The Attica Prison Riot: An Oral History by Michael S. Smith
Michael S. Smith was a 22-year-old corrections officer when, on September 9, 1971, a group of inmates overtook Attica Prison in rural New York City. 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 both inside and outside the prison.
“It was a spontaneous reaction to a perfect point in time
for something to explode … like striking a match”
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.”
Watch Michael S. Smith’s full interview on the Attica Prison Riot, plus other first-hand accounts of law enforcement history in NLEOMF’s Museum Oral History Collection.
For more information about the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, please visit www.nleomf.org. For more information about the National Law Enforcement Museum, please visit www.nleomf.org/museum.