New Attica documents reveal inmate accounts of torture after 1971 prison riot

Documents released after two-year appeal by New York attorney general are from 1975 report conducted in wake of five-day prison riot that left 43 dead

Newly unsealed documents about the retaking of New York’s Attica prison in the aftermath of a 1971 riot reveal witness and inmate accounts of torture, burns and sexual abuse by prison officials.

Police and guards regained control of the prison on 13 September 1971, ending a five-day riot that left 43 inmates, officers and civilians dead.

The documents, released on Thursday after a two-year appeal by the state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, amount to 46 pages of a multi-volume 1975 report by Judge Bernard Meyer, who was appointed to investigate whether there was a cover-up of what happened at the prison.

In the unsealed documents, Meyer wrote that investigators failed to interview people who could have described horrific abuses, and who could have identified the perpetrators if they had been contacted promptly. Abuses continued against inmates, witnesses said, after police and guards regained control.

“Today, we are shining new light on one of the darkest chapters of our history,” said Marty Mack, executive deputy attorney general. “We hope that, with the release of the Meyer report, we can bring the families of Attica uprising victims closer to closure and help future generations of Americans learn from this tragic event.”

According to Meyer, one national guardsman who helped treat inmates after the riot “saw stretchers deliberately tilted, saw guards beat inmates on medical carts with clubs, saw a prison doctor pull an inmate off a cart and kick him in the stomach”.

The soldier witnessed “inmates beaten while running a gauntlet” and also heard a civilian refuse to allow a national guard field hospital on prison grounds. Federal investigators never tried to contact the man, Meyers wrote.

James Watson, another national guardsman, said he saw inmates beaten on stretchers, “poked in the groin and rectum with nightsticks, [and] beaten while running through gauntlets”. Watson said on one occasion he saw an inmate beaten by seven prison officers.

Robert Jenks, a staff physician at a nearby hospital, reported seeing “an inmate with large wounds around his rectum which were not from gunshot and which, he later heard, had been caused by a broken bottle”. Jenks said he was refused permission to evacuate “an inmate who had suffered severe brain damage” and saw people with untreated fractures and who had not received blood transfusions.

Inmates also reported brutality, even as some faced criminal charges for their part in the riots. The documents include the account of inmate Jacques Roberts, who said that he was “beaten with clubs” and forced to run a gauntlet, during which his teeth were knocked out and he was “beaten with rifle butts while lying prone”.

Then a shot went off in the yard, and Roberts said he heard “an officer in an orange raincoat [say] ‘[He] ain’t dead yet’,” using a racial slur. Roberts said he had “a lit cigarette shoved by a trooper into his rectum”, a finger broken during a second gauntlet, and that troopers subsequently assaulted him in the hospital.

Inmates Frank Lott and Roger Champen also described beatings, being marked with Xs and having matches thrown at them.

Clarence Jones, co-chair of the investigatory Goldman Panel, also reported seeing numerous injuries on inmates, including cigarette burns. The panel told the police that they believed there had been “post-riot brutality”, but Meyers notes that investigators’ primary concerns were with what happened before the riot.

In some cases, as with the account of a US army observer, entire testimonies remain redacted.

Former prisoners and their families have alleged abuses by prison guards; overcrowding, poor living conditions and guard brutality have beencited as some of the reasons for prisoners revolting with clubs and knives and threatening to kill hostages. Meyer noted that while 62 prisoners were indicted for their roles in the riot, only one state trooper was indicted for his actions, and that the grand jury declined to indict four others.

Prisoners killed three inmates and one guard during the riot and subsequent siege. Police and guards shot dead 29 inmates and 10 hostages as they retook the prison.

Meyer also noted that reports of the panel members did not reach the investigation until as long as four years afterward.

Meyer concluded that there was no “intentional cover-up”, but wrote that serious errors, omissions, and delays tainted the investigation: “The decision to conduct the investigation sequentially or chronologically rather than topically was a serious error of judgment.”

His findings have been public for decades, but the hundreds of pages of factual evidence he used remain sealed in two other volumes of the report. Of particular concern to Meyer was whether investigators had a conflict of interest as they interviewed inmates, who might face criminal charges over the riot, about what guards did afterward.

Michael Smith, a corrections officer taken hostage in the riot and shot when the prison was stormed by police, told the Associated Press a huge amount of information was still being suppressed.

“The truth will all come out someday but I don’t know if anybody’s going to be alive who was involved in the event,” he said.

Schneiderman originally attempted to have the entire report unsealed, redacting the names of grand jury witnesses, but a New York court declined to release the full findings. In 2000, the state settled a lawsuit brought by 1,280 inmates for $8m.

“Attica is not going to go away until the whole truth of it is told,” Jonathan Gradess, an attorney who has assisted a group called the Forgotten Victims of Attica, told the Democrat and Chronicle. “The whole truth is going to be every line on every piece of paper.”