Attica prison riot items will become museum exhibit
Tina MacIntyre-Yee, @tyee23
Note: Plans for a major exhibition in Albany have been put on hold due to the pandemic. An exhibition "Open Wounds: The 50-Year Legacy of the Attica Prison Uprising," with descriptive panels has been made available for printing and enlarging by libraries and community centers that wish to display them.
Click here for more background from a recent story.
The description of the clothing is matter-of-fact and unvarnished: "Small shirt (14-14½), pockets empty. Labeled with '594' - inside out, blood stains, possible bullet holes."
Another description reads: "Sweatshirt - white, torn at left shoulder, entire back of shirt stained with blood. Fruit of the loom label at back of neck."
These are the inventory descriptions of only two of the more than 2,600 items — homemade weapons, dirtied and bloodied shirts, letters, Bibles — gathered up by State Police from the Attica Correctional Facility in the aftermath of the 1971 uprising.
And now, a half-century later, New York's official arbiter and architect of the state's history — the New York State Museum in Albany— is embarking on a challenging undertaking: How do you sensitively, accurately, and fully tell the story of the bloody cataclysm that was the Attica prison riot?
The maximum-security prison, beset with unsanitary and repressive conditions for inmates and a volatile friction brought on in part by the nation's tense times, erupted in September 1971 as prisoners grabbed control of the facility. After four tense days, State Police and other law enforcement seized Attica back in a violent gunfire-spray retaking that killed prisoners and civilian hostages alike.
In 2021, the New York State Museum will present an exhibit focusing on the uprising; artifacts gathered from the prison grounds will serve as the foundation of the exhibit. Museum officials acknowledge that they are treading sensitive ground with the revisiting of history that, even to this day, triggers debate about who was responsible for the mayhem.
"No story is black and white," said State Museum Director Mark Schaming. "There are always varied sources and disagreements and then, with something like this, there are completely different perspectives from people who were there at the same time."
After the retaking, police swept up the prison yard and other areas for evidence to be used in the planned prosecution of inmates. Gathered up were a bounty of makeshift weapons, including nearly 300 baseball bats, and materials ranging from the homemade speaker system the inmates created during the standoff to letters, drawings, wallets, and books, including one on the federal laws of evidence and another on constitutional rights and liberties.
One of the more consequential pieces of history found was a copy of the "manifesto" written months before the uprising and delivered to corrections officials, detailing the conditions confronted by inmates — issues including impediments to religious practices and a single roll of toilet paper allowed an inmate each month. With the document, inmates alerted officials to the conditions and demanded improvements.
Attica prison riot: Before, during and aftermath
Attica Prison Riot: The Riot Breaks Out
Attica Prison Riot: The Aftermath
Attica Prison Riot: Leading up
Attica Prison Riot: The Retaking
The museum's document could be the lone "surviving copy," said Aaron Noble, the senior historian at the state museum.
"Much of the language and the rhetoric (in the manifesto) is very militant and extreme but ...the demands, they actually are very reasonable and very well thought out," Noble said.
Heather Ann Thompson, the University of Michigan history professor who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood in the Water about the uprising, said the museum has the opportunity to bring clarity to an ugly piece of history long subjected to varied interpretations. But, she said, much more will be needed than the artifacts.
"It would be impossible to create an Attica exhibit that tells the true story of what happened at this prison back in September of 1971 with the artifacts that State Police gave to the museum," Thompson said. "... There are no bullets, there are no documents indicating who planned the (police) assault or covered it up afterwards.
"The only things saved were made to suggest prisoner responsibility for the carnage there," she said. "So there are hundreds of baseball bats, and homemade contraptions that the police alleged were dangerous weapons, but nothing that actually accounts for why so many men were killed and maimed during the Attica uprising and nothing to show how poor the conditions were there that led the men to launch a protest in the first place."
Left at police barracks
For nearly 40 years the weapons, prison clothing, and other items gathered from the prison in 1971 sat largely unprotected in a Quonset structure at the State Police barracks in Batavia. They were never used as evidence after a gubernatorial decision not to pursue prosecution of inmates or the police officials who stormed the prison and who fatally shot prisoners and hostages. In all, 43 people died at Attica — 32 prisoners and 11 guards or other civilian employees.
Instead of destroying the materials found at the barracks, the State Police shipped the riot artifacts to the state museum to determine what, if anything, to do with them.
Shortly thereafter, there was controversy.
In 2014, museum officials at first allowed visitors with a connection to the uprising to visit the artifacts. But, they then decided that they had ignored privacy concerns, and needed to better organize and inventory the items and determine how best to preserve them and whether to publicly display them.
Dee Quinn Miller, whose father, William Quinn, was an Attica guard killed by rioting prisoners, was one who visited the artifacts, then was angered when access was no longer permitted.
"I think it's ridiculous that it's closed," she told the Democrat and Chronicle in 2014.
Miller was an instrumental force in the formation of a group, Forgotten Victims of Attica, that represents the families of corrections officers and employees at the prions in September 1971. Among the organization are, like Miller, surviving family members of slain prison workers killed in the riot.
In a recent interview, Miller acknowledged that she was skeptical at first about the state museum plans for a display on the 50th anniversary year of the uprising. But, on several occasions she has met two museum officials deeply involved with the project — senior historian Noble and museum chief history curator Jennifer Lemak — and sees what she considers a commitment to a thorough and honest history.
"After meeting the individuals who are heading it up, I certainly feel a lot more comfortable with it," Miller said. "I think they understand the concerns the families have and are listening."
In the past, Miller said, her interactions with state officials were not as amicable as the Forgotten Victims lobbied for restitution, counseling, an annual memorial at the prison, the opening of Attica records, and an apology from the state.
"In the old days I would get hung up on (in phone calls), or I would get escorted out" of state offices, Miller said.
There has yet to be an apology from the state and a judge determined in 2014 that grand jury records related to investigations into Attica deaths could not be unsealed.
Returning clothing to families
Working with the museum, state corrections officials in 2014 also returned materials gathered from the State Police barracks — shirts, employee badges, hats, and shoes — to the former prison employees or families who could be connected to the items.
There has been a more recent effort to find inmate families and inmates and return materials to them.
Rochester filmmaker Christine Christopher, who along with filmmaker David Marshall created the documentary Criminal Injustice: Death and Politics at Attica, was also among those who visited the artifacts in 2014. She has since worked with museum officials to make connections with the families of former inmates whom she knows.
"After we had the very emotional experience of going through the personal effects of those who were killed at Attica — both hostages and inmates — it was very encouraging that the state agreed to go through the process of returning the personal effects of the families of the deceased," Christopher said. "They started with the hostage families and now I am pleased that I was able to be part of connecting inmate families" and museum officials.
Still, she said, finding relatives of some of the slain inmates has been difficult.
"I wish we had more information about the whereabouts of the families of the inmates who are deceased," she said.
Malcolm Bell, who was originally assigned to be a special prosecutor in the aftermath of Attica and who has said his prosecution of police was derailed by the state, also was given access to the artifacts in 2014. There, he held the bloody shirt of a corrections officer fatally shot during the retaking.
"Just holding the shirt ... was very emotional," Bell said. "If the shirt was in a glass case in a museum it wouldn't be as moving as holding it, but it really brings it home more than just reading about it."
A nuanced exhibit
Museum officials say that basing the exhibit around an abundance of homemade weapons — many constructed in preparation of a state seizure of the prison — would be only a partial telling of the Attica uprising history, and one that would lead to a historical imbalance.
"One of the things that we have to be conscious of as historians and as curators is that we are really only seeing half of the story through the artifacts," Noble said.
The issue of prison conditions cannot be ignored, museum officials say. As well, Noble said, the exhibit could be a springboard to discussions of past and present issues of mass incarceration.
Meanwhile, surviving families and historians also hope that questions about the decision to storm the prison will be central to the exhibit.
The museum is also looking to include oral and video history from men and women with connections to the uprising, including those who were there. "Many of the people who will see this exhibit weren't even alive when it happened," museum director Schaming said.
Historian and author Heather Ann Thompson said the museum could "use this exhibit as an opportunity to collect Attica’s history that we still need to hear."
"It should have recording booths for survivors and participants to tell their stories for the first time," she said. "... The 50th anniversary is an amazing opportunity for the state archives and museum to finally tell what happened — no matter how controversial, and resisting all political pressure.
"If the museum is true to this history, and presents (the history) in its basic narrative and timeline, and makes sure to correct for the key facts glossed over by the artifacts that it has, then it can be an extraordinary gift to the citizens of the state of New York," Thompson said.