Witness to History

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National Law Enforcement Museum's panel discussion examines the historic 1971 riot and its impact on the nation.

On Tuesday, April 14, 2015 the National Law Enforcement Museum presented the 11th installment of its popular Witness to History panel discussion series, generously sponsored by Target®. Held at the U.S. Navy Memorial’s Burke Theatre, guests enjoyed a great evening and fascinating program that detailed specific accounts from one of the most significant events in corrections history.

More than forty years after the violent events at Attica Correctional Facility, scholars and participants are still unravelling the fallout and meaning of the 1971 Attica prison riot. Craig Floyd, Chairman and CEO of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, welcomed the nearly 100 guests in attendance. He then introduced the panel moderator, Frank Bond, documentary filmmaker, veteran journalist and former anchor at WUSA-TV in Washington, DC; and panelists, Donald Almeter and Michael Smith, former Corrections Officers who were taken hostage during the riots; and Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, professor of African-American Studies and History at Temple University and author of an upcoming book covering the history of the Attica prison.

On September 9, 1971 correctional officers were instructed by administrators to reprimand a company of inmates, but several problems led to a head-on confrontation that left the prisoners in control of the prison’s central passageway known as “Time Square.” Don Almeter was in A Block when he heard the rioting inmates taking over the prison. He remembers, “The whistle was blowing and [the Sergeant’s] answer to all of us was that help was on the way. It didn’t happen.”  Almeter and his fellow officers were beaten, stripped of their clothing, their hands tied, and they were herded out to D yard.

Michael Smith was in the prison’s metal shop supervising inmates and civilian instructors when he heard the whistle. He remembered the fear and confusion from those early moments. Many of the inmates in the shop tried to hide thinking that one of the prison gangs had started a fight. “Grown men were trying to fit themselves into what was the equivalent of high school lockers.” Smith locked the civilians in the back office and positioned himself at the door waiting for something to happen. When the “human wave of emotion” that was the riot broke into the room, Smith found himself thrown to the floor and beaten by several prisoners. The beating only stopped when two of the inmates, who he had been supervising, threw themselves spread-eagle on top of him. As the inmates escorted him to the hostage area, Smith saw the physical devastation of the riot; prisoners were “smashing everything that could be smashed and igniting everything that could burn.”

The state and prisoners began a negotiation period where the press and an observation committee were invited to witness the discussion. Severely injured hostages were released for medical care including William Quinn, the officer in charge of Time Square. On the third day of negotiations, Quinn died of his injuries making amnesty the most important negotiating point and the one thing Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused outright. In a stalemate, the State Police were ordered to retake the prison in the early morning of September 13th. The inmates fearing the end of negotiations were near decided to kill several hostages in a public execution to pressure the state.

Witness to History: Attica — Beyond the Riot

Michael Smith and seven other hostages were taken up to the catwalk so they could be seen by passing helicopters. Smith remembers the harrowing experience in detail, “I was blindfolded [and] had three inmate executioners assigned to me. Death at this point seemed inevitable, Smith and inmate Don Noble “had a serious conversation that morning…Don promised that he wouldn’t let me suffer and that was very consoling to me at the time.” As he stood blindfolded on the catwalk, Smith could hear the sound of the helicopters overhead, smell the gas as it blanketed the yards and catwalk, and then the gunfire began. Watching footage of the riot later on, Smith saw himself and everyone else on the catwalks “fall like dominoes.”

Almeter and Smith survived these tumultuous four days, but 39 others were killed including seven corrections officers whose names are engraved on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.