Interviewer: Terry Rockefeller
Production Team: X
Interview Date: August 22, 1988
Camera Rolls: 3114-3118
Sound Rolls: 352-353
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Michael Smith, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on August 22, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
What was it like when you first came to work as a guard at Attica? What kind of preparation had you had and how did you fit into the place? What kinds of things were you observing in terms of, uh, relations within the institution?
When I first, ah, came to Attica I had approximately six months service with the State as a corrections officer. And, ah, my observations was, were that, ah, the inmates of Attica were dissatisfied with the system. Ah, specifically in the areas of, ah, hold it, I can't, my mind is, I'm not used to doing this
That's okay. You were talking before about some of the demands that Don Noble shows you on a piece of paper. The kinds of things they were hoping to get. The kinds of changes that they were looking for. Do you remember some of those? Tell me how that happened. Tell me about Don Noble showing you those.
One, one inmate particular. Don Noble was in a company that I was in charge of in the metal shop. And, ah, during the summer of 1971 he showed me a list of demands that they had prepared to present to the, ah, governor. And, ah, that list consisted of, ah, such things as less censorship of mail, and ah, more showers, and ah, not, no rationing of toilet paper, and ah, primarily things to do with, with, ah, ah, I, I don't know what you would call that Terry. I'm sorry.
What did you think about the issues they were raising? What did you think about conditions at Attica as a guard who was working there? How did you feel that the prisoners were treated? And what did you think about their request for change?
I thought that most of the, most of the things, most of the, ah, things that were listed on the demands were, were reasonable. And that, ah, they were just being asked to be treated as human beings.
Can you talk some about the kinds of people that were guards and the kinds of people that were now increasingly becoming inmates. Obviously the guards were from very different backgrounds than the majority of the inmates. Describe to me, if you could, what that, what that scene was like and what the confrontations were like.
The guards were, the guards at Attica were, for the most part, from rural communities surrounding that area. And had, ah, been born and raised in those communities. And the inmate population was increasingly more Black. And there was difficulty for the two people, the inmates and the guards, to communicate because of their differences in background. Ah, they hadn't shared the same experiences growing up and there was a, a lack of interest or a lack of desire, I thought, especially on the guards' part to attempt to communicate with the, ah, inmate.
Were you aware of a growing Black Power movement in the prisons? Was that something that you saw expressed in those, in the, in the early months when you were there? Were you aware of political organizing going on among the inmates?
Oh, yes, yeah, there were, ah--
Tell me how that manifested itself. What did you see?
There were, ah, meetings that, ah, took place in, in different areas of the prison. One of the most common places for meetings were the recreation yards where the inmates were congregated. And, ah, there were different political groups within the institution represented, ah, such as the Black Muslims and the, ah, Young Lords and also, ah, the White population broke off into their, their own sects also.
What was the reaction of the guards to that kind of, most of the guards to that kind of political organizing? Were they scared of it?
The, the guards, the guards, ah, didn't condone that type of organizing. And, ah, it made the, the, guards, correction officers very uncomfortable. Ah, it was, in fact, tolerated by the institution as long as it was a, ah, peaceful organization.
I'm going to move on now to the actual uprising that went on at Attica and I want you to just tell me, where you were, how you found out about the uprising and how you were taken hostage. Just paint the picture for me. You were in the metal shop?
Okay, tell me, tell me what happened.
On the, ah, morning that the riot took place I was, ah, in charge of the, ah, metal shop upstairs, that's located over the, ah, industrial metal shop toward the rear of the prison. And, ah, the prison siren sounded and from the upstairs windows you could see inmate movement, ah, that wasn't supervised. And, ah, you could hear a lot of shouting going on and, ah, see inmates running around areas that they, that they shouldn't be running around in unsupervised. And, the inmates, there were approximately 30 in the room that I was located in, were, were confused and didn't know what was happening either. Ah, at first they thought that it was a struggle between possibly two, ah, political groups of inmates in the prison itself. So, they're reaction was to take up weapons to protect themselves and, ah, find hiding places in, in the room where they were located.
Now, how were you taken hostage? What happened to you?
When I was taken hostage, there was, ah, only one set of double entry exit doors in the room that I was located in. And the inmates, the rioting inmates gained entrance to that room through those doors. As I had mentioned before most of the inmates that were in that room had taken up hiding, had taken up weapons and found hiding places for themselves. Ah, the inmates broke into the room where I was and, ah, at that point in time I was knocked down and they moved to the rear of the room where I had secured some civilian employees. They, ah, destroyed some things in the room and broke into the room where the civilian employees were, took them hostage and on their way out, left me.
And then what happened to you?
I was, ah, there were, ah, two particular inmates at the time when the inmates were breaking in, gaining entry to that room, that, ah, that protected me and in kind of spread-eagle fashion, they put their body over mine to protect me. Told the rest of the inmates that were breaking in that I was okay and to leave me alone. So the, the whole inmate movement, the rioting inmates, went right past me, moved and took the civilians hostage and went right back out the room again and left me laying on the floor. Ah, most of the inmates in the room at that time, also left with them with the exception of the two that had protected me. And, ah, they made an attempt to get me out through the prison to safety.
And what happened to their attempt?
I was located at the rear of the prison so I had to go through the whole complex including a central, ah, inner section in the prison called Times Square. And Times Square divides the, ah, four recreation yards in the prison which is centrally located. We made it through the housing area in the rear of the prison and to Times Square successfully. But when, on reaching Times Square, there were, ah, militant group of inmates that directed the two inmates that were helping me out, that all hostages had to be taken to D Yard where I was transported to.
Okay, I want to stop for a second.
Okay, alright, from the end, why don't you just switch magazines. That's great. What I wanted to do know was move on to your stories about the actual days in the yard during the uprising and we need to change film but I thought I would start by, you know, just having you talk about how order was established. But something you said on the sofa that was really wonderful was how surprised you were at how easily the place fell.
There you are in D Yard. What were your initial feelings about being there and seeing what had happened? What, how did you feel?
Ah, initially there was, there was a lot of chaos in the initial, ah, takeover of the prison. And, ah, I guess I was amazed at how easily this fortress fell. Ah, there was no plan. I had never been instructed in, in, ah, how to handle a riot situation or what to do. And, it was amazing to me that, ah, the institution fell apart as easily as it did.
What kinds of things were going on in those first hours that you were collected as th--the hostages were brought into D Yard and the inmates were there? What kinds of things were going on? How did you feel about what you were hearing and seeing?
Ah, I found it all very interesting in the initial stages of the riot that, ah, well, initially there was a lot of violence involved in, in the re-taking. It was a physical re-taking of the prison. And, ah, because it was physical, a lot of people were injured. Not, not, ah, solely officers, correction officers, but also inmates were injured through the chaos. And, ah the destruction, as I was being led from the rear of the prison towards Times Square going through a housing, one of the housing areas, they were throwing things from the tiers. Desks were being overturned. Chairs were being thrown. Papers were being burned. Clothing was being burned. And, ah, it was just a, a real chaotic situation. And, upon my arrival in D Yard, ah, the hostages, where the hostages were being gathered together, it was evident that some of the hostages had been beaten in the retaking process or in the riot process during the riot, ah.
What happened to the hostages as you were brought into the yard?
As we were being brought into the yard, all the hostages were directed to one area in D Yard. And in that area, we were surrounded by inmates who were Black Muslims and they were instructed to protect us to the death with their own life.
Were you blindfolded? How were you treated in the early hours? How did you feel? Were you fearful? Did you feel like your life was in danger? Or once you got to D Yard did you feel okay? How did you react?
My initial reaction was, ah, I wasn't fearful of being injured at that point because we were being protected by the inmates. Ah, the Black Muslim group that was protecting us had, had told us that it would only be a short period, maybe a couple hours and that we would be rescued by, by, ah, people from the outside. Ah, and I personally felt if I made it through the initial takeover of the, ah prison that I was past the physical violence. There were obviously people in, in the inmate population that, ah, that would have liked to inflict some kind of physical abuse on the hostages. However we were being protected by the inmates.
Can you tell me what it was like in the yard? How the inmates organized and what kinds of things impressed you as time went on and as things got settled and as the community got organized. Describe that for me.
As, as, ah, as time went on the, ah, the movement became more organized and, ah, there were committees or people put in charge of, of medical needs, of food needs, water, ah, communications, negotiations and, ah, ah, protective, protecting the hostages, and, ah, as time went on, ah, the inmates just became more organized in those areas.
Can you tell me now about some of the things that happened while you were in the yard? One thing, one important event was learning about the death of Officer Bill Quinn. Can you describe learning that and how you knew that was a turning point.
One of the, one of the demands of the inmates was for amnesty and up until the point where, that it was announced that Officer Bill Quinn had been killed, they, they felt as did the hostages that that could be a possibility.
Can you just start again and say the inmates instead of they. You're doing great except I'm afraid viewers won't know who they is. Just tell me again.
Ah, do you want me to start--
Yeah, just starting over again about, I believe it's on Saturday night that the announcement is made that Bill Quinn has died.
One of the inmate demands was that of amnesty and up until the point where it was announced that Bill Quinn had been killed that was, the amnesty was considered to be a real possibility and with that announcement, the death of Bill Quinn, that cast a totally different light on the situation. And, ah, now instead of amnesty the question was, who and how many could be found guilty of murder.
How did you feel? How did it change the mood in the yard when that announcement was made?
The change, that, that, the announcement that Bill Quinn had died changed the mood in the yard dramatically, ah, from one of, of hope to one of despair. That, ah, now the amnesty which had been requested was possibly hopeless.
I'd like to ask you about Governor Rockefeller and your hopes and other people's hopes that he could grant amnesty or that he would at least come to Attica. Tell me how, especially the hostages felt about that and how you felt about that.
It was a common, I think it was a common feeling between the, the hostages and the inmates that it was imperative that Governor Rockefeller be present at Attica and physically see what was happening and physically pay attention to the demands and the situation himself. And, at the time that it was announced that he definitely wasn't going to be there, ah, that also cast a negative light on the situation. There were people's lives at stake and, ah, it was, it was despairing, to say the least, that he was going to stay aloof of the whole situation, not only on the officers' parts but also on the inmates' part. That, ah, that here we were talking about people's lives at stake and that, and that he couldn't, ah, personally look into the situation. That he didn't want to personally be responsible for whatever decision was made.
You mentioned before about how you felt that it wasn't, a--as time went on it wasn't inmates versus hostages but that you were all in something together. How did that feeling come about? Tell me more about what you mean, meant by that.
I, I think that it was a, the riot, ah, made it possible--
Just start again. Say the riot made it possible, please.
The riot made it possible for inmates and correction officers, who never had anything in common, or never took the time to communicate to see if they had anything in common, that they were both human beings, it gave them an opportunity to communicate and it gave them a common basis to communicate on, a common basis. That common basis--
I want you to hold on to the thought. Just the time, you know the film. Just maybe think some more about.
Okay, tell me about the communication that started to occur between inmates and hostages and the, and the sense in which you became one community rather than two groups in opposition. What happened?
Inmates and correction officers, for the most part, lacked communication partly because of the different backgrounds from which they came. Correction officers were primarily from rural communities and had grown up there. And, even though, weren't as outward as Ku Klux Klansman, some had feelings of bigotry and had no desire to communicate with the inmate population. In the same way there were inmates that weren't interested in communicating with their captors. The common basis of communication during the riot was that the inmates and the hostages had the same thing at stake, their lives. So now, there was, there was, ah, readiness to communicate because everybody had the same common goal and everybody, everyone would benefit from a positive outcome to the riot.
I want to move now, forward in time a little bit, to Sunday night, when you told me things got really dark and, and when negotiations had pretty clearly broken down. You knew Governor Rockefeller wasn't coming. Describe to me what you did. You wrote a letter. You, you had some conversations with an inmate who was guarding you. Tell me that story if you will.
By Sunday night, the, ah, it was, it was the feeling generally with the, among the hostages and also with the inmates that we were communicating with, that the negotiation process was breaking down. Governor Rockefeller had refused to come and take part in the negotiation process and, ah, the negotiating committee didn't seem to be coming back with any positive response to the demands that were most important. There wasn't any problem with the insignificant, ah, demands but the demands that were most important hadn't been addressed, either hadn't been addressed or the, ah, inmates hadn't been given a positive response to those demands. And, ah, Sunday night was, ah, it was raining. All the hostages were in one area and it was just, ah, commonly felt that something was going to happen the following mo--ah, morning, that, ah, it was generally felt that the prison would be retaken by force.
What did you do? You had been hopeful up to that point, but then--
Yeah, I, I'm sorry.
I had been up until Sunday night I had, ah, thought positively and I guess never really considered that, ah, I might not be walking out of the yard at the end of this siege. Sunday night that feeling changed. And, ah, I had the opportunity to find some paper and some pen and write my family a letter. And, ah, in that letter I, I communicated to them that, ah, that I loved them all very much and that I was sorry that this had evolved into what it had but that, ah, that I was sure we'd meet again some day.
Tell me about your conversations with Don Noble and, and how you swapped addresses and promised to get in touch with each other.
Following Sunday evening, Monday morning, a number of the hostages had been taken to an elevated area in the prison called the catwalk, from which they could be observed. And each hostage was assigned a number of ho--uh, inmate executioners. One of my executioners was an inmate who I had known, who was in my company previously, and, ah, who, in fact, had, had, ah, protected me in the metal shop when the ini--when the riot initially started. And, ah, Don, I had three executioners, three inmate executioners and, ah, Don was located directly to my left. He had his right arm over my right shoulder and held, what appeared to be a tar paper knife, and that was held at my throat on the right side of my throat. I had another executioner behind me with a hammer and I had another executioner to the right side of me with a hand fashioned spear made from parts from the metal shop. Ah, while on the catwalk, I had an opportunity to have a serious conversation with Don, friendly conversation. And, Don said that he was sorry that it had, ah, the situation had deteriorated to the point that it had, and he asked me if there were anything that he could do for me. And, ah, I, I guess first I asked Don if I made it through alive, if there were anything that I could do for him. He told me who his family was and where they were located and asked me in the event of his death to get in touch with them which I promised I'd do. Then Don asked if there were anything he could do for me. And, I said, ah, "Yes, that when the time came that I didn't want to suffer." So, he knew what he was doing, just make the cut as clean and neat as possible so that I didn't have to suffer and he promised me that he would. He also promised me that, ah, if he made it through, he'd be in touch with my family.
Okay, I'm going to cut for a second.
Now just talk me through what happened to you Monday morning as the, uh, re-taking of the yard occurred.
Monday morning the negotiation process had, ah, broken down and the inmates felt that their, that their bargaining power was in the hostages that they had. So they took so many of the hostages and moved them from D Yard to an elevated area called the catwalk located in the center of the prison. And, ah--
Tell me what happened to you. You were sitting in the circle?
Okay, how were you chosen? How were you-?
The, ah, hostages were all together in, in one area, very close on the ground on mattresses and we had our, ah, had blindfolds on and had our wrists bound and the, ah, inmate, err, the hostages that were to be taken to the catwalk, ah, to be executed were chose randomly. The inmates reached into the group of hostages and pulled us by the, ah, binding and if they got a hold of your wrist then you were one of the hostages that were taken to the catwalk. I was one of the hostages taken to the catwalk. Ah, once at the catwalk, once on the catwalk, some of the hostages were standing and, ah, I was given a chair to sit down and made as comfortable as possible. I was also given a drink of water. Ah, where are we going now, Terry?
I just want you to describe that scene when the helicopter flew over and what happened. Are you at the end of a roll? Okay. We just need to switch. I just wanted you to describe.
Okay, just describe being brought up to the catwalk and then all the things you felt, even when you couldn't see them, what happened to you.
Once removed from the, ah--
Once removed from the hostage area in D Yard, I was led blindfolded to the top of the catwalk and although I was blindfolded the, uh, conversation of the inmates that surrounded me, ah, indicated that there were sharpshooters with guns on the roofs, rooftops located around us and the, the signal for those sharpshooters to open fire was to be when a helicopter flew over head and dropped a pro- gas, gas projectile down into the yard. Upon the explosion of that gas projectile the sharpshooters were to fire. And I recall when that helicopter flew overhead, besides being able to hear it, you could actually feel the concussion of the propellers from the helicopter overhead**. And then the, ah, I could hear the bang of the, ah, or the pop of the gas projectile and then the, ah, forces retaking the prison opened fire and that seemed to last forever. It was a period of, ah, probably 10 minutes but at the time it seemed like forever. You could hear all kinds of gun fire, ah, shotguns, handguns, automatic weapon, automatic weapons, rifles and you could hear the bullets hitting around you. Ah, I can remember as soon as the, ah, firing started, feeling it up straight in the chair that I was sitting in and at that point I was hit and I was hit, ah, four times in the abdomen and fell to the roof of the catwalk which was directly below me. And, ah, as I lay there, I didn't know what had become of one of my executioners but one lay dead over my legs and, ah, one of the other ones, Don Noble, ah, lay behind me, parallel to me with his body up tight next to mine. And, we lay there and I was conscious during the time. It was, ah, very painful and I can recall seeing forces through the fog, there was a lot of tear-gas, forces through this fog, that were retaking the prison, run past with, with guns. And at, and at that point there were, there were State Troopers and, and, ah, also correction officers from Attica that came in with the State Troopers to help identify the, ah, officers from the inmate population. And, ah, I can recall looking up and, ah, seeing a, a State Trooper come up to me and at point-blank range, he pointed his gun toward me. And, ah, a correction officer was not far behind and told the State Trooper that I was okay, that I was one of them. He then raised the barrel of the gun and pointed it directly at the inmate Don Noble behind me. And Don asked me, at that time, to tell him who I was, tell them, tell them who he was and, and asked me to tell them what I did for, what he did for me. And I said, "His name is Don Noble and, and he saved my life."
Just tell me that again. Tell me about the trooper coming in and pointing the gun at you and just so you get the hes and the mes right.
After I was shot. I laid on my left side on the top of the catwalk and there was one inmates body, that was one of my executioners, that lay dead over my legs. Another one of my inmate executioners was Don Noble and his body lay parallel to mine, directly behind me. And, as the gunfire started to subside, it became more sporadic, there were people, rescuers, that were using the catwalk, on which I laid, to gain entry to D Yard. And along with the rescuers there was also the retaking force which consisted of State Troopers. One State Trooper in particular, ah, when he got to me, looked down and pointed his gun at me, at point-blank range, and a correction officer that was close by, that recognized me, told him not to shoot, that I was okay, that I was one of them. He then, raised the barrel of the weapon.
Oops, we need to cut, I'm sorry. It's the siren. It's just making the noise, and if we have the film--
What happened as this, the trooper coming in.
As I lay on the catwalk, one of the Troopers that came in with the forces to retake the prison, pointed his weapon at a point-blank range directly toward my head. And, an officer, a correction officer from Attica, that recognized me, that was close by, told him not to shoot, that I was one of them. He then lifted the weapon that was directed at me and, and pointed it at the inmate, Don Noble, who was behind me. Don then asked me to tell the officer who he was and what he had done for me. So, I explained that his name was Don Noble and that he had saved my life.
Okay, tell me about how you were wounded and the kinds of weapons that were used against you. Against everyone in the retaking.
When I was shot, I was shot four times in the abdomen, and, ah, they ent--the bullets entered on the, on my front side, broke up and exited out the back side of my body. And, ah, during surgery it was discovered that the, the bullets had, in fact, been fixed, ah, it's what they call a dumdum bullet. And, ah, they were outlawed during World War I, but, that bullet fixed in that fashion is, ah, specifically made that way to cause damage and maim.
We're going to stop for a second.
Tell me about who became a guard, who chose to become a guard and why.
Correction officers that I met were primarily from rural backgrounds. They had been brought up in the country and the inmate population was increasingly more Black and were from urban areas and there was difficulty in both communication with each other primarily because of two reasons. They were from completely different backgrounds which neither could understand and also a lack of intent or a want to try to communicate with each other.
What about you? How did you feel about bridging that gap? How did you bridge that gap? How did you try to?
I tried to communicate on the basis of mutual respect and not looking at the person as an inmate but a human being. And, I had a good rapport with the inmate population for the most part and found that I was very successful communicating on that basis.
What was it about the job of, of, of being a guard that was appealing to people? Why did people take that job?
Initially I took the job, ah, I was 21 at the time, had just gotten married, I needed a job. I needed income and I was looking for security.
Whoops, we did run out. That's okay.
Okay, now in the summer, the demands, there were, there were a list of demands that the inmates put together to give to Governor Rockefeller and Don Noble showed those to you. Just tell the story of how he brought them to you, what the demands were, and what you thought about them.
During the summer, ah, during the summer prior to the riot, uh,--
I'm sorry, but just say during the summer of 1971, so we know.
During the summer of 1971 an inmate, who I had come to know quite well, Don Noble, showed me a list of demands that were still in the preparatory stage and he asked me to review those demands and tell me, tell him what I thought. And I don't recall specifically what all the demands were. However, most of the demands were of a humanitarian, ah, need category. Ah, such things as unrationed toilet paper, more showers, ah, less censorship of mail, more visits and less censorship of who, who was allowed to visit. Ah, and that list of demands, I don't recall seeing anything that I considered to be, ah, unreasonable.
Now, during the uprising, while you were in the yard, tell me about the importance of Governor Rockefeller's decision not to come to Attica. Just describe the meaning that that had for you and how that changed the mood in the yard. Tell me about how you were hopeful before that.
During the riot I was in, in hopes that Governor Rockefeller would make a personal appearin--appearance and, ah, give his personal input to the situation and at least look into what was going on and at least look at the demands and listen to the people involved, talk with the hostages and talk with the inmates that were involved in the riot. Governor Rockefeller was, was asked repeatedly to give that personal attention and make that personal appearance at Attica and when he refused, ah, it was very disheartening to me. And threw a very negative light on the situation that the hopes could ever, that, the, ah, situation could ever be re--resolved.
Tell me how the mood changed. You used a phrase before that people were willing, if they couldn't live like men, they'd die like men.
Through the riot, ah, one of the, ah, mottoes, if you will, that was, uh, that was spoken by the inmate population was that if we can't live like men then we'll die like men. And with Governor Rockefeller's refusal to come to Attica to address the situation, ah--
I'm going to cut just for the siren and I'm going to ask you to do that and that will be it.
There was this phrase, "If we can't live like men, we're going to die like men." Tell me about that phrase and then tell me how that became a real feeling.
During the riot the inmates had adopted a phrase that, if they couldn't live like men, then they'd die like men. And, with Governor Rockefeller's refusal to address the situation personally, it just put that much more likelihead--likelihood that there, that there wouldn't be a positive outcome to the situation and it leaned more in the direction that, ah, we were going to die like men.
Okay. Cut for a second.
Just tell me about the average guard and what his motivations were and how you felt compared to them and what you were trying to do and the frustrations you encountered working as a guard in the system. Tell me about the average guard.
I was probably pretty representative of the average guard. Had a high school education, graduated from high school. And, ah, had no degree in social work and for the most part I don't think that, ah, the average correction officer wasn't interested in communicating with an inmate. They were there because it was their job. And they'd go there, they'd punch a clock. They'd be there for eight hours and they'd leave. And, ah, that was the extent of the interest in their job.
Was the system frustrating for you? What did you see happen to people who came into the system?
The system was especially frustrating for me. There was, there was no, there was no system of segregation and by segregation I mean there were people there that were, that had mental problems that should have been addressed in a different manner than a maximum security state prison could provide. There were, ah, there were people, ah, that were, ah, long, had been criminals for, for a long time, long-term criminals. And, ah, for all practical purposes were, ah, probably not able to be rehabilitated. And at the same time you had inmates that were guilty of a first offense. At that point in time smoking marijuana was against the law. I had an 18 year-old kid that was doing time next to somebody that was in for doing murder for throwing a baby off a bridge or, or some, some capital crime. And, I don't think that, I don't think that it was a good idea to throw everybody into one melting pot like that. Ah.
Do you think the system was damaging to the people who came in?
I think the system was damaging to the people that came in. Ah, I think that the, ah, the only redeeming factor to a system like that would be that it was such a place of desperation and abuse that the only inspiration anybody could have not to go back there, and desire not to go back to a place like that is because of what a horrible place it was**.
Okay. Good. Cut. Okay.