MUSEUM ORAL HISTORY

Michael S. Smith
Interviewed by Brien Williams

“It was a spontaneous reaction to a perfect point in time for something to explode…like striking a match…”

Michael Smith was a 22-year-old corrections officer when on September 9, 1971 a group of inmates overtook Attica Prison in rural New York. Officers and civilian employees of the prison were taken hostage as the inmates and state officials negotiated. Three days into the negotiations, Corrections Officer William Quinn died from injuries sustained on the first day of the riot. Quinn’s death made the inmates’ central demand for immunity impossible and heightened the anxiety in and outside of the prison.

On September 13, 1971, inmates marched seven hostages up to the prison’s catwalk and threatened them with execution. Outside of the prison, Governor Nelson Rockefeller had already ordered the state police to retake the prison. Smith, one of the seven on the catwalk, vividly remembers the wind created by the state trooper’s helicopter when it flew overhead, the gas fog that covered the prison yard, and then the rapid gun fire that surrounded him. Smith was shot four times, ending his career in corrections, and leaving him with lasting scars. Smith says of the experience, “Kind of grounds you at a very early age to what’s important in life… I look at it more of a blessing, because it really opened my eyes.

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The Museum's Witness to History program is generously funded by the Target Corporation©.