Attica hostage shares harrowing account
REPORTING FOR DUTY: Riot began soon after Don Almeter began his shift
Returning from Vietnam in 1967, Don Almeter, a Marine veteran, formerly of Varysburg, married his first wife, Carolyn, in 1968 and returned to work at his father’s auto repair shop.
Answering a second call to duty two years later, Almeter took a job as a prison guard.
“I took the test. I passed it and they offered me a position at Greenhaven Prison in Duchess County, near New York City,” said Almeter.
His childhood friend, John Stockholm, was also working as a prison guard and was heading back home to work at what was then known as Attica State Prison, a maximum-security prison that housed about 2,500 male inmates at the time.
Almeter was also able to secure a position at Attica and arrived to work in the summer of 1970. It was a time when civil rights movements were on the rise and prisons across the country, like Auburn Correctional Facility and San Quentin State Prison, were experiencing a multiplicity of confrontations.
Almeter was on duty Sept. 9, 1971, at Attica, working the morning shift from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. He was just 23 years old.
“I had just had two days off. We had just bought a house. I left that morning and said ‘Goodbye.’ I got to work, and they told us about a small problem they had the night before with a lieutenant that was assaulted while trying to break up a fight between two inmates,” said Almeter.
Feeling uneasy about the incident, staff requested a few guards who worked the overnight shift to stay on duty and work the morning shift because there is strength in numbers with more guards on duty. The request was denied.
“Well, they (Attica State Prison) saved a couple thousand dollars that day. Though it cost 43 lives and millions of dollars,” Almeter said sarcastically. “That wasn’t a smart decision.
A little more than two hours into his shift, at 9:22 a.m., a shot was fired. Inmates had begun to take over the prison by pushing on a faulty gate at the central control room, famously known as “Time Square,” shortly after returning from breakfast.
“This was human error. There was a flaw in the design of the gate,” said Patrick Gallaway, president of the Attica Prison Preservation Foundation, as he discussed the start of the riot. “There was a pin on the top of the gate that was too short. The locking mechanism failed. When the prison was built, the pin was made too short, and they welded a piece on to make it attach. The inmates pushed on the gate and eventually it gave out.”
‘From there, it went to hell’
The inmates had gained control of cell blocks and started looting.
“I was beaten and put in the yard,” said Almeter. “Half of us were naked, beaten, and blindfolded. We (guards) were talking amongst ourselves and I didn’t hear John’s voice. I thought to myself, at least John got out.”
Stockholm was also working during the rioting. Unknown to Almeter at the time, Stockholm – now a longtime friend – was taken by the inmates and put in a cell the first day of the riots.
“The next morning (Sept. 10), they brought him in and I heard them say ‘We got a couple more pigs to kill’ and they threw him (John) right on me,” said Almeter.
“From there, it went to hell,” said Almeter. “The inmates were asked to let the hostages go and the inmates said. ‘No, we got demands!”
He continued: “After an officer (William Quinn) died and they didn’t let us go, I didn’t think they were going to let us go. I knew from being in the service that if they (inmates) were not letting people go, then there was going to be a lot of people (law enforcement) coming in and there were going to be a lot of people dead.”
After the inmates took over half the prison, they listed their 38 demands, referred to as “The Manifesto,” some of which included more showers, better visiting, screens in the visiting area, restructured sentencing and – amnesty, which was never achievable because of the death of Officer William Quinn.
The inmates submitted their demands to then New York State Correction Commissioner Russell Oswald and he agreed to come to Attica. Rather than arrive in person, he sent a tape with a recorded message for the inmates to listen to. The inmates became infuriated by the commissioner’s actions and felt disrespected, which escalated the situation inside the prison. As a result, Oswald soon arrived in person to meet with the leaders who had taken over the prison to try come to an agreement.
To prepare for his arrival, the inmates dressed badly beaten guards in inmate clothing, so their bloodied bodies and open wounds would be less noticeable on camera.
“They didn’t think it would look good if we were all naked,” said Almeter.
Almeter, who was beaten by an inmate with a claw hammer, never took off his black work boots, which he had purchased just two days before the riot began.
“I ran through all the broken glass with shoes on. A lot of the guys took their shoes off and their feet were cut really bad,” said Almeter as he discussed how he can’t forget anything about his experiences during the riot, starting from the beginning.
According to Almeter, on day one, the inmates thought when the State Police or other prison guards finally came in to take back and secure the prison, they would only be firing rubber bullets at the inmates and their demands would be met. That day, the inmates had 38 guards as hostages and they had released four or five guards who were “really beaten pretty bad.”
“There is no doubt they would have died if they hadn’t let them out that first day,” said Almeter. “I sincerely believe they would have started killing us.”
Those five guards were treated at Wyoming County Community Hospital shortly after 10 a.m. on Sept. 9.
“The whole time I was in there, I was waiting for the loud noise of them coming to save us. I believed that on the second morning we were going to be fighting. I believed that they had enough personnel at that time that they were coming to get us. They didn’t come get us for three more days,” said Almeter.
The inmates fed the hostages during the riot. They made the hostages eat first mainly to ensure the food wasn’t tainted. The well-planned insurrection eventually led to all hostages being assigned an executioner as of Monday, Sept. 13.
Hearing helicopter, smelling gas
It was on that day – Sept. 13 - State Troopers retook the prison with deadly force, at the request of then Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.
By this time, 1,280 prisoners had taken 38 guards as hostages with some casualties.
“They (inmates) never got to the reception building, they never got to the hospital,” said Almeter. “When the troopers started coming in – I heard the helicopter, I smelled the gas, bullets started firing. One guy tried to cut my throat and they shot him. Another guy stood up, they (troopers) put a bullet between me and ‘Jeeby’ (Almeter’s cousin Eugene Smith, who was also a prison guard) and shot the guy. I said ‘Geesh!’ ”
“You never hear the bullet that gets ya. The one I heard was the bullet that went into him,” said Almeter.
The inmate who was shot was trying to choke and kill both Almeter and Smith. Both men were told the other had died during the riot, but they later reunited while visiting with family.
Almeter recalled then blacking out, briefly, and regaining consciousness only to receive a blow to the head from the butt of a gun that knocked him back down. He then heard a State Trooper say, “Stay down and don’t move until you’re identified.”
Shortly after, someone identified Almeter laying on the ground, garbed in inmate clothing, which were now bloodied by the wounds he sustained, and they pulled him to safety.
“We look at this way, if we were given a gun and told to go in. We would’ve had to have done the same thing. They (law enforcement) were told two things: do not lose your gun and save the hostages,” said Almeter.
“It should have never happened,” he said. “It should have never got to that level of control.”
Upon exiting the prison after the facility was secured, Almeter sat and inhaled a drag off his cigarette as he sat next to co-worker who had caught pneumonia from the rain the night before. He attempted to pass off his ride in an ambulance to the hospital because he knew there were others who had been stabbed or shot and they needed the ride more than he did.
“There’s more ambulances coming, Donny, get in,” said a first responder on the scene.
Almeter’s clothes were taken, bagged, and collected to be used at a later date to prosecute those who caused harm during the riot. To date, no one has been indicted for the Attica State Prison riot.
“I thought when I went to testify, I thought they were going to indict these sons-a-bitches,” said Almeter. “They didn’t indict any of the inmates.”
“Nobody did any time for any crime during the Attica prison riot,” said Sgt. Mark Cunningham, who retired from Attica Correctional Facility and is the son of the late Sgt. Ed Cunningham, who was killed during the retaking on Sept. 13, 1971.
Fifty years later, as Almeter reflected on the anniversary of the first day of the riot, he recalled the commotion during the riot, attending the 11 funerals of his friends and peers who lost their lives, court appearances, and the hardships many Attica families suffered after the riot.
At the time of the riot, Carolyn, Almeter’s now former wife, was seven months pregnant with their second child. The guards’ wives, who were Attica residents, were left in the dark about where their husbands were during the riot. Some would become widows in the climax of the riot.
“It was hard to go into the local grocery store after. You would run into a widow with their kids. I had to get away. They had kids - Mrs. Cunningham (Ed’s wife and Mark’s mother) and Mrs. Hardie (Elmer Hardie’s wife) had kids and they didn’t get anything,” said Almeter in regard to widow compensation.
Almeter is a member of the Forgotten Victims of Attica. He noted, when the widows eventually were offered a sum of money from New York State as compensation for the loss of their loved ones, the widows refused to accept the offer and insisted the riot survivors be included in the settlement. It wasn’t until 2001, 30 years later, that the Forgotten Victims of Attica and New York State reached an agreement.
Almeter returned to work Jan. 2, 1972, where he continued to work as a correctional officer for 30 years until retirement. He went on to become an inmate transporter, which was a position he held for about 20 years, of which 12 of those years he worked with Stockholm.
The prison was later renamed Attica Correctional Facility; just one of the changes that followed the riot.
“After the riot, I went back to work and looked like I worked at a hotel,” said Almeter.
Officer uniforms, after the riot, changed temporarily to grey pants with a black stripe and a blazer with a sun patch on it. This uniform was worn from 1972 to 1977.
“They wanted to look more like federal agents,” said Gallaway.
“That didn’t last long. They were trying to change the image,” said Almeter.
Some substantial changes were made at Attica Correctional Facility after the riot. Procedures were implemented to ensure the safety of all parties so to avoid any future occurrences similar to the 1971 riot.
“The running of Attica changed dramatically after 1971,” Gallaway said. “Prisons across the country were run a little differently. Everything that happens in there has changed because of what happened at that time.”
Since retiring from Attica 20 years ago, Almeter has been working for the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation for more than 10 years, traveling around the country and sharing what he experienced during the 1971 Attica State Prison riot.
The CPO Foundation honors fallen officers from around the country, focuses on teachings, gang awareness, staff suicide, critical incident training and more. Almeter’s children still reside in Wyoming County with their families. He now resides in Holiday, Fla., and returns to New York annually to gather with other members of the Forgotten Victims of Attica during the anniversary of the riot.
“When I go around, I talk at academies. I don’t talk to them about the horrific events or the hate. I always say ‘You are not here to punish them (inmates). You are here to make sure they don’t get out, they don’t fight, and they don’t assault people. The courts have already punished them by giving them the sentence … you just have to protect your fellow employee,” said Almeter. “It’s a job, you’re not going to change the way society is.”