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PART 2: Push to Close Notorious Attica Prison as Brutal Conditions Continue 40 Years After Uprising

Web ExclusiveMarch 05, 2015
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Watch the rest of our interview with Tom Robbins of The Marshall Project and former Attica prisoner Antonio Yarbough about Attica’s Ghosts: A savage beating, a culture beyond repair. More than four decades after the infamous Attica prison uprising, we look at the conditions inside the New York facility where three guards nearly beat a prisoner to death in 2011. Watch Part 1.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. We’re continuing with part two of our discussion with Tom Robbins, who’s a reporter with The Marshall Project, named for the late Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. This week, he published in The New York Times a remarkable major piece called “A Brutal Beating Wakes Attica’s Ghosts: A Prison, Infamous for Bloodshed, Faces a Reckoning as Guards Go on Trial.”

We’re also joined by one of the men he quotes in his piece, Antonio Yarbough. He served 20 years at Attica, two at Rikers. He served this time for a triple murder he did not commit. He was fully exonerated last year and released. He now lives in Queens, New York.

Tom, just to begin with you, your piece centers around George Williams, this young man who actually was serving a very short prison time for Attica prisoners.

TOM ROBBINS: That’s correct. He was serving a two-to-four for robbing a couple of jewelry scores in Manhattan. He had been at a medium security prison. He was jumped by another inmate. There was a fight. And he was sent to solitary, and as punishment, he was sent up to Attica.

AMY GOODMAN: And he was beaten within an inch of his life by three prison guards. Can you describe what was going on that day, why they selected him?

TOM ROBBINS: Well, I can tell you what was going on, which was that it was evening on a hot August night, and—

AMY GOODMAN: What was the date?

TOM ROBBINS: It was August 11, 2011. And a guard was delivering mail on C Block, which is one of these vast tiers of cells in this 2,200-inmate prison. And prisoners were making noise, as sometimes happens. And the guard shouted out, “Shut the eff up!” And usually that’s enough to send people—be quiet, because guards on C Block, particularly on this shift, which is the 3:00 to 11:00 shift, they’re known not to be messed with. But in this case, some prisoners shouted back, “You, shut the eff up!” and followed it up with another obscene suggestion. And this was the kind of thing which upset the guard, apparently, and about 30 minutes later, inmates were told to lock in, go back into their cells. And 30 minutes later, a trio of officers showed up outside the cell of George Williams, told him to strip for a search, said they were taking him for a urinalysis down the hall, and then they proceeded to beat him. As to why they picked George Williams, that’s something we’ll never completely know. But what other inmates were prepared to testify, had this trial gone forward, was that they were looking for the guy who shouted out, “Shut the eff up!” back at them, and they got the wrong guy.

AMY GOODMAN: Wow! And who were these three guards? Describe them, in their physical being, their names and their records.

TOM ROBBINS: OK. Well, they were big. I mean, I think that’s probably the most significant factor here, is that they were like linebackers. Sean Warner was a senior officer. He was a sergeant. He’s now 41 years old. He was the shortest of them all. He was 5’11” and weighed about 250 pounds. Keith Swack was an officer who was six-foot-two, I forget, and he weighed about 300 pounds. And Matthew Rademacher, we believe, was the third person—George Williams was never completely certain that he was the third who came there, but it would have been established at trial—and he was another six-footer, 250-plus. George Williams, by the way, is 5’8” and weighs 170 pounds.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So why, from your research, why has it been so difficult to prosecute prisoner abuse, since there’s been so much of it, by prison guards in Attica, and probably in other maximum security prisons in the U.S., as well?

TOM ROBBINS: Well, I can only speak for New York, but I can tell you that there has simply never been the political will. I mean, in post-Attica rebellion, post-1971, there was a focus on the condition of inmates, and there were some improvements. They created Prisoner Legal Service, which represents prisoners when they can, but funding for them was almost completely cut during the Pataki administration. So now prisoners are on their own. And the internal mechanisms for addressing—there is a grievance procedure, but I think Antonio will tell you that it’s not particularly effective. So, the only—this is the only time that criminal charges have ever been brought. And it definitely—I mean, people are rightly outraged about the fact that this resulted in a no-jail sentence for these officers. But it’s the first time that they were ever even charged.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Antonio, can you talk about that grievance—

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Yeah, yes. You know why I think that these officers was arrested and charged? Because this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was like enough is enough, you know, when it comes to a point where you’re afraid to walk outside your cell because you’re not sure if you’re going to get pulled out and set to the side by a guard and get slapped up or kicked or whatever they feel like doing at that moment. Now, granted, yeah, there are criminals inside the prison. I just happened to be one who wasn’t actually a criminal, you know what I’m saying? But I suffered the same thing that everyone else suffered, all the other prisoners suffered there.

And when this incident happened, like always, it spreads through the jail like wildflower—I mean, wildfire, excuse me. And in this particular moment, rumors started surfacing that, you know what, this is it. You know, we’re tired of the guards doing this, and no one is doing anything about it. Everyone knows—and when I say “everyone,” I’m talking about from Albany all the way down to the superintendent, all the way down to the block sergeants and the hall captain—everybody knows what’s going on at Attica, but no one’s doing anything about it. So it gets to a point where you say, “You know what? Enough is enough.” I was at the point where I was like enough is enough, and I’m on the verge of actually winning my freedom. But, you know, you can only be scared for a certain amount of time before the pipes bust.

And what I thought was going to happen—I told this to Tom Robbins—was that a riot is going to come, and this one is going to be much worse than the last one, because you can only take but so much, when you think no one on the outside actually gives a damn about what’s going on. Granted, yeah, there are, like I said, people in there who deserve to be in there, but at the same time, it’s like, come on, I’m already serving time for—you know, for my case. I had 75 years to life, you know what I’m saying? And so, like, you know, a person with 75 years to life who has, like, really no hope, it’s like, you know what, I’m not going to be walking around here scared anymore. You know, either we’re going to get along, or, you know, get along.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s stop for a minute just to ask about your case.


AMY GOODMAN: I mean, 20 years at Attica, and then you are exonerated.


AMY GOODMAN: You actually were facing more than 75 years?

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Well, I had 75 years to life. They had given me 75 years to life for—like you said, for a crime I actually had nothing—nothing—to do with.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us about this case.

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Well, the crime was I—on June 18 of 1992, I came home from hanging out with friends and discovered the bodies of my mother, my little sister and my cousin. At this time, I was 18 years old, never been inside of a prison, never been arrested for anything, you know? And I went down to the precinct, the 16th Precinct in New York, thinking that I would get help, or they would help me try to figure out who—excuse me—murdered my family. And what they did is they turned my co-defendant, who was at the time 15—I was 18—turned him against me. And before you knew it, I’m on Rikers Island, you know, and I’m faced with a triple homicide, and I’m there ’til 1994, while—I wound up blowing trial after the second trial. And then I got sent up in April 1994 to Attica.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get exonerated?

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: I got exonerated. A friend of mines, who did actually—by the name of Eric Barden, he had spent, I think, 16 years in prison for a crime he actually did. And, you know, in Attica, you really don’t have nobody else to mingle with or whatever, so you find your core of friends. And, you know, my thing, I was like—I always spoke about how I was innocent and how one day I’m going to prove my innocence, and then I was fighting very hard, writing to the Innocence Project and all these—all the other organizations. And he had made a promise. He said, “Listen, when I get out, I’m going to help you get out.” But everybody says that. So it was a nice gesture, but he actually got out and actually went and found a lawyer. And that lawyer was Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma from—he knows him—260 Madison Avenue, who saw my case, saw the injustice, saw what happened, you know, and actually fought for me for five years, without any pay or anything, you know, him and a person by the name of Philip J. Smallman, who saw the injustice and fought very hard to get me out. And, you know, thank God for DNA.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us what happened.

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Well, what happened was, at the time, I didn’t—every time I would write to the Innocence Project, the only thing they was concerned about was whether or not there was DNA in my case. I didn’t know, because I never had a really good attorney from the get-go. And so, I was telling them; I said, “I don’t know,” because I didn’t want to lie to them. So I was like, “I don’t know.” And come to find out—when Zachary took my case, come to find out there was abundance of physical evidence that was never tested at the time of trial. So, we fought for that, pushed it, and sure enough, the judge granted my petition to do DNA testing. And what they found was, they found DNA that was under the fingernails of my mother, who wanted to try to fight off the person or persons, whoever. And come to find out, the DNA they found under her nails was connected to another homicide of another female who was murdered in a somewhat similar fashion as my family was. And that’s how—yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And it didn’t link to you.

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: It did not link to me or my co-defendant. So—

AMY GOODMAN: So you not only lost your family—


AMY GOODMAN: —but you then were imprisoned for 20 years.

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Yeah. I was in prison for 22 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-two years.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you said that Attica is set up like a business: They want people to come back. What do—

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Right. It’s—right. But I would have—and I guess that all the taxpayers who spend their money believe that prison system is there to rehabilitate prisoners, or inmates, whatever you want to call them. The fact of the matter is it’s not that way at all, because their job is there, and this is their job. But a job is to serve and protect, but their job is there to punish us once we get in there. So you’re going into this system where no one gives a damn, first and foremost—excuse my language. But no one actually really gives a—and when I say “no one,” I’m talking about from Albany all the way down to the correction officer who works there. Their job there is to make sure that we come back.

They give you what? There’s no school in there. In the schooling that they do give, the teachers will tell you right off the bat, if you can ask any prisoner in there—any of the state maximum security prisoners, they’ll tell you, “Listen, they’re here to get their check. They don’t care whether or not you come in or learn or not.” Granted, it’s up to us to actually go in there and, you know, pay attention. But if I’m a [inaudible] there, and you happen to be a friend of mines who thinks you—who can’t find a job, teaching job, nowhere else, I comes in, and I say, “OK, when you come out, I’m going to hire you,” or whatever the case may be. And they go there to get the check, because no one’s learning anything in there, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t learn anything in there. You know, I mean, except for one teacher that was there by the name of Fooch [phon.]. He was the only one that I have ever known in my 20 years of being at Attica who actually sits down, takes the time out to explain things to you and how things are supposed to go. You know what I’m saying?

So, and you see these things from the inside, and you’re like, “Wait a minute, what is going on on the outside? Why no one is saying anything?” You see these politicians come through, and they don’t even stop to even talk to you. You try to—don’t do this, because then you wind up getting beat down later on that night, if you try to stop a politician or somebody to come talk to you. I was telling Tom Robbins I would love to walk through there with Governor Cuomo one time, to show him where he actually really need to be at, not where they’re sending him to, you know what I’m saying? So, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tom, can you explain just where Attica is, how remote it is, and what politicians are saying about it, what prisoners and—as we’re hearing Antonio describe it, now a free man, but what people are saying should happen to Attica?

TOM ROBBINS: Well, location-wise, it’s about 30, 40 miles east of Buffalo. It’s in the northwest corner of the state. And it’s—you know, one of the disconnects that you get is when you drive up to Attica—you didn’t see it too many times, Antonio, but you drive through these absolutely beautiful cornfields and past great dairy barns, and they’re just surrounded by this beautiful rural countryside. And then, smack in the middle of it, you have this enormous, castle-like institution. And it is an entity in and of itself within Attica and within Wyoming County, because of the fact that it is the major employer. So it is the major part of the tax base there. It’s something that people depend on.

But the Correctional Association, which is this marvelous organization which has the right, under state statute—and I think this is unique for the United States—they have the right, independently, to inspect state prisons. And the executive director, Soffiyah Elijah, has been calling for Attica to be shut down, before I started this story. In fact, it was her suggestion to The Marshall Project, to Bill Keller, the editor there, that they take a look at it, that led to my doing this piece. And since the story came out, I think that that demand is getting some headwinds.

I know that it’s—the issue most before us right now is the question of why did this criminal case end so badly, or at least so badly from the perspective that you can beat a man, as you said, almost to death and you get no jail time for it. But the larger question is: Well, what message does any of this send to, like, what’s going on there now? One of my big concerns in writing this story was possible retribution against people I talk to, because I spent a lot of time talking to prisoners there, and several of them said to me, “Use my name.” And at first, I thought, “Well, OK, I could do that,” because, as a reporter, you always want to get people’s names, because it’s more credible to the reader. But then I realized, just from stories that I kept hearing from Antonio and other people, that, like, these correction officers—and it’s a minority, I want to be clear about this. And I think Antonio would agree that the ones who dole out the most brutal punishment, they’re a minority of the officers that are there.


TOM ROBBINS: But they cast such a wide net around the prison that everybody else gets sucked in with it. I was worried about retribution to the folks I talked to.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Robbins, tell us about a guard that you profile in your piece in The New York Times, Gary J. Pritchard. Who is he? He wasn’t linked to this specific attack on George Williams, but you spend a lot of time on him.

TOM ROBBINS: He was off that day. I think that prosecutors believe that had he been there, that things might have turned out differently, because he’s been involved in many of these incidents, and he knows how to make them work correctly, as opposed to this one, which went awry. Gary Pritchard has been a guard for 25 years, and he’s kind of a poster child for, I think, what’s wrong with the system. He was originally at Auburn, another maximum security prison, and they tried to fire him there for beating an inmate, but an arbitrator reduced his punishment to a $1,500 fine. And he transferred to Attica, he said, because he didn’t like Auburn, but there was a team spirit at Attica and that they backed you up.

AMY GOODMAN: A team spirit.

TOM ROBBINS: He said this is the place he most wanted to work. But within a year after he got there, he had beaten another inmate. As he said in a deposition that I quoted in my story, he used his baton with everything he had, and he knocked out a few teeth in the process. The Department of Corrections tried to fire him for that incident. But again, an arbitrator reinstated him. He only served a month suspension. And his reputation sort of grew after that. I mean, he became the man on C Block. He worked that 3:00-to-11:00 shift, which is the shift that goes from when they bring prisoners back from—what is it, Antonio? From coming in from the yard?

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Yeah, yeah, and court, whatever. You’ve got to go through there. You’ve got to go through C Block, yeah, yeah.

TOM ROBBINS: You’ve got to go through C Block. And prisoners believed that Pritchard was a member of what they call the Black Glove Squad.


TOM ROBBINS: Now, administrators insist there’s no such thing as a Black Glove Squad. But Antonio’s laughing. Right? It’s named after these puncture-resistant gloves that were given to officers to avoid infection, which is, you know, a reasonable thing. But they were also apparently donned by people who were guards who were doling out brutal beatings. And when some guards would call in the tune-up squad, they would call in the Black Glove Squad. And Gary Pritchard was notorious for being a member of that.

AMY GOODMAN: How many charges were there against him? How many different prisoners talked about being beaten by him?

TOM ROBBINS: I found two dozen lawsuits that were filed—civil rights lawsuits, that were filed against him, everything from—several for squeezing a prisoner’s testicles so hard that they cried out in pain and sprawled on the ground; one bizarre one, not long ago, where he, along with two other guards, allegedly put paper bags on their heads and went into an inmate’s cell and sprayed him with a mixture of vinegar and feces—I mean, just outrageous behavior, one after another. And then, in one of the cases, where a prisoner, who was suing on his own, managed to get the Department of Corrections to acknowledge that its inspector general had investigated Gary Pritchard 26 times just in the last decade, but had never brought charges against him for any of those instances.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-six times. Where does religion come into it with the man known as the “Preacher,” Mr. Pritchard?

TOM ROBBINS: He describes himself as a deeply religious man, and he has said that in testimony, court testimony and in depositions. And he also has these tattoos that go up and down both arms, and he displays them proudly with his sleeve rolled up above his bicep—Jesus, God, angels all around me, Mom, various other things. And the first time I heard his name was only by his nickname, by an inmate at the Fortune Society named Rene Peterson, who said, “I’ll get you his real name, but they call him 'Preacher,' because before he beat your ass, he says Bible verses.” It sounds almost comical, but I think it was a reign of terror.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the prisoner who was transitioning to become a woman? In fact, won thousands of dollars from—

TOM ROBBINS: Eighty thousand dollars.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened to her?

TOM ROBBINS: Her name is now Misty LaCroix, and she was going to get her meds, as they call it, one evening, and all of a sudden she was surrounded by a group of guards, led by Gary Pritchard, who assaulted her and called her an effing freak, beat her to the ground and broke her rib. She complained about it, and the guards insisted nothing ever happened—she’s making it up; there was no such altercation; if she’s injured, she did it to herself. She finally found her way to a wonderful attorney, a man named Anthony Cecutti, who represented her, stayed on her case. This position—all of these cases, by the way, are defended by the state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman. His people defend the cases—that’s their job, under state law. But in this case, they insisted—even though Gary Pritchard had been sued at least two dozen times and they knew him so well as a defendant, they decided to go to trial on this case. And on the witness stand, Anthony Cecutti, the lawyer, questioned Pritchard in such a way so that he basically said things, I think, that convinced a jury, or would have convinced a jury, that this was a man personally capable of breaking a rib. When they asked him, “Do you carry a baton?” Pritchard’s response was: “I carry the biggest one they let me carry.” And when they broke for—after that day, the state decided to settle, and they gave Misty LaCroix $80,000.

AMY GOODMAN: But Pritchard remained on the job.

TOM ROBBINS: He’s still on the job, as far as I know.

AMY GOODMAN: On the job.

TOM ROBBINS: As far as I know. He’s now involved in—he’s not in population anymore, I’m told, as they call it. He’s now in transportation, which is not such a great thing either, because it means that he brings prisoners to either other facilities or to what? Funerals?

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Well, he’s not—when they say in transportation, he’s still at Attica.


ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Still works at Attica.


ANTONIO YARBOUGH: But, like, say, for example, a relative of mines would pass away that I could actually go to the funeral, then they might use him to transport me down there, you know, which is not a good thing.

TOM ROBBINS: And he still fills in for other guards, right?

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Yeah. Right before—

TOM ROBBINS: On regular shift?

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Right before—like a month before I wound up getting released, he worked in the Honor Block. In the Honor Block. Unbelievable.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And while you were there, Antonio, did you—

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: While I was there, yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And did you encounter the “Preacher” yourself?

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: I know him. I know—well, I never had a problem with. Thank God, I’ve never had. But you—like I say, anytime anything happens, it spreads throughout the jail. I mean, what else is there to talk about, you know? Preacher this, Preacher that, you know. And his name’s been out there more than 26 times. So, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, for a person who was imprisoned for a crime, for a triple murder, that you didn’t commit, and then imprisoned ultimately for 22 years, you don’t sound bitter.

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Well, I think me and Tom Robbins had this conversation. You know, I’m a Christian. So, you know, like, I really—thanks be to God that I’m still here. A reporter asked me one time; he said, “If they had the death penalty, what do you think would have happened to you?” Well, I would have been dead, because it took them 22 years to get me up out of prison. And so, you know, I give God the glory, and I thank him, because he carried me through all that hell that was there and kept me sane at the same time, you know. And I am grateful to have made it out without getting my legs broken or without losing an eye or, you know—but there’s many nights I have sat up, you know, thinking like, “Oh, my god. You know, these officers is bugging out.”

Like, for example, I was on the phone yesterday, just yesterday, talking to a person from Attica. And I asked him—he didn’t know that the story was out, but I told him—he was telling me, “Yo, it’s getting worse in here,” this, that. And how much worse can it get? So I said, “Well, it must have been the story, the Tom Robbins story.” So he was like, “What are you talking about?” So I explained the situation to them, and whoops, there it was, you know what I’m saying? So anytime something like that happens, tension grows, because Attica wants to be seen as this bright, shining light for, you know, keeping crime down or whatever. But I don’t know what it is that they actually think that they’re doing, but it’s not working at all. So—

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, they were talking about closing a number of prisons. Isn’t that right, Tom Robbins?

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: But they’re talking about closing mediums and minimums, prisons, security prisons. They have not spoken about anything of Auburn, Comstock, Green Haven, like none of the maximum security prisons. The funny thing about it is that when I first arrived at Attica, everybody had life—75 to life, 50 to life, a hundred to life, 25 to life. What they did, or whoever did it, they took—they started breaking up, because unity was in Attica at one time. They couldn’t do a lot of the things that they’re doing now. And so, they started saying, “You know what? We’re going to take this person who got a one-to-two, and we’re going to put him in here with these lifers. And we’re going to take this three-to-five and this flat five,” and, you know, all these different numbers, and they threw them—they mixed us all up and together, so therefore it broke the unity. So now that’s why they get away with a lot of stuff that they get away with now, because no one’s going to say anything.

TOM ROBBINS: Yeah, you know, you’re just reminding me—

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: “I’m on my way out the door.”

TOM ROBBINS: —about something that fell out of my story, about—


TOM ROBBINS: I think—I forget if I heard it first from you, but I heard it from several inmates, was that the most common way in which these beatings begin is when someone is put up against the wall, they call it, in pat frisk.


TOM ROBBINS: And they’re taken out of line on their way out to the yard or on their way to med.


TOM ROBBINS: And back in the day—correct me if I got this wrong, but back in the day, if they took someone out of the line—

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: The whole line would stop. I mean, we’re not moving 'til that prisoner or inmate was, you know, patted down the right way and secure, put back in the line and sent out to the yard. The first time—I was in C Block, the first time I ever got pulled out of the way. I just got there. You know, I'm the new kid on the block, so I guess they wanted, you know, to try to make an example out of me, so they pulled me out of the line for whatever reason, threw me up against the wall. And the whole line just stopped and would not move, you know what I’m saying? And they gave me one of these.


ANTONIO YARBOUGH: And they sent me on my way. Like, you know, a regular patdown and sent me on my way. About two years later, I’m in D Block, and they pulled me out of the line. The line left me. I’m in the hallway with like five, six, seven guards. They’re surrounding me. They’re in my ear talking mad, all type of disrespectful stuff, hoping that I do something. And you’ve got to be on the wall, and you’ve got to literally—your hands got to be like this.

AMY GOODMAN: Spread fingers.

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Spread, right, because they don’t—they’re afraid that something might—that’s what they said, that something might be between your fingers. Spread your fingers. You’ve got to be—you’re back so far that if they tap you a little bit, you fall flat on your face. So a lot of time what they’ll do to you—like, me and the guard might have a verbal altercation, could be about anything—mail, meds, whatever. And I decided—stupidly enough, decided to go to the yard that night. And they pulled me out, pulled me on the wall, spread me out. And they’ll do something to make me jump, and then they’ll beat me down and say that I assaulted staff, I [inaudible] staff. You ever heard of Ms. Montgomery from—she’s in Albany. She’s a politician in Albany who’s been trying to—

TOM ROBBINS: Velmanette Montgomery.

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Right. She’s been trying—

TOM ROBBINS: From Brooklyn.

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: Right. She’s been trying to make it where—under the Pataki regime, no one was going home. Anybody with life wasn’t making it home, you know what I’m saying? So she was trying to fix it where—the time situation, where people will start going home to save the city money and all that. There was a lot of good proposals. And I remember seeing her on one of the PBS specials, and she said, “You know what’s funny? You’re all batting”—she told the—oh, man, he was the—for the union, the union boss, the union rep for the corrections.

TOM ROBBINS: For the guards, yeah.

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: And he said—”You know what?” she said, “Y’all are batting a thousand.” She said, “All the cases that I have seen,” she says, “it’s always an inmate assaulting the staff. It’s always the prisoner assaulting the staff.” She said, “At least you can at least throw one in there where it says an officer, you know, retaliated against the staff—I mean, against the prisoner.” You know what I’m saying? So, it’s an uphill battle.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Robbins, you talk about one guard, Mark Cunningham, whose father was killed in the 1971 Attica uprising?

TOM ROBBINS: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: When Nelson Rockefeller had the state troopers open fire?

TOM ROBBINS: He was a hostage. He was killed by—let’s be clear about this: He was killed by bullets that were fired by police. All of the—there were 11 employee victims when they retook the prison—eight guards and three civilian employees. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Forty-three people were killed, guards and prisoners and civilians; eighty-eight wounded, many others hurt.

TOM ROBBINS: Yes. But I wanted to just make this point for those folks who are hearing this for the first time. In one of the most enormous lies that was ever told, after the retaking—and they had suffered these terrible casualties on their own side. They had managed to kill 11 of their own, and if—the official spokesperson for the Department of Corrections went before the press and said all of those victims died from having their throats cut. And they said that Michael Smith, who was then 22, one of the guard hostages, had had his testicles severed and shoved in his mouth by Frank Smith, the person who we had on before. None of it was true. It was one of the most amazing lies told. It went around the world. I’ll never forget the front page of the Daily News that day. And I picked it up. They slit throat. They made it up. Two hostages did suffer severe throat cuts, but they were not fatal. Everybody died of gunshot wounds. And the inmates did not have guns.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end this discussion back, oh, some 44 years ago, back at Attica. We played a clip of this in part one of our interview, and I wanted to play a fuller clip right now. This, again, is from Ghosts of Attica, a film that was made by Lumiere Productions. In the 1971 prison uprising that went from September 9th to 13th, 1971, 43 men died. This was when the New York state troopers opened fire. Eighty-eight prisoners were injured. And in this clip of Ghosts of Attica, it’s the story of Frank “Big Black” Smith, the prisoner, who played a prominent role in the rebellion, was tortured by officers, and Liz Fink, who served as the lead attorney for the former Attica prisoners.

ATTICA PRISONER 1: I heard the helicopter, and the helicopter says, “Lay down. Put your hands on your head. You will not be harmed.” And I complied.

ATTICA PRISONER 2: They had us boxed in. And they was shooting down at us. I couldn’t crawl. I literally couldn’t crawl.

STATE TROOPER: I will repeat: Do not harm the hostages. Surrender peacefully. You will not be harmed.

ATTICA PRISONER 2: I remember an inmate said, “This guy is bleeding, is bleeding and bleeding.” And I didn’t know that he was referring to me.

ELIZABETH FINK: Uh-huh, all right. Well, you’ve got to tell him that.

STATE TROOPER: Slowly retreat with your hands on top of your head as you move.

ATTICA PRISONER 3: Well, just, you know, everywhere you looked around, all you’re seeing was killing and shooting everything they came across.

FRANKBIG BLACKSMITH: People laying all over, and they’re all bleeding and bloody and stuff. You know, so everybody know now that it’s real, that this is it. You know, they’re here now. They’re in the yard now. They got control.

ELIZABETH FINK: State troopers just took their clubs and beat them down the stairs, broke people’s legs, hit them on the tibia and broke tibias. On their back, on their head, in their genitals, on their front, you know, wherever they could hit them, that’s where they beat them.

FRANKBIG BLACKSMITH: I’m telling you, my name is being called: “Where is Big Black? Where is Big Black? Get up, Black! Get up!” And he’s busting me with a [N-word] stick, pickaxe, and got a .38 in his hand. And I gets up. And he—bam! In my side, in my back. And made me run with my hand on my head over to the side. And before I got over there, two, three more correction officers with him now, and everybody’s hitting me. And now they made me spread eagle on the table. Here I am, laying down, looking up the catwalk. And cigarettes and spit and shells, after they shoot their gun, they’re dropping them down on me. And I’m there with the football up under my chin. “That football better stay there, 'cause if it falls, you're going to die sooner than you expect to die.” I’m not in charge now. You know, I’m back to their reality. They’re going to show you the humiliation that they’re doing to me and everybody in the yard. “Here’s your security chief. What do you got to say about it now?”

AMY GOODMAN: That was former Attica prisoner Frank “Big Black” Smith. During the uprising, he was forced to lie on a table while officers beat and burned him, also threatened with castration and death. In 2000, he and other prisoners won a $12 million agreement with the state of New York. We’re going to leave it there. Tom Robbins, thanks so much for joining us. And thank you very much to Antonio Yarbough.

ANTONIO YARBOUGH: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

TOM ROBBINS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: And we will link to the piece at The New York Times that, Tom, you wrote. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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StoryMar 05, 2015Attica’s Ghosts: New Calls to Close Site of Prison Revolt After Guards Avoid Jail for Brutal Abuse
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