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Her father died in the Attica prison uprising. 30 years later she began to learn the truth

Gary Craig
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

(In September, for the 50th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, Diversion Books will release "The Prison Guard's Daughter: My Journey Through the Ashes of Attica." The book is the memoir of Deanne Quinn Miller, whose father, William Quinn, was a corrections officer killed at Attica, the nation's deadliest prison riot. Forty-three people died in the uprising, 39 of them fatally shot by State Police and other law enforcement in the prison retaking on Sept. 13, 1971. Three decades later, Deanne Quinn Miller became a key figure in the organization, the Forgotten Victims of Attica, which pushed the state for better treatment for the prison-employee survivors and the families who lost loved ones at Attica. Her father was fatally beaten by inmates in the riot. Miller was then 5 years old. What follows are excerpts from the memoir, which was co-written with Democrat and Chronicle reporter Gary Craig, who has reported extensively on the aftermath of the uprising.)

Tough teenage years

Deanne Quinn Miller holds a photo of her father, William "Billy" Quinn, at her home in Batavia on Tuesday, July 27, 2021.  Quinn, a corrections officer at Attica prison, was killed during the 1971 Attica uprising.

As a teenager, I’d go to the school library and the public library and look for books on the riot. I’d go into the card catalogue — that’s how we found library books in those days — and flip through the cards for the topic of Attica.

I’d often search out the official report on the riot from what was called the McKay Commission, a panel put together by state legislators after the riot to review what happened and what state officials and police could have and should have done differently. The commission was chaired by Robert McKay, the dean of the New York University Law School and a former president of the New York City Bar Association. The state used its own as investigators to investigate itself.

The report was also published as a book, and you could find it in libraries and at stores. On the front was a photo of naked inmates, lined up on both sides of an armed state trooper, their hands behind their heads. After the retaking of the prison on September 13, the police forced the prisoners to strip naked to be sure they had no homemade weapons on them as the inmates were returned to housing in the prison.

My mother also kept a copy of the McKay Commission in her nightstand, hidden beneath a pile of magazines. When she and my stepfather would go out for dinner or be away for some other reason I’d sneak into their room and read it. I’d always go to the index and look up “William Quinn” and find the pages about my father. I would read for as long as I could and hope I would not get caught. I didn’t tell anyone that I was reading the McKay; I kept it to myself. But, somehow, the whole experience — trying secretly to learn about my father and the riot — made me more confused.

Once my mother did catch me reading it and I got in trouble. I hadn’t heard her return or come into the bedroom; perhaps I was too engrossed in the book. What’s funny was that my mother, as I recall, was not disturbed that I might be searching out information about my father in the book. Instead, she wanted to keep me and my sisters away from the picture of the naked inmates on the cover. She didn’t want us to see that.

At memorials for the 43rd anniversary of the Attica prison riots, William Quinn, Dee Quinn Miller's father can be seen far left, front.

My teenage years were tough. I struggled with home life; I struggled with the standard pressures of being in high school; I struggled with the forever nagging issue of not fully knowing who I was. I was this shell on the outside and unsure who I was on the inside. I knew I was Dee Quinn, daughter of murdered corrections officer Bill Quinn, but I didn’t know enough about him to feel complete — just a few details, like how tall he was, the color of his hair, that he had a club foot, that he played sports in high school. I knew nothing of his personality, of the essence of who he was.

As a teenager, I longed to separate myself from my father’s death and the Attica uprising, while also wanting to know so much more about both. It was a contradiction I battled and would for the rest of my life.

But the time would come when I would learn the details of the riot and come to know so much more. Like everything else related to Attica, those answers would not come easy.

Bill, Christine and Dee Miller, Christmas 1969.

An inmate protected

(In 2000, former Attica inmate Gene Hitchens traveled to a court hearing in Rochester to testify before U.S. District Judge Michael Telesca, who had been chosen to decide how to divide a $12 million award from the state to inmates who were injured during the Attica retaking of Sept. 13, 1971, or beaten after, as some were. Restitution was also awarded to the families of prisoners killed in the retaking. Hitchens was not among those who could receive restitution, but came from Florida to testify about William Quinn. In this excerpt, Miller tells of Hitchens' testimony.)

In his testimony, Hitchens recalled how he was all of 5-foot-2 and could have been targeted by predatory inmates in the prison. Baby-faced and slight, Hitchens was jailed for a relatively minor forgery crime. Though a maximum-security prison, Attica also housed some inmates with lesser crimes. Hitchens was one of those, and he wondered whether he’d been shipped to Attica by a judge to “scare him straight” from a life of crime.

He’d dropped out of school in the ninth grade but did manage to secure a high school equivalency degree at Attica. My father saw how treacherous life could be for the young man. Hitchens was 22 when at Attica, and my father would visit him to ensure he was not being victimized.

New York Corrections Officers salute as the body of William E. Quinn is carried from an Attica funeral home. Quinn, a corrections officer at Attica state prison, was one of nine killed during the prison riot.

“It was like he’d check on me,” Hitchens said. My father would ask him of his classes, how he was managing day-to-day in the prison.

“I felt safe because of that,” Hitchens said. “I never felt like I was in danger until the riot.”

“He was like a guardian angel,” Hitchens said of my father. “He was good people. I truly believe I didn’t suffer there because he was there and I wanted his family to know that. … If anybody associated with Officer Quinn is in this courtroom today, I am so terribly sorry that that man lost his life."

I knew little about my father on the job. My father lived a life of 28 years — almost 22 of them without me — and he had this whole life that I didn’t know because no one shared it with me. And here was a man — a former prisoner, of all people — who could tell me more of my dad.

From the stories I had heard from friends, and the ones my family had sparingly told me, I sensed my father was a good man, a decent man, a man who wanted to do right. I knew that he had a degree in criminal justice. I knew that he had once worked with children with disabilities. All of this pointed to a man who wanted to help others.

Still, I did not know what he was like as a corrections officer. I did not know if he saw inmates as human beings or, as some on the job did, as lesser than human.

Hitchens was in the prison’s Times Square when he saw the onslaught of fellow inmates coming toward him on September 9, 1971.

“I never felt like I was in danger until the riot,” he said in court. “The morning of the riot was the first time I was afraid of Attica. I felt helpless and I felt like I didn’t have people looking after me. I thought although I was a junkie and had committed enough crimes to be locked up, I still felt like I should have been safe at Attica.

“On … the day of the riot I lost that feeling. I was at Times Square (a prison command center) and just the world came apart. It fell apart.”

Deanne Quinn Miller, Batavia, center facing camera, hugs Vickie Menz of Henrietta, left, following the 40th anniversary memorial ceremony outside Attica prison in Attica on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011.

Some corrections officers whom Hitchens did not know grabbed him, essentially using him as a shield. “They didn’t know me like Officer Quinn,” Hitchens said. “To the other officers I guess I was just a louse. That’s how it looked, like I was a louse and running loose and I was part of this other band of inmates, a louse.”

The officers dragged him up and down stairs, injuring his arm in the process before locking him in a cell. He spent the next four days there and witnessed the retaking through a cell window. An officer came into his cell and forced him to watch the bloody mayhem, Hitchens said.

It seemed “like hours” as the clouds of tear gas fell and the staccato gunfire continued, Hitchens said. He saw prisoners, their hands in the air, shot in what he considered heartless homicides. The images would never leave him.

“What do you do with that?” Hitchens told Judge Telesca. “What do you do with that?”

Here was another Attica victim with his own emotional trauma. The riot had damaged so many, its ripples of heartache never ceasing to expand.

The late Michael Telesca, who died in March 2020 at age 90, seen here in a file photo, was the U.S. senior judge who oversaw the proceedings for the financial settlement to more than 1,200 former Attica inmates who were beaten and tortured during the retaking of the prison.

Frank 'Big Black' Smith

(Frank Smith, known prominently by his nickname "Big Black," was one of the lead inmates in the lawsuit against the state that led to the settlement in 2000 of $12 million. Smith was brutally tortured by law enforcement after the Sept. 13 assault in which police regained control of the prison, fatally shooting 29 inmates and 10 prison-employees who had been held hostage by prisoners. In 2000, Miller and Smith developed a friendship through regular telephone calls with each other. This excerpt opens with the first of those calls.)

From the first minutes of the call, Frank did what he could to shake my fears and settle my nerves. He knew of my work with Forgotten Victims, and he said, “I hoped there’d be a time when you and I could talk.” He had the same baritone voice that I’d heard in television interviews. It was laced with warmth. Somehow, Frank Smith could set you at ease, and he did just that with me during the telephone call. There was just such a comfort talking with him, and we would talk many more times.

File photo 2000: Frank Smith, who is now deceased, was a former inmate at Attica during the riots in 1971.

On our first telephone call, he did most of the talking. And he was so funny in the conversation. He said, “Girl, you can ask me anything. I know you’ve probably got questions. And I’ve got answers. I’m an open book and you can ask me whatever you want to ask me.”

To this day, I still find it remarkable that someone could endure what he did and still want to take a call from me, a prison guard’s daughter.

That call began the first of what would be weekly or biweekly Sunday night phone calls. After the first call, he said, “We can talk next week if you want to.” At first, I worried about boundaries with him. But he made sure that I knew I could ask him anything.

In one of our first conversations, I asked him about the security detail of inmates during the four-day standoff. I wondered whether they were there to truly protect the hostages as had been claimed. I wondered whether the hostages were kept blindfolded in a circle to make it easier to kill them should the time come.

I felt bad asking, knowing that it came from my mistrust of some of the inmates. But he made clear that his intention was to keep the hostages safe.

He did not balk at all when asked that particular question or any others I had. On Sunday nights I would go to a downstairs office in our home and call Frank at 7 p.m. Nothing was off-limits in our conversations. He knew my father and grandfather, who’d been a meat cutter at the prison, and he liked both of them. He told me his story of how he wound up as a prisoner in Attica, and we talked about the turmoil in the months that led up to the riot. He spoke about the conditions, the inhumane way some corrections officers treated inmates, his days in the Yard before the retaking.

Bill, Nancy, Christine and Deanne Miller, June 1971

I could ask him even about nagging details about the history of the riot that bothered me, and he would always answer as best as he could. Frank and I developed a very intense emotional connection, finding that many of our views on the riot were surprisingly similar. He was kind, compassionate and truthful. We exchanged stories of our lives and how we lived in the aftermath of Attica.

We had a connection that only those who lived through Attica could understand, regardless of what “side” you were on. Frank, too, knew that there were many grave injustices that had happened at Attica.

There were several moments on the phone when all we could hear were each other’s sobs, as we talked of particularly painful times in our lives. Sometimes I would finish the phone call, eyes red from crying, and my husband would ask if I was OK. And I was. I was finding something in my regular talks with Frank that I had not found elsewhere when confronting Attica.

Meeting Richard X. Clark

(Almost 30 years after the Attica uprising, Miller learned that some inmates had tried in 1971 to help her father, who'd been brutally beaten by other prisoners. In 2000, she traveled to a Harlem restaurant to meet with some of those inmates, including Richard X. Clark, who wrote a book, "The Brothers of Attica," about his Attica experiences and about the uprising. Clark had occasional struggles with drugs after his prison release.)

There is a gentleness with Richard Clark, not only when he speaks — as I also would discover that morning —  but also in his appearance and how he carries himself. Bespectacled and bald, Richard still seemed to have the self-assurance he’d demonstrated in the prison yard decades before as a spry and more militant version of the man I was meeting.

There, in the hours after the initial burst, he had tried to bring some semblance of sanity to D Yard, where inmates held hostages. He had organized a medical area; convinced inmates who were planning to use drugs that had earlier been smuggled into them to turn in the illicit substances and hypodermic needles; and established the security detail.

Police armed with rifles and automatic weapons march through cellblock A inside Attica.

I knew all of this about him from the books and histories I had read. Those books and histories did not tell me that Richard Clark had tried to save my dad.

In the initial flood of the chaos, Richard was making his way to the prison yard when he came upon corrections officer Royal Morgan trying to lift and move my father, who had been beaten by prisoners. Morgan, as Clark recalled, pleaded with him for help.

Clark rounded up other inmates and asked them to find a mattress. Clark put Morgan in a cell with another officer whom they’d placed in there for his safety, and first went to the gate of A Block and found an officer. He urged him to get a doctor, but he was ignored.

When Clark got back to my father, he was now on the mattress, unconscious. Other prisoners were there, and they lifted the mattress — my father still on it — and carried it down a flight of stairs.

One of the other men at the restaurant was more vocal and animated than the soft-spoken yet confident Clark. This man, Brother Shariff as he was called, had also helped carry my father.

He pointed to a chipped tooth in his mouth and told me he’d lost a portion of his tooth trying to help my father. As they carried the mattress down a hallway, the floor was soaked with blood and water, he said. He lost his footing and began to fall. He wanted to keep my father on the mattress because of the severity of his injuries.

“I didn’t want to drop your dad,” he told me. “I didn’t want him to hit the floor because of his head injuries.”

He managed to keep my father balanced on the mattress while taking the brunt of a fall with his face.

The inmates got the mattress and my father to a gate at the prison administration building. There, they told officers on the other side of the gate, as well as Prison Superintendent Vincent Mancusi, that my father was in dire need of medical help. No one responded, either fearful to come back into the prison or, perhaps, simply uncaring.

I would later piece together some of just what happened to my father afterward and learn that he may have lay there on the mattress for well over an hour. I was able to get hospital information about when he arrived there on Sept. 9, injured. And, as I discovered, some officers who checked into the prison at the initial outbreak of the riot, hoping to gain control of some of the inmate blocks, said they saw my father on the mattress as they clocked in. They had been regimented to know that if they failed to punch in with the time clock, then they wouldn’t get paid.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Richard Clark if I could contact him if I had more questions, and he assured me he would welcome that.

And we did talk occasionally, but sadly, he again returned to drugs.

One Christmas season I telephoned him, and a woman answered the cellphone number I then had for him. He was then at a drug treatment center and could not take phone calls. I tried to explain to the woman our strange connection — Richard had been at Attica, he’d helped my father, we talked sometimes.

“Richard carried my father on a mattress,” I said. “It would mean a lot if I could talk to him.”

I think she thought I was either insane or persistent or so insanely persistent that she figured she had no choice but to get Richard.

Richard came to the telephone, and I could tell the conversation was difficult for him. He said he hoped this would be his last time in treatment as a resident — he had worked as a counselor — and he wanted to leave treatment clean for good.

I told him I was praying that he would have the strength to get through, and I was sure he would.

That was the last time we spoke. Richard Clark died the next year.

Contact Gary Craig at gcraig@gannett.com or at 585-258-2479. Follow him on Twitter at gcraig1