already at work on the 1972 presidential primaries. Attica was being covered by every newspaper and television news show in the country; Nelson Rockefeller was not going to let himself be seen as soft on crime. To undo his liberal image, Nelson Rockefeller did two things: he got New York's legislature to enact the most repressive drug laws in the nation and he didn't give an inch at Attica.

Would Nelson Rockefeller have been that cold? A few years ago Sander Vanocur, for decades the senior Washington correspondent for CBS and ABC, asked me, "Who do you think is the most cynical politician I ever met?" I went through a string of names and he kept shaking his head, and finally he said, "Rockefeller, Nelson Rockefeller. No one else came close." Vanocur and I had been talking about Attica just before that so I asked him if he thought Rockefeller would have permitted the slaughter just because of political ambition. He said, "I just told you: Nelson Rockefeller was the most cynical politician I ever met."

Kill Everybody
The retaking action, planned and led by State Police Major John Monahan, began at 9:46 a.m, Monday, September 13, 1971. At that moment, Rockefeller was in his estate in Pocantico Hills and William Kirwin, head of the State Police, was in a motel on Lake George.

The State Police followed the plan they had developed before the hostages had been moved to the prison's catwalks, when the only people up there were convicts. That plan called for killing everyone on the catwalks. State Police photographs and videotapes show that the hostages were clearly visible up to the moment the attack began.

A National Guard helicopter dumped a huge quantity of CN and CS gas over the prison. It was powerful stuff. There was no resistance to the retaking force. As prisoners and hostages stumbled blindly or fell to the ground, state troopers, correction officers, deputy sheriffs, and park police opened fire with shotguns, pistols, Thompson submachine guns, and .270 caliber rifles loaded with dum-dum bullets. The correction officers, sheriffs, and park police were shooting without direction or authorization: they weren't even supposed to be there during the assault. The State Police sharpshooters on the cellblock roofs and some of the others were shooting blindly from as far as 175 yards away through thick clouds of gas.

Shortly after the fusillade began, a second helicopter circled the yard, its loudspeaker blaring "Surrender. Do not injure the hostages. Put your hands on your head and walk toward the nearest door. You will not be harmed." Gunfire continued while the helicopter broadcast its message and continued sporadically long after it moved out of sight. If it weren't for the blood and death, it would have been surreal.

Two hostages received knife wounds to their necks--both required stitches but neither wound was serious. The cuts may have been deliberate or they may have resulted from involuntary spasms when the men with the knives were shot; we'll never know because both were killed.

Kenneth Malloy, a prisoner already seriously wounded, died when a trooper fired five rounds from his .357 magnum revolver into his eyes from a distance of one foot. James Robinson was motionless and dying from a .270 bullet in his chest; a trooper fired a shotgun into Robinson's neck from a few feet away.

I have four State Police photographs of Robinson's body. In one, a chair has fallen across him, apparently where it fell in the initial assault; a man near him walks through a large puddle of blood, a revolver in his left hand. In another the chair is pushed almost entirely off Robinson's body. In a third, this one black and white, the chair is gone and a white body tag has been tied to Robinson's  left arm. In the fourth photograph, color again, a large sword is under Robinson's hand and arm, and there's a good deal more blood than in the other three photographs. The sword appears in none of the three earlier photographs.

Exactly how long the shooting went on isn't clear because the State Police videotape of the shooting was edited before it got to any investigators outside the State Police and the originals disappeared years ago.

Within the next 24 hours, hundreds of prisoners were injured by guards and troopers wielding clubs, chains, screwdrivers, and other weapons. Witnesses in the 1991 trial said that several men bled to death because prison officials kept them away from medical personnel. The bullet wounds of one prisoner were hidden in a plaster cast and he was parked in a dark corridor where he would not be found by outside doctors; he was discovered only because a few days after the shooting a visiting doctor smelled his rotting wounds and went to investigate. His gangrenous leg had to be amputated. One prisoner who couldn't walk because both his femurs had been shattered by a bullet was dumped off a gurney in a prison corridor and ordered to walk by correction officers. When the man didn't walk, a guard jammed a Phillips head screwdriver into his anus, and told him to crawl down the corridor.

When it was all over, Rockefeller publicly complimented the State Police for having done a "superb job."

Castrations--or not
Shortly after the retaking Monday, and again on Tuesday, senior Corrections Department officials announced to the press that the dead hostages had all been murdered by prisoners who had cut their throats and, in some instances, cut off their genitals. The Tuesday report said a few hostages had bullet wounds as well, all of which had been caused by inmates with zip guns. These reports were published in upstate New York newspapers, by the New York Times, and were carried on wire services.

The inmates had no zip guns, and the officials knew that. There was something else, far more serious, that they also knew, but that wasn't revealed until Tuesday when Monroe County pathologist John F. Edland announced that no hostage had died of a cut throat and none had mutilated genitals. All dead hostages had been killed by weapons fired by police and correction officers.

There was an immediate attempt to discredit Edland. He was described by the State Police as a "radical left winger." Dr. Edland was a registered Republican who described himself as a former "gung-ho" lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. He said he had voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, and on three other occasions he voted for Richard Nixon. In the next year, State Police stopped Edland's car 40 times for supposed traffic violations. The harassment got so bad he eventually left the state.

The Attica uprising led to a long series of trials, hearings, appeals, and appellate decisions. There were two grand juries. The first dealt with crimes by prisoners; the second with crimes by police and guards and everyone else.

Rockefeller turned Attica prosecutions over to the Organized Crime Task Force, headed by his old friend, Judge Robert E. Fischer. Anthony G. Simonetti, who worked for Fischer in the OCTF Rochester office, was put in charge of Attica investigations. The bulk of Fischer's staff consisted of State Police investigators.

From the beginning, the State Police had been investigating themselves. They "handled" the Attica evidence, they gathered reports from the shooters, they took (and lost) most of the hostage autopsy photographs, they did the bulk of the investigation for the Attorney General. Evidence of trooper murders--shell casings, weapons identification, body positions, photographs of troopers firing weapons, and such--were systematically destroyed, lost, or never acquired. There was no such incompetence or loss in any of the investigations of possible felonies by inmates.

Sixty-two prisoners were charged with 1289 crimes in 42 separate felony indictments. Almost nothing came of it. Seven defendants in four cases pled guilty to reduced charges in exchange for time already served. Only five cases actually went to trial. Two prisoners were convicted in the death of the guard William Quinn; the other four trials resulted in acquittals. All the other indictments were thrown out.

Malcolm Bell, the special prosecutor who worked on crimes by shooters and other law enforcement officials decided (and his boss Anthony Simonetti concurred) "that at least sixty-five or seventy shooters were subject to possible indictment for murder, attempted murder, reckless endangerment and other felonies."

Not a single trooper, correction officer, deputy sheriff, or park policeman was ever tried for wrongful death or torture at Attica. Indeed, no law enforcement or correction officer was ever tried for anything connected to the violence at Attica. One trooper was indicted for reckless endangerment, but his case was dismissed before it came to trial.

On the final day of 1976, Governor Carey shut it all down. He pardoned the inmates who had taken guilty pleas. He commuted the sentence of the Native American convicted in William Quinn's murder. He stopped all disciplinary actions against all state employees involved in the Attica matter. He terminated the grand jury considering police and correction officer felonies. And he terminated all criminal prosecutions.

Thus ended all criminal prosecutions. The prisoners, save two, had beat their charges anyway. The police, save one, had never gotten indicted for theirs. Carey's order insured that the police wouldn't even suffer in-house disciplinaries.

The major Attica civil case, Al-Jundi et al. v. Rockefeller et al., was filed in 1974. The plaintiffs in this class action civil rights suit were the 1281 prisoners who were in D-yard the morning of the retaking. The defendants were Superintendent Mancusi; Karl Pfeil, his deputy; and the estates of State Police Major Monahan and Corrections Commissioner Oswald. Other defendants negotiated their way out of the lawsuit or got out because of legal technicalities. Oswald's deputy, Walter Dunbar, who immediately after the retaking had circulated the false story that prisoners killed and castrated hostages, then stuffed their testicles and penises in their mouths, was released from the case because prisoners couldn't serve papers on his estate in time. Nelson Rockefeller was exempted from all liability by Judge Elfvin on the grounds of qualified immunity. (Elfvin had been campaign manager for one of Rockefeller's gubernatorial campaigns in upper New York State. In 1969, Rockefeller appointed him to the State Supreme Court. One of the first federal district judges appointed by President Gerald Ford and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was John Elfvin.)

Judge Elfvin made the plaintiffs' task in the trial enormously difficult. He admitted a small number of the D-yard photographs into evidence but wouldn't let the jury look at them. That, he said, was in the interest of "judicial economy." The jury, he said, would have sufficient opportunity to examine photographs during their deliberations, no need to take trial time for it. When the jury went into the jury room, Elfvin decided not to allow them to look at photographs he'd already admitted into evidence because, he said, it might influence their emotions. "This is about emotions," a former Attica prisoner in the courtroom shouted, "those troopers got emotional and shot the shit out of us." Elfvin's charge to the jury was far more restrictive than required by federal law. He ruled that it wasn't enough for the plaintiffs to prove that the retaking of Attica prison was a needless massacre (during testimony he had ordered New York State Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve not to use the word "massacre" before the jury; "What shall I call it?" Eve asked), or that prisoners were denied adequate medical attention, or that extensive brutality occurred long after the prison had been recaptured. Neither was it enough for them to prove that any or all of the four defendants had been incompetent, irresponsible, or negligent in the execution of their duties that bloody Monday. Elfvin told the jury the plaintiffs had to prove that the defendants acted "sadistically" and with "wanton and deliberate indifference" to the harm their actions or inactions would cause. One attorney asked, "How is the jury supposed to find sadism when he won't let them look at the pictures showing it?"

After nearly a month of deliberations, the jury found Deputy Superintendent Pfeil liable, acquitted Commissioner Oswald of one of the two charges against him, and hung on the other charges against Oswald, Mancusi, and Monahan. They found that cruel and unusual punishment occurred in three of the four questions about that, even though the judge had tripled the usual federal standard for such findings in his charge and added, in the third week of deliberation, a six-page addition to his charge that made the plaintiffs' task even more difficult.

It still wasn't over. Now that the men brutalized by State Police and corrections officers had a judgement of responsibility they had to start over with a new jury to determine how much that responsibility would cost the state. There were motions and counter-motions. There were meetings about a settlement that never went anywhere. Through intermediaries the state let the Al-Jundi lawyers know they'd be willing to pay $10 million to shut it down; the lawyers said that was worth discussing, whereupon the state said it wasn't willing to offer anything after all.

Judge Elfvin announced that if they didn't reach a settlement, he'd break Akil into four separate cases. That presented no problem to the defendants, since they are funded by the state's deep pockets. The attorney for the State Police told me, "We can keep this going forever." He and his colleagues received more than $3 million from the state for the trial. In addition to their fees, they received free office space, investigators, and transcripts. The prisoners' attorneys had no money for salaries, office expenses, transcripts or support staff. Judge Elfvin wouldn't even let them xerox the state's trial transcript, even though it had been paid for with public funds.

Finally, in 1997, Elfin agreed to let two test damages trials go forth. The trials were brief. On June 6, 1997, Frank "Big Black" Smith, who, in addition to being beaten severely, had been made to lie naked on a table in the Attica yard all afternoon with a football balanced on his chest and was told that if the ball fell he would be castrated, was awarded $4 million by a jury. Later in the month David Brosig, a white inmate who was far less brutally abused the day of the retaking, was awarded $75,000 for his injuries.

Stonewall Logic
The continuing question of Attica is why did all those governmental players after Rockefeller and Oswald refuse to settle? I can see why Nelson Rockefeller might have wanted to put his spin on an assault that killed a quarter of the hostages it was mounted to save. I can see why the liberal prison administrator Russell Oswald didn't want to see his career remembered only for the repressive slaughter and torture at Attica. I can see why the Republican prosecutors and judges appointed by Rockefeller tried to protect his advancing career. But why did Rockefeller's Democrat successors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo keep it going? Why did Republican attorney general Louis Lefkowitz's Democrat successor Robert Abrahms keep it going? Why did the state spend $3 million defending itself in Al-Jundi when it could have settled the case early on for not great deal more? Why didn't they just fold the hand and say, "Yeah, something awful happened, it was wrong, we didn't do it, let's try to make it right?" Why don't they do it now?

Part of the answer is that most bureaucrats and most elected officials are deeded to the notion that the structure is right; its motives are good even though its agents may be fools or connivers. When they reconstruct the past, they seek the most rational explanation, a story that does not itself indict the structure, the system. Whatever is, is right, in the words of British poet Alexander Pope, and they apply prodigious energy to that defense. When anything challenges the structure of the system, the challenge itself becomes the disease, the thing to be extirpated, rather than whatever it was that called up the challenge in the first place.

More important, no one wants to take the heat. Whatever the rights or wrongs, no New York governor or attorney general, whether Republic or Democrat, has been willing to be part of any deal that would give scarce state resources to men (mostly non-white) who had been rioting felons.

Where the Free Ride Ends
The verdicts were tossed because the appellate court found Elfvin's charge to the jury in the first trial incompetent and his decision to permit the jury in the second trial to revisit issues already settled in the first trial intolerable. The three-judge panel took special exception to Elfvin's lethargic administrative style. They concluded:

For reasons stated, we reverse and remand. Given the long history of this matter, we direct the district court to give it expedited treatment. We stand ready to exercise our mandamus power should unreasonable delay occur. We respectfully suggest that the Chief Judge of the district court consider assigning this matter to the judge best able to expedite its resolution.

We note that the defendants in this case, who are functionally the State of New York, have done all they could -- frequently not without the court's acquiescence -- to delay resolution. That strategy can no longer be tolerated. The district court should not hesitate to resort to appropriate sanctions to induce the defendants to cooperate in promptly resolving this matter.

This is extraordinary language. The Second Circuit is saying that if judges getting the case now don't move it to resolution quickly, they will force a resolution. And they are saying they've had enough of the State of New York's courtroom gamesmanship. If New York continues playing games, the Circuit instructs the district court to use "appropriate sanctions." Elfvin gave New York a two-decade free ride; the Circuit says it's time to pay the fare.

Where it goes from here
The case is now being handled by Senior Judge Michael Telesca in Rochester. Telesca is everything Elfvin is not. He makes up his mind and moves paper quickly. He is intolerant of delaying tactics by attorneys. This geriatric case is a major embarrassment to the federal bench and Telesca will, according to people who know him, take seriously the Second Circuit's obvious desire to have cloture. He has already done something Elfvin never would: put real pressure on both sides to sit down and settle. Elfvin seemed enamored of the case, he seemed to want it to go on forever; Telesca wants it over, and soon.

In the unlikely event that the State insists on going back to trial, it is doubtful that Telesca will let the State's attorney's stall for years on end, or that he will keep the jury from seeing key evidence, or that he will issue a confusing jury charge certain to be reversed on appeal, or that he will go on vacation in the middle of jury deliberations, or that he will ignore request for clarification from the deliberating jury--as Elfvin did eight years ago.

Why should our present attorney general and governor be willing to take the heat when every one of their predecessors avoided it? Because for the first time they have to deal with a judge who will make it more painful for them, more costly for the state, if they don't. "Don't tell me you can't afford to settle," Telesca told the attorneys. "You can't afford not to settle."

Does Pataki want to be the governor who finally settles the canker that is Attica or does he want to be the governor whose stubbornness results in New York taxpayers being hit with a bill many times what that settlement would cost? You can never be sure what a politician will do and reason is never a guide, but the odds are pretty fair that the long Attica ordeal is very close to an end.

Postscript September 2000

In January 2000, New York government attorneys and the attorneys for the Attica prisoners reached a settlement agreement: the State would provide $8 million for payments to the prisoners and their families and it would give the prisoners’ attorneys $4 million for their  wages and expenses incurred over the 26 years the case had been in process.

All through the spring and summer of 2000, Judge Michael Telesca listened as almost two hundred inmates testified about the shootings and tortures during and after the massacre. On August 28, 2000, 16 days before the 29th anniversary of the massacre in D yard, he approved 502 claims and set up five categories of awards based on the severity of injuries and amount of suffering: $6,500, $10,000, $31,000 and $125,000 for the inmates, and $25,000 for the relatives of inmates who were killed by law enforcement officials. Most cases fell into the $6,500 category; only 15 qualified for $125,000.

Were any of those payouts enough to compensate for what any of those men endured in that bloody September Monday or the tortures they suffered in the days that followed or the psychological turmoil and physical pain they endured in the decades after that? Of course not.

Judge Telesca was aware of that, and said so. Nothing could compensate. Compared to the slaughter and the suffering, the State of New York bought its way out with a trivial amount of money. Someone who slips on a wet supermarket floor or is trivially burnt by fastfood coffee that is too hot gets ten times as much money in decades less time.

It’s only a symbol, 502 symbols. What is this puny amount of money symbolic of? Nothing more than that the State of New York wants to get out from under this case. New York still has not admitted it did anything wrong. It never will. The money is symbolic of this: “Go away.”

Relatives and friends of guards injured and slain in Attica’s D-yard that bloody Monday have argued that the settlement is unfair because those injured and slain guards got nothing from the state. They miss the point. The guards and their families were as abused as were those prisoners and their families. It’s not and it never was an either/or situation: prisoners and hostages both were treated abominably by the State when it shot up D-yard, both should receive not only state dollars but a state apology. The convicts should not have been shot indiscriminately by law enforcement officials and neither should the guards have been shot indiscriminately by law enforcement officials.  No one had to die that Monday morning at Attica. No one.

Attica was and remains an abomination. The State of New York diverted $12 million from its billions of surplus dollars this year to make the federal lawsuit go away. The lawsuit has gone away. The evil that happened on September 13, 1971, will have happened forever. It will never go away, unless people chose to forget that it happened, in that time, and that place, and until they forget that it can happen again in any other time, in any other place.

copyright 2000 Bruce Jackson

recent articles page
bruce jackson homepage