For survivors of the Attica prison riot, the trauma of those agonizing days lasted for life
(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. Deanne Quinn Miller became a key figure in the organization, the Forgotten Victims of Attica, or FVOA, which pushed the state for better treatment for the prison-employee survivors and the families who lost loved ones at Attica. In 2002 members of the group testified to a state legislative task force at the Rochester Institute of Technology and in Albany. The following excerpts are from those six days of hearings, including testimony from Miller's mother, Nancy Newton. Miller's memoir was co-written with Democrat and Chronicle reporter Gary Craig, who has reported extensively on the aftermath of the uprising.)
Listening to my mother talk about the injuries suffered by my father was especially tough for me and my sisters, and I’m sure it was doubly difficult for her to describe. But she did. She had decided that, as part of FVOA, (Forgotten Voices of Attica), she had a role to play and the historical record that would be the byproduct of these hearings would not be complete without a full reckoning of what happened to her husband and to her.
At the hospital, my father’s arms and hands were swollen, his head bandaged. He was unconscious, but my mother held his hand for hours, speaking to him, whispering to him, hoping that he knew she was there by his side. Despite the severe injuries he’d suffered, he was still the beautiful sixteen-year-old she’d seen at the grocery store years before when she first met him.
If only he would speak to her, and then heal, life could again be normal. He never again did speak to her. The scope of his injuries required his transfer from the Batavia hospital to one in Rochester. My mother was told that, if he survived, he could be in a vegetative state. She continued to stay by his side in Rochester.
As she testified, she “sat there minute by minute, hour by hour, holding Bill’s hand, holding my beautiful husband with love. There were no guarantees. He did not speak to me any time or acknowledge my presence. I talked to him and told him the girls were all right and we loved him and he was doing well.”
She was in a hospital waiting area when she saw “a large commotion by the hospital staff at Bill’s door.” Seconds later she heard an announcement seeking help for a “code blue.” Shortly after, she was told that my father was dead.
My mother talked about the agonizing days afterward, as she had to tell us of our father’s death, as she lost so much weight that she had to borrow a cousin’s dress for the funeral. The funeral itself had largely disappeared from her memory, she said. This reminded me of the photos I’d seen years before in which my grandparents appeared to be holding my mother upright at the funeral, as if her state were so fragile that she could topple at any moment.
She told of the constant barrage of media phone calls to our home, of reporters’ requests for photographs of my sisters and me. She finally changed to an unlisted number. She recalled how she reached out to a local priest for guidance because she thought she was “out of control.”
She remembered her first Christmas without our dad, only months after his death, as she was alone for the wrapping of gifts that she and my father usually did, joyfully, together. She had to stop. She sat on the floor, with us in our beds, and cried.
Amid her tears, she prayed for help, and a neighborhood couple showed up at the door to check on her. They helped her wrap the remaining presents and piece together toys that needed construction.
I knew what strength my mother had to gather to testify. There were members of FVOA who had chosen to give only written testimony to the task force. Some did so because they doubted the task force would do anything for us; some simply did not want to testify publicly; some lived too far away or were physically unable.
My mother could have chosen that route, as well. But she sat before the panel for a half hour, reliving the most painful days, months, and years of her life. She ensured that the historical record would not forget Bill Quinn, the darling love of her life, the man who’d been stolen from her.
“My husband was murdered and forgotten by our prison and judicial system,” she said.
“Bill went to work September 9, and my life has never been the same.”
A daughter remembers
(In this excerpt Miller tells of her testimony before the task force.)
I was the final member of the Quinn family to speak. I was there not only as a daughter who’d lost her dad but also as one of the leaders of FVOA who would ensure that the task force was reminded of our demands and why they were important.
I also wanted the task force to know that its own prison leadership at Attica had done so little to save my father — less, in fact, than inmates like Richard X. Clark had done.
I told how the Muslim prisoners had carried my father on the mattress to the gate. “One of the inmates, Brother Richard Clark, tried to tell prison superintendent Vincent Mancusi that one of his own was very badly injured and needed prompt medical attention or they feared he might die,” I said. “Mancusi and prison administration apparently did not feel that getting a fellow corrections officer immediate medical attention was necessary. Instead, they were too busy assessing their position of regaining control of the prison.”
My sister Christine had told how she had learned that a former prison employee had stepped right over our father to go into the prison. When she learned he lay there unattended and suffering, she could not sleep for weeks, she said. And, as I told the task force, the evidence I’d gathered from firsthand accounts and hospital records showed that about an hour and forty-five minutes lapsed from the time our father was beaten until he was finally taken by ambulance from the prison.
By the time of the hearings, we had developed so many allies of prominence that I chose to end with the words of one of them —Tom Wicker. I read from a column Wicker had written in The New York Times in 2000 about the prisoners’ settlement.
“In a more lasting sense, the Attica matter is anything but closed. It lives on, settlement or no settlement, a blot on the nation’s pride in itself, a terrible if unadmitted example of how American justice can go badly wrong — and not just in New York or in 1971.
“Could it really have happened in this country? It could, because it did. If not admitted, it could happen even again.”
The painful aftermath
(Throughout the days of testimony, others who had worked at the prison and their loved ones told of those lost in the riot and the psychological impact on survivors. Miller tells of their testimony in this excerpt.)
For many of those involved, the riot was the first step of a descent into hell. Some had confronted alcoholism, depression, family splits, and divorces. Some would flinch or even cower if they heard helicopters overhead.
Others, who had been remarkably social beforehand, opted to live much of their lives after in near-isolation, refusing invitations for dinners or friendly get-togethers. Several who had subsequent drunken driving arrests were routed into treatment that they never were offered in 1971.
(Among the hostages who survived was Richard Fargo, who was remembered in testimony by his wife.)
“Richard (Fargo) survived the hostage situation physically, but not emotionally,” his wife, June Fargo, testified.
During the initial riotous outbreak, Richard Fargo was struck in the head with a shovel and a sliver of glass entered his eye from a broken window on a door he tried to secure as he was being rushed by inmates.
Taken hostage, Fargo dealt with the pain of the glass shard in his eye as he sat blindfolded in the prison's D Yard.
Throughout the standoff, June Fargo, who was a teacher at the Attica Elementary School, received no updates from prison officials about the condition of her husband, though she knew he was alive. All of the information she received came from television and radio broadcasts.
Richard Fargo survived the retaking, but he, like so many others, was never the same. His wife convinced Fargo, a World War II veteran who’d joined the prison system in 1949, to never go back into another prison.
He had small pensions available, and he found new work, but his health deteriorated. He suffered respiratory problems, possibly an aftereffect of the gases dropped into D Yard, and recurrent headaches from the blow to his head. He would abruptly awaken in the middle of the night with severe chest pains, and, as June Fargo said, her “calming hands helped him relax.”
He avoided crowds, always looking around fearfully if he found himself surrounded by a large number of people. He began to drink heavily.
“There were times when I had to be away from home for an evening, or when I was teaching,” June Fargo said. “I never knew what I would find when I got home. I literally shook.”
Her children no longer brought friends over, uncertain of what kind of mood Richard Fargo might be in.
Richard Fargo died in May 1992. “He never got over the fact that his employer could treat him and fellow hostages and widows and survivors so badly,” his wife said.
Colleen Whalen Spatola, whose father was slain hostage Harrison Whalen, told of the articles she’d read through the years, saying of them that “I’d come away with a distinct impression they wanted you to feel like the guards were brutal and they somehow brought this violence upon themselves.
“But that’s not a picture of the father I remember,” she said.
Colleen told of a family vacation to Mystic Village and Salem during which “we ate in restaurants as we slept in hotels and we drove a lot.”
Once, sitting in the front seat of the family station wagon, her parents were chatting about an inmate who did wonderful leather work as a craft inside the prison. She still had a purse from the prisoner, she said, one with a long strap and flowers and vines sewn into the leather. Her initials were beneath the purse flap.
Remembering the family vacation, she told how her parents were discussing the prisoner’s release. By then, Colleen said, she was tired of the travels and just wanted to return to her own bed. “And I can remember saying, ‘He’s nothing but an ex-con. Why do you even care?’ ”
“I can vividly remember my father pulling that station wagon across three lanes of traffic and asking me to have a seat on the guard rail next to the car with him,” Colleen said. “Oh God, if I close my eyes, (I) can still hear that whoosh of the cars going by.”
There, with traffic zipping past, her father told her how disappointed he was in her. The inmate had made a mistake, had paid his time for it, and now deserved to live the rest of his life without the stigma of his crime, he said.
“How would you like it if I grounded you for something and when it was over, I threw it back in your face every single day for the rest of your life?” he asked her.
The testimony provided other moments like this — powerful rebuttals to the still-existing narrative that all prison employees were hostile to the prisoners, or that, conversely, all inmates were heartless monsters. There were glimpses of humanity, even from the awful days of 1971.
One corrections officer, Raymond Bogart, who was badly beaten, had been helped out of the prison on September 9th by an inmate, Walter “Tiny” Swift, and another prisoner. When Swift got Bogart to the gate, police asked him if he wanted to come out. Swift declined and said he had to go back in.
Swift, imprisoned for murder, had become an aide at the prison hospital, and he returned to the prison to try to help the wounded.
After the uprising, the extent of his work during those days became public; another officer said he would have bled to death without Swift’s intervention.
Governor Nelson Rockefeller pardoned Swift on Christmas of 1971, saying Swift, who became known as the “Angel of Attica,” had risked his own safety to help the injured. He died from injuries in a car accident in 1973, a day after he was married.
This is the second instalment in a two-part series. The first part can be found here:
Contact Gary Craig at email@example.com or at 585-258-2479. Follow him on Twitter at gcraig1.