ATTICA — It was the worst prison uprising in American history – Sept. 9-13, 1971 – and it ended with the retaking of the prison by the New York State Police.
Exactly 50 years after the retaking of the prison, current and former state corrections officials gathered with the members of the Forgotten Victims of Attica (FVOA) — Attica prison workers who survived the riot — and their families, for Monday’s FVOA Memorial Service.
FVOA members stood under tents lining the lawn in front of Attica Correctional Facility as they listened to the ceremony.
New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Acting Commissioner Tony Annucci said the presence of the Forgotten Victims of Attica was not just a tradition.
“It is now a right that has been codified into statutory law. It is hard for me to believe that it has been seven years since I last attended this annual gathering back in 2014 when we also arranged for the released artifacts from that terrible day in 1971 to be transferred to the appropriate survivors and family members in as dignified and as sensitive a manner as we could possibly provide,” he said. “It is also hard for me to believe that it has been 19 years since the Forgotten Victims of Attica (FVOA) provided such compelling heart-wrenching testimony and written submissions to the Attica Task Force. For me personally, your words will haunt me for the rest of my life.” Because of the significance of the 50th anniversary, Annucci said, he took the time to reread the transcripts of those who testified at the 2002 hearings. He also reread the submissions they had provided.
“In some ways, the effect of this experience was even more profound for me than when I was present at the actual hearings,” he said. “With each revelation, I could stop reading. I could put down the transcript. Then, I could carefully think about, and even try to visualize, what was being described, and inevitably come to the hard realization that no human being should have ever been made to go through that horrific experience.”
Portraits of the 11 prison employees killed during the riot lined the lawn in front of the prison. Directly behind it was the monument to their memory. The 11 are Edward T. Cunningham, John J. D’Arcangelo, Elmer G. Hardie, Herbert W. Jones Jr., John G. Monteleone, William E. Quinn, Carl W. Valone , Elon F. Werner, Ronald D. Werner and Harrison W. Whalen. Kent Monteleone, son of John Monteleone, rang a bell after each name was read.
“As I ... absorbed the incredible painful words of the different family members, I also realized that the 11 men whose names appear on the monument here at Attica were far more than just everyday people who went to work one day like millions of other New Yorkers, but who, unfortunately happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Deanne “Dee” Miller, who was 5 years old when her father, William E. Quinn, died of the injuries he suffered Sept. 9, 1971, the first day of the riot, read those names plus the names of 26 more people who died since the riot. A final bell ring followed the reading of the 26 names.
Annucci said the programs and amenities that have been provided to the incarcerated have been radically transformed due to the Attica Correctional riot and retaking of the prison.
“As was noted in the 1972 report of the McKay Commission, ‘Attica is every prison and every prison is Attica,’ ” he said in quoting the state’s Special Commission on Attica.
The acting commissioner said there was one other important lesson he learned from listening to testimony and reading people’s submissions.
“All of us owe a special duty to the Forgotten Victims of Attica,” he said. “That is the duty to listen quietly, respectfully and with undivided attention to your words, and how you describe your experiences, your pain, your suffering and your frustration. And, as we listen, we should really attempt to see, hear and feel what it must have been like to actually experience what you went through. Then, after we have done that, we should ask ourselves, ‘If that had happened to any of us, would we have felt any differently or would we have reacted any (differently)?’”
Miller, author of the book, “The Prison Guard’s Daughter: My Journey Through the Ashes of Attica,” read a letter written for the FYOA Memorial Service by former Attica Special Prosecutor Malcolm Bell, who was unable to attend Monday.
Among the speakers was former President of the California Corrections Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) Mike Jimenez, who acknowledged those who didn’t live to see the Memorial Service on the 50th anniversary.
“It’s my prayer that for all those who didn’t make it to this day, that they know we will see them again,” he said.
Kent Monteleone and former Attica Corrections Officer and former President of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association Rick Harcrow also spoke during the ceremony.
Mark Cunningham, son of Corrections Sgt. Edward Cunningham, one of the 11 who killed during the riot, was the master of ceremonies for the memorial. He noted that corrections officers and honor guards from all around the country came to support the FVOA families. Five Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) members who attended the ceremony were also recognized, as were the Attica and Wyoming honor guards. Officers Jeff Christensen and Matt Cunningham placed the Forgotten Victims of Attica’s wreath on the lawn amid the monument and portraits to the 11 Attica employees slain during the riot.
“I’d like to acknowledge our family members who survived those terrifying five days in 1971 who are with us today,” Mark Cunningham said toward the end of the memorial service. “If you are a surviving hostage or widow, could you please stand?”