DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Today we're going to hear about the largest prison revolt in U.S. history, which occurred 50 years ago last month.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In Attica, N.Y., about 1,000 long-term convicts today rioted. And they gained control of the maximum security prison. They also seized 33 guards as hostages and injured others in the fighting. State police have regained control of most of the prison, but the trouble isn't over yet.
DAVIES: The standoff at Attica became a national drama as reporters and TV cameras were allowed inside the prison yard, where prisoners denounced the living conditions they said were inhumane. And prison officials and an observers' committee invited by inmates also told their stories in the media. The uprising ended in a bloody assault by prison authorities in which 39 prisoners and hostages were killed, all by law enforcement gunfire. The story of the Attica uprising is told in a new documentary from filmmaker Stanley Nelson, who with co-producer and co-director Traci A. Curry, tracked down remarkable archive footage of the events and interviewed dozens of firsthand witnesses and participants, including many prisoners and family members of correctional officers.
Stanley Nelson joins us today, along with Arthur Harrison, who was incarcerated in Attica at the time and was interviewed for the film. Stanley Nelson is a leading documentarian of the African American experience. He's won a host of awards, including five Primetime Emmys, and was honored with the National Medal in the Humanities from President Obama in 2013. Among his films and documentary series are "Freedom Riders," "Miles Davis: The Birth Of Cool (ph)," "The Murder Of Emmett Till" and "Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre." His new film, titled "Attica," begins a limited release in theaters Friday and premieres on Showtime November 6.
Stanley Nelson, Arthur Harrison, welcome to FRESH AIR. Stanley Nelson, let me start with you. This uprising was a widely covered event. I still remember it. I was - I'm old enough. You wanted to make this documentary for many years, I gather. Why were you so determined to tell the story on film?
STANLEY NELSON: Well, I felt that the story had never really been told, you know, in all its fullness. I had never learned why the prisoners rebelled - you know, what it was all about. In a way, it was something that took up five days of our lives and then disappeared. So that was one of the main reasons why I wanted to make the film. The second reason I wanted to make the film is that I knew that there were a number of people that were still alive. You know, if the prisoners were, you know, age 20 and 25, which many of them were, and there were a thousand people in the yard or so, then there would be a huge number of them, or a good number of them, that should still be alive and that could talk about the experience. So those are some reasons why I wanted to make the film.
DAVIES: OK. And, Arthur Harrison, just tell us a little bit about yourself at the time in 1971. How old were you? How long had you been in Attica?
ARTHUR HARRISON: I was 21. And I was in Attica about two months at that time.
DAVIES: Oh, boy - a relative newcomer - and how long a sentence were you facing then?
HARRISON: I was sentenced five years.
DAVIES: OK. OK. Tell us, Arthur Harrison, how this thing began.
HARRISON: So when I was in prison, there was a brother out in California who got killed, by the name of George Jackson. And we assumed if they would do it with George, they would do the same thing to us. So I guess brother just got tired of being abused and stuff like that. Attica was known for a place of a lot of racist hatred stuff that was going on to guys who look like me - Black men. So I guess that particular day, everyone just got tired of being abused.
DAVIES: Yeah. George Jackson was killed in Soledad Prison in California. Stanley Nelson, it appears that this began and that the critical moment occurred at a place in the prison called Times Square. You want to explain what this was and what happened there?
NELSON: Sure. Attica was divided into four sections. And the hallways all met at this place called Times Square. So Times Square was like the center hub. And when the prisoners started to rebel, started to riot, they started banging on the gate in - at Times Square. And one of the gates was welded - there's a faulty weld in the gate. And the gate came down and broke. And the prisoners seized the guards there at Times Square. And so then the prisoners controlled the prison. And it happened really quickly. And in some ways, it was really because of this faulty welding job that was done, we think, from when the prison was first built.
DAVIES: Right. And there was a prison guard there who had all the keys, by the name of Bill Quinn, who was beaten badly and eventually taken out and treated. But obviously, there was a lot of pent-up rage. I mean, the weld could have been broken any time. It happened because, at this point, inmates were particularly enraged. Arthur Harrison, tell us about the conditions in the prison that contributed to this.
HARRISON: It reminded me of the things I used to hear about plantations in slavery and stuff like that. And that's the way a lot of us brothers were treated within the prison system itself. They treated us like we wasn't human. And I think that particular day after a lot of the things that was going on, brothers just got tired of being abused. Then after George died, that compound things even worse. So it just - everything just came to a boiling point that particular day.
DAVIES: Is it true you only - you were given one roll of toilet paper per month?
HARRISON: One roll of toilet paper per month - and they would tell you how to use it - like, six sheets at a time. And if you would ask for toilet paper, sometime you would get beat down or written up or something like that. So, you know, you wouldn't be able to have a visit if your visit was coming up. So guys went along with the program.
DAVIES: What about toothpaste, bedsheets, that kind of thing?
HARRISON: Same thing there - the basic things we had for everyday needs, we weren't allowed to have but once a month.
DAVIES: There was also discussion in interviews in the documentary about what were called the beat-down police, people who would - police who would - guards who would come at night. Were you familiar with this, Arthur Harrison?
HARRISON: They called them goon squads, yeah.
DAVIES: So tell us what they would do. What would happen?
HARRISON: They would come in with - four or five guys would rush a guy in a cell. You know, you have no way of keeping four or five guys off you, unless you were Superman or somebody like that. Then they would beat you down, drag you out the cell and take you to the box, where you would get beaten again and stuff like that.
DAVIES: Stanley Nelson, what did you and your co-director find in interviews about these conditions and the behavior of guards that contributed to this?
NELSON: Well, you know, the conditions were just horrible, you know? And the guards were not trained at all. I mean, it was, you know, a job. You know, Attica, N.Y., is about 250 miles from New York City. And, you know, it's in a very rural community. And the only jobs there would be dairy farming or working in the prisons. And the community was all white. And the guards would, you know, work in the prison. And they would pass it down from father to son - to uncle, brothers. And we interviewed a number of people from the town and - whose relatives were guards. And that's what - you know, that's what they said. But also at the same time, you know, coming in from the outside was changed. You know, there was George Jackson, who was preaching, you know, change - and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. That was all happening at the same time.
DAVIES: Right. So you had a prison population that was just not going to be as compliant, maybe, as one 10 or 20 years before. But it seems clear from the interviews in the film that tensions were building and that everyone knew it. And I wanted to play a clip here. We're going to hear from Ann and Maryann Valone, who were the wife and daughter of Carl Valone, and also Dee Quinn Miller, who is the daughter of Bill Quinn, who was beaten when the uprising first began. They're talking about what they were hearing hearing from guards in the period leading up to the uprising.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ATTICA")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There was a lot of talk discussing the situation because the inmates were very upset, and things were happening here, and there was great concern.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It was a time bomb ready to blow, and we lived with it every day in my house. And every day, I said goodbye to my dad, and I knew it might be the last day I saw him. It was open conversation.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Things were getting worse, and so they had a meeting with the administration. And the administration essentially dismissed their concerns and said, everybody, back to work. However, we think maybe it's a good idea if you left your personal belongings at home, like wedding rings, wallets, et cetera. So my father absolutely knew that something was going on.
DAVIES: And that's from the documentary "Attica," directed by our guest, Stanley Nelson. Also with us is Arthur Harrison, who was incarcerated at Attica when the 1971 uprising occurred. Stanley Nelson, I mean, these interviews are so compelling. I know they were generally done by your co-director, Traci A. Curry. Were these people still angry about what had happened and the way the prison administration had behaved?
NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think the families were still angry, and the prisoners were still angry about what finally happened. I think that it's really interesting that in some ways, the way it turned out were that many of the hostage families were in very similar conditions to the prisoners' - you know, that their loved ones were devastated, were sometimes killed and wounded in the takeover - retaking of the prison, just like the prisoners.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Stanley Nelson, whose new documentary tells the story of the 1971 prison uprising in Attica, N.Y. Also with us is Arthur Harrison, who was incarcerated in Attica at the time of the uprising. Nelson's film, titled "Attica," begins a limited release in theaters Friday and premieres on Showtime November 6. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about the uprising which occurred at the maximum security prison in Attica, N.Y., 50 years ago last month. It's the subject of a new documentary directed by our guest, Stanley Nelson. Also with us is Arthur Harrison, who was incarcerated in Attica at the time of the uprising. So when these more than a thousand inmates took control of the prison, they all moved into one of the four yards. There were hostages taken. Arthur Harrison, I'm just wondering what this felt like to you. What were you doing? Were you participating in this? I don't know. How did you feel about what happened?
HARRISON: I was a participant. Yes, I was. I had no idea it would go four or five days and stuff like that. You know, imagine what we're talking about. We're talking about - you're in a yard full of so-called killers and stuff like that. So there was a lot of fear in the yard, not only for - of the guards, but prisoners themselves. You know, it was a lot of hate in that yard.
DAVIES: Well, it's interesting because in the film you see people - a lot of people feel liberated. I mean, they're - they get to see the stars for the first time. But it was also pretty scary. And you want to add anything here, Stanley Nelson?
NELSON: There were sociopaths and psychopaths, you know, in the yard. And so, you know, it was this really strange dynamic that if you have to be scared of people in the yard, you've got to be scared of law enforcement, which are on the walkways and the towers that surrounded the prison, you know, with guns, aiming guns down, you know, on all the prisoners in the yard, you know, for five days. And the only thing that held them off was the fact that the prisoners had hostages.
DAVIES: Right. And how did - how were the hostages handled? I mean, this required a certain level of organization, right? I imagine there were a lot of people who would have been happy to get their hands on some guards who they felt had been their tormentors.
NELSON: Yeah. I think that one of the things that the film does is be very honest about that, and people say that. But, you know, the prisoners just started organizing it, and that's one of the great things, you know, that happens, and you see it happen in the film, that, in many ways, the prisoners before the rebellion were pitted against each other. You know, the Black and the white and the Spanish were kind of pitted against each other. But when they got out in the yard, they realized that they had to organize and work together so that they could try to get some of the things that they wanted - the changes they wanted to happen. So that was kind of the dynamic that was there in the yard.
DAVIES: The guards who were hostages were changed into uniforms of inmates. Is that right, Arthur Harrison? What was the point there?
HARRISON: The point for that was when someone was trying to retake the prison with guns, like they did, they wouldn't know who was the prisoners, you know, which one was the guards. So they would be careful about the shooting. That was the whole point of that. They wouldn't just come in blazing and shooting because they didn't want to kill their comrades, but they killed them anyway.
DAVIES: You know, the inmates organized latrines and sleeping quarters and even some medical care. There was an inmate there who had a lot of experience in that. So a kind of a community emerged there in that early day. A leadership group emerged of people who had, I guess, had some clout within the prison population. And there was a decision to invite the media, including TV cameras to come in to the yard. Arthur Harrison, do you remember that? Do you remember discussion about that?
HARRISON: Yes, sir. I remember it just like it was yesterday. Those guys were brought in because they - we wanted word to get back out to the public we weren't asking to be freed or anything like that. We was in prison - a lot of us were there because we committed crimes. And we understand we had to do the time. But we wanted to be treated like humans, and we weren't being treated like human beings.
DAVIES: Stanley Nelson, coming back to the events in Attica there on that first day, I'm wondering your sense of how the corrections administration responded to this when the inmates, you know, they had the rebellion. They had the hostages. They asked for TV cameras to come in. And you had a corrections commissioner there, Russell Oswald, who I gather was considered something of a reformer at the time. What was your sense of how they decided to approach this dilemma?
NELSON: You know, I think that we have to understand that they - that the prisoners had hostages, and that was the huge thing that was happening. So they had hostages. So the prison - the - Russell Oswald and the prison commission decided that they had to negotiate with the prisoners. And they were trying to meet any - the smallest demands that they possibly could meet. So the prisoners said, first, we want the news media to come in. And they agreed to the news media coming in. And that really changed the whole situation because now you had cameras in there. Now you had this - what was happening going out all over the world.
DAVIES: And you saw this remarkable sight of the state corrections commissioner walking into this maximum security prison that was in the hands of prisoners and talking about the prisoners' issues, their living conditions and their demands. Arthur Harrison, did it feel at that moment like you were getting somewhere, like this might lead to some change?
HARRISON: We thought we were. We were human beings. And yeah, we made some mistakes. But still yet, we were humans. And we had families outside who cared about us just like the prison guards family who cared about them. No one wanted to hurt those guards. If that were the case, they wouldn't have lasted that very first day. But they was our bargaining chip. So we took very good care of them because they were our only means of being heard. If they wasn't there, you would've never heard about Attica.
DAVIES: Right. Now, in the news footage, you see Commissioner Oswald come out. And at some point in this process, he announces that he has agreed to 28 of the 30 inmate - he called them proposals. Stanley Nelson, is this true as far as we know? I mean, what was was agreed to?
NELSON: Yeah. I mean, you know, again, the prisoners' demands were really just to be treated as human beings.
HARRISON: That's it.
NELSON: You know, they were - you know, get more toilet paper, you know, getting, you know, more visiting hours, you know, things like that, you know, things that could easily be met. You know, and to Oswald's credit, you know, he very quickly agreed to 28 of the 30 demands. The one demand that everything hinged on was amnesty because the prisoners wanted amnesty not for the crimes that they had committed outside of prison that got them there.
They wanted amnesty for anything that was done in the rebellion because there was a real fear that all of the prison - all of the prisoners could be tried en masse for everything. So for destroying property, for injuring Quinn, for taking prisoners, kidnapping, you know, and that all the prisoners would be tried together for all these things. So the prisoners were asking for amnesty for anything that happened during the riot.
DAVIES: Right. And they could certainly end up with long sentences unless there was an understanding that this was a special event. On the third day of the uprising, something happened, which was that Billy Quinn, the guard who was beaten on - at the outset of the uprising, who'd had the keys which gave prisoners access to much of the prison, he died from his injuries. Stanley Nelson, what was the impact of that?
NELSON: We knew from the very, very beginning of thinking about this film that that was a real turning point because at that point, Commissioner Oswald had agreed to 28 of the 30 demands, but the prisoners - one of the main demands that was outstanding was amnesty. And as Herman Schwartz, one of the observers, says in the film, you know, you don't get amnesty for a murder. And at that point, everything really changed. The state really hardened its stance and the prisoners knew it. The prisoners and the observers knew it, knew that things had changed.
DAVIES: How did it feel on the inside, Arthur Harrison, When Bill Quinn died?
HARRISON: Fear - became more fearful because that's why the brothers wanted that so-called amnesty because we was hearing things, not knowing things. When that got finalized that this officer died, you know, no one wanted that to happen. And once it happened, there were people behind the walls that realized we all could be charged with murder.
DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. Our guests are Stanley Nelson, whose new film "Attica" tells the story of the 1971 uprising at the state prison in Attica, N.Y., and Arthur Harrison, who was incarcerated at Attica at the time of the rebellion. "Attica" begins a limited release in theaters this Friday and premieres on Showtime November 6. We'll talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, whose new documentary tells the story of the 1971 prison uprising in Attica, N.Y. The rebellion ended with an armed assault by law enforcement in which 39 inmates and hostages were killed. Also with us is Arthur Harrison, who was incarcerated at Attica at the time of the uprising. Nelson's film, titled "Attica," begins a limited release in theaters this Friday and premieres on Showtime November 6.
On day four of this standoff, it was clear things were at an impasse. And an army, in effect, was gathering outside of law enforcement, state police, other prison guards - that there were National Guard units moving in to play some sort of role. And it seemed clear that some kind of assault to take the prison was likely. Stanley Nelson, describe what happened in this assault to retake Attica.
NELSON: It was really a law enforcement riot, you know? Over 500 law enforcement agents, state troopers and ex-prison guards, whatever, stormed the prison with rifles, shotguns. And they were up on the catwalks. And first, tear gas was shot down on them, so it was all smoky, and they really couldn't see anything. And they were just firing down randomly at the prisoners.
Again, I want to reiterate that they couldn't see what they were doing, so they just were firing over and over again. There's one New York state surveillance tape that's kind of uncut of the riot. And it's unbelievable how long they were firing. It's, like, about nine minutes of straight shooting down into the yard.
DAVIES: Arthur Harrison, this began with a helicopter flying low over the yard where you and all the prisoners and hostages were. And it began dropping some kind of gas, right?
HARRISON: We heard it was the C-4 gas they had over in Vietnam. That's the feedback we got, the after effects, yes.
DAVIES: Yeah. What did it feel like? What was the effect on you and others?
HARRISON: Oh, it was something I'd never experienced before. You know, but it - burning of your lungs, your eyes and everything like that because it was raining at the same time. You couldn't breathe, and you couldn't see.
DAVIES: How much gunfire was going on? What did you personally experience?
HARRISON: Continuously - you know, to me, it was like a wild Fourth of July. You know, you hear firecrackers continuously, continuously, continuously. That's what the gunshots was like, you know? But, like, at first, I couldn't accept the fact that these guys was actually shooting people who didn't had any guns. It was like a hunt.
Like I said, I'd seen this guy, Tommy Hicks, being shot. And I don't know how many shots this guy had in his body, but his body was jumping back and forth, back and forth. I'd never seen nothing like it and stuff, you know?
DAVIES: Any idea why he got so much fire himself?
HARRISON: I guess he ran towards the guy that was jumping out of the helicopter, the troopers or whatever, you know? Yeah, I guess he ran towards them, and they were shooting anybody that was coming towards them. That's how the guards themselves got shot - by running towards them and stuff, you know?
DAVIES: So there was gunfire all around you. You yourself were hit also?
HARRISON: Yes, I - right through the back of my arm. There was a slice like I got shot with a razor or something, but it was from a gunshot though.
DAVIES: Uh-huh. OK. And is there any indication that anyone was able to surrender to these guards and state police?
NELSON: Well, the helicopter kept broadcasting over and over again - surrender with your hands up, you will not be harmed; surrender and you will not be harmed. But there was nowhere to surrender to. They were - again, they were up on the catwalks and just firing down.
So no, there was no way to surrender because there was nobody to surrender to. If there had been anybody down there, law enforcement to surrender to, they would have been shot, too.
DAVIES: Right. We know that 29 prisoners were killed in the assault and 10 hostages. And the original reports were that the hostages had all had their throats cut. What was the truth of that?
NELSON: The original poll was that the hostages had had their throat cut. And that - part of the reason why that was thought at first was because prisoners brought the guards out into the yard and put knives to their throat, homemade knives to their throat. And they thought that maybe that would stop the assault, before...
DAVIES: Yeah, that was before the attack began, as a threat - right? - to try to ward it off.
NELSON: Yeah, it was just a threat. Nobody - and so when the attack actually happened, it was found out, you know, the next day that no guards had gotten their throats slit at all. And the 10 guards that were killed were all killed by gunfire. I should say, you know, also, it's very clear that - and they knew it, that none of the prisoners had any guns at all. And they knew that.
DAVIES: I have to say that some of the footage in your film about conditions in the yard after the assault ended is pretty tough stuff to watch. You want to just describe what happened after the gunfire stopped?
NELSON: You know, there was a scene of hundreds of dead and wounded lying on the ground. And the law enforcement had completely taken over the prison. But it didn't stop there, you know? That - then it just was a scene of various tortures. L.D. Barkley, who was one of the leaders, was sought out and murdered. The prisoners were made to crawl through the latrines that they had dug, through human waste. They were told that if they lifted their heads, they were - they would be killed.
HARRISON: Yes. Yes, that's what happened. When the panic came about after the shooting, you had to go through that trench that we built to defecate in and stuff like that. So we had to crawl through our human waste in order to get into the next yard.
DAVIES: And this was when you already had a gunshot wound in your...
HARRISON: Yes. Yes. Mm-Hmm. There was bodies around on the ground, you know? I'd seen people getting shot at or shot before, but not like this. People were laying on top of people and stuff - you know? - hollering and - you know, from the pain of being shot and wasn't get no help, you know? What kind of human being does that to another human being, you know what I'm saying?
NELSON: Then the prisoners were made to run a gauntlet, where they were stripped nude. And they were - ran down a hall between guards who beat them as they ran. And it just was a scene of horrible, horrible, you know, torture, one thing after the other.
DAVIES: Arthur Harrison, tell me about this gauntlet.
HARRISON: Coming - after being stripped in the yard for A-Block for a while, we were told to come into the A-Block quarter. It had guards on both sides with these big clubs. But in the middle of the gauntlet itself, the floor, it was covered with glass, man, that they had broken out of the windows. For - you had to run through glass. So you got - some guys were falling because they was splitting their feet open and stuff like that, you know?
DAVIES: How did you get through?
HARRISON: I was lucky because there were bodies. And I was running on top of human bodies and stuff.
DAVIES: Oh, my goodness. Wow.
HARRISON: And these guys were - the reason they were down on the ground and being beaten because they had glass in their feet, so they couldn't run anymore. So they - and like I say, I was lucky I was able to run on top of a few of them and get through to - there was another guard at the end. As we got through the gauntlet, they was hitting us and telling is to go, you know, left or right. We still had (ph) to go to the cells. And they were filling the cells up with us prisoners and stuff like that.
DAVIES: And then what happened to you and others?
HARRISON: They was putting up to three to five guys inside of a cell that was made for - a 6-by-8 cell. You know, so you imagine that crampiness after being out in that yard for five days - four days and five nights, whatever it was. You know, now you're being put in a situation where you're in a cell with four strange people not knowing who and what they are and what they're in jail for, you know? And you don't know how long we're going to be - I was in the cell - it was - I think it was three days, so 72 hours, before they shipped me out. And I went to Comstock Correctional Facility. But just imagine after being out in that hellhole for those five days, then - now you're in this other cell again with three guys besides myself naked. With a - they give us one of those large cans you get food or beans and stuff in, that's how we had to defecate 'cause the toilets wasn't working and stuff.
DAVIES: Boy. Stanley Nelson, give us your perspective.
NELSON: So it's really interesting that throughout the film, the prisoners say the same thing, you know? You know, we cut from one prisoner to the other, and they almost finish each other's sentences. You know, they really, you know, all saw the same thing. We have some National Guard in the film, and they all talk about the torture that was - that the prisoners were subjected to.
DAVIES: Right. The National Guard troops were brought in kind of in an auxiliary fashion afterwards and were told to keep quiet about what they'd seen, right?
NELSON: Yeah. Afterwards, the National Guard were taken out into a field, and their commander gives them this speech where he says, you know, please don't ever tell anyone about what you saw today. People won't understand because I know it was excessive, and I know it was horrible. But people won't understand what took place, so please don't talk about it. Fortunately for us, a couple of the National Guard did talk about it and are in the film.
DAVIES: Arthur Harrison, you went through all this brutality, then you got crammed into a cell for three days with guys you didn't know.
HARRISON: At all, yeah.
DAVIES: What happened after that? I guess this - the prison was simply not in condition to...
HARRISON: No, what they were doing, they were shipping guys out to all the different prisons, you know, max prisons in upstate New York.
DAVIES: Yeah. And how long was it before you were released?
HARRISON: I think it was after about maybe 14 to 16 months after that, I got paroled and stuff. Yeah.
DAVIES: Do you think that parole boards took into account the the uprising at Attica?
HARRISON: That's the reason why I think I got early parole, yes.
DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. I'm going to reintroduce you. We're speaking with Arthur Harrison, who was incarcerated at the prison in Attica, N.Y., at the time of the 1971 uprising. Also with us is award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson. His new documentary, titled "Attica," begins a limited release in theaters Friday and premieres on Showtime November 6. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about the uprising which occurred at the maximum security prison in Attica, N.Y., 50 years ago last month. It's the subject of a new documentary directed by our guest Stanley Nelson. Also with us is Arthur Harrison, who was incarcerated in Attica at the time of the uprising.
When there's an event like this, there is often a commission appointed to investigate it. There was one here, the McKay Commission. Right? What did it conclude? Did anything change?
NELSON: You know, there was a commission. Everybody testified. You know, people's statements were heard. But in the end, nobody was prosecuted for the deaths in Attica. No one was prosecuted for the torture that happened at Attica. The prisoners had a lawsuit that went on for 25 years. And after 25 years, they actually got a $12 million settlement because of the abuse that they had suffered.
DAVIES: Which, when divided among the prisoners, is not a ton of money, I assume.
NELSON: No, it's not a ton of money. And as the former prisoners say in the film, you know, it wasn't about money. You know, money can't bring back the dead and bring back what was taken from us. To this day, they're clearly, you know, still traumatized by what happened 50 years ago.
DAVIES: And we should also note, there was another lawsuit filed by guards and families of guards because 10 hostages were killed by law enforcement gunfire. That also resulted in a settlement of - what? - $12 million many, many years later. Right?
NELSON: Right. They settled for the same amount that the prisoners settled. The hostage families got $12 million, and the former prisoners got 12 million.
DAVIES: Arthur Harrison, tell me a bit about your life after you were released.
HARRISON: When I came home from Attica, now that I look back, it was just like when guys came home from the war. That's what I seen over in Attica. Attica became a war zone. Attica became a nightmare. So when I came home, my whole vision was about talking to young guys such as myself, who - or young kids who looked up to me not to buy into that whole thing that a rite of passage was going to prison, that's what made you a whole Black guy. And so I was preaching against that.
And so - and I had that anger because the system let us all down, man. Not only did they let us down, they let those guards down that got killed also, you know, 'cause it wasn't about anyone caring about anyone but proving who was in control. The prisons were based on fear - who's the toughest guy, who's the baddest, who was the most savage person and stuff. And that's what I seen that day more clear than anything in this stuff (ph), you know?
DAVIES: You know, when they decided they were going to retake the prison, from a law enforcement point of view, hostage rescue situations are really tough to plan. I mean, if you want to have an operation in which you are going to exert force against the captors of the hostages while not causing harm to the hostages, that usually doesn't end so well. Was there a plan to actually try and execute this in a way that took care to preserve the lives of the hostages? Because it's clear that didn't happen, right?
NELSON: Right. No. There was no plan. I mean, it was really just, you know, out of anger and frustration. You know, one of the things that we see in the film is that the prisoners have been out in the yard for five days. It started to rain. You know, the place is like a big mud puddle. Their hooches (ph) that they have built are collapsing. They're getting tired. You know, they wanted to stop. They were ready, you know, for it to stop. The observer committee is just begging for Nelson Rockefeller - again, the governor of New York - just to come up there. They're saying, damn, you know, you don't even have to go in the prison. If you would just come here and show some concern, I was sure that this will go a long way to stopping this whole thing. So it could have ended, you know, in a very different way than it ended.
And, no, there was no real plan to take it back over. And also, you know, these people weren't trained. I mean, this was like the highway patrol, you know, the people that stop you from speeding, you know, that stop you from speeding on the highway and prison guards, you know, who hated the prisoners in the first place. And they were handed out guns and shotguns and rifles and just went in there, again, shooting - and shooting sitting ducks because again, they're surrounding them on the catwalks up above them. And they're just shooting down into the yard.
DAVIES: This is a powerful story, as you tell it in the film. What relevance does it have to America today?
NELSON: I think it has so much relevance in so many different ways. And, you know, you can take from the film what you want. You know, it's a film about race, about the racism. It's a film about power, the power of the state and the power of the state kind of not to negotiate, feeling like it does not have to negotiate with the citizens. It's about class and, you know, poor people, because in very many ways, the people in Attica, you know, were not privileged. The people - the guards were not privileged. They had to take those jobs. And, of course, it's a film about prisons and prison reform. You know, conditions in prisons have probably gotten a little better. You know, they get more toilet paper now. But there's 2 million people in prison. There's too many people in prisons in the United States. So 2 million people, you know, will not see the sky at night tonight.
DAVIES: You know, I have to say, I mean, you know, there are a lot of circumstances where impasses are resolved when lawyers get creative. And you could come in, and you could say, well, all right, we're going to have amnesty for people for participating in this. And as for those involved in the death of Officer Quinn, there will be a process. There will be rules. There will be - I don't know. It seemed there might have been a way you could have worked on this in a little more detail. Did Nelson Rockefeller's political ambitions play a role here? Can you shed some light on that?
NELSON: Sure. We have a conversation with him before the raid, before the retaking of the prison, where he's on the phone with Nixon. And he was constantly on the phone with Richard Nixon. And, you know, Rockefeller wanted to be president. That was the last - you know, that was the last gold chip that he could get. He wanted to be president. But he was thought to be soft on crime. You know, he was not - he was thought to be kind of a liberal Republican. And Richard Nixon had won on the law-and-order ticket, you know, law and order. And Rockefeller wanted to show that he was tough, that he was tough on crime. And he had Nixon literally whispering in his ear, you know, all the time. And this is the result.
DAVIES: Well, Stanley Nelson, congratulations on the film. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
NELSON: Oh, thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
DAVIES: Arthur Harrison, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
NELSON: Thanks for calling and talking, give me opportunity to let some of this negativity out.
DAVIES: Stanley Nelson's new film "Attica" tells the story of the 1971 uprising at the state prison at Attica, N.Y. Also joining us was Arthur Harrison, who was incarcerated at Attica at the time of the rebellion. Nelson's documentary, titled "Attica," has been nominated for three Critics Choice Awards, including Best Documentary and Best Director. It begins a limited release in theaters Friday and premieres on Showtime November 6. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews the new All-Star Trio album featuring Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.