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Ceremonies Mark Anniversary of Attica Prison Riot

1:42 PM, Sep 14, 2011   |    comments
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ATTICA, NY - The Forgotten Victims of Attica held a public ceremony Tuesday, on the 40th anniversary of the bloody assault on the Attica State Prison by New York State Police, seeking to retake control of the prison from rioting inmates.

The group of hostages and surviving family members of those killed in the bloodiest prison uprising in US history, has urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to issue a state apology for actions by the state in re-taking the prison in September of 1971.

"It's important to remember this 40 years later,...it'll be important to remember it 400 years later," said Mark Cunningham, whose father Edward was a hostage-guard who was shot and killed in a hail of bullets fired by troopers in their assault on the prison.

Cunningham, who acted as master of Ceremonies for the memorial service where a bell was tolled as the name of each guard killed in the riot was read aloud, has a rather unique perspective on the incident.

Not only was his father killed in the rebellion, but 10 years later, seeking to feed his family, he himself joined the ranks of corrections officers at Attica.

He's still on the job 30 year later, with the rank of sergeant--the same rank his father held when he died. 

"Mistakes were made by the state in retaking the prison....we have to make sure such mistakes never happen again," Cunningham told 2 On Your Side. 

WEB EXTRA: Two On Your Side & Rochester Democrat & Chronicle's Coverage of Attica 40 Years Later

While most of those killed were felled by bullets fired by police when they put down the prison rebellion by force, a spokesman for the governor told WGRZ-TV that no apology would be forthcoming.

The group began requesting an apology in 2002, as part of a list of demands presented to the state. The state met three demands - restitution, which totaled $12 million for the families; state-funded counseling to those who requested it; and an assurance that the organization could hold a ceremony at the Attica Correctional Facility on Sept. 13 each year.

The state did not open still-sealed records - another demand from the group - and also did not apologize. A report from a state commission that negotiated with the group acknowledged that the hostage families were mistreated by the state in the years after the 1971 riot. 

However, the commission declined to apologize, saying it would be a "slippery slope" to issue an apology for actions taken by officials in a different era.

In July, lawyer Malcolm Bell, who was tapped by the state after Attica to prosecute police involved in the retaking, wrote to Cuomo encouraging him to issue an apology by New York State.

Bell highlighted what he said were errors by the state, including then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's refusal to visit the prison during the four-day standoff.

State officials also ignored their own claims that they would "take care of the widows and survivors," he wrote. The state issued checks - workers' compensation payments - without telling the families that accepting the payments would preclude them from lawsuits. 

The one widow who refused did successfully sue the state.

"One result was that some hostage widows had to raise their children in or near poverty," Bell wrote.

Dee Quinn Miller, one of the organizers of Forgotten Victims, said she still hopes an apology will come. She said the apology is, for her, even more important than the restitution.

"Nobody wants to take responsibility," said Miller, whose father, William Quinn, was a corrections officer who died from a beating by inmates during the riot. "In my mind, it's really just saying, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry for your loss. I'm sorry for what happened.' "

The state also held a separate ceremony at the prison to honor those officers killed in the line of duty during the Attica Prison riot.

Click on the video player to watch our story from Two On Your Side's Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Scott May.

Click here to read Dave McKinley's latest blog.

WGRZ-TV, wgrz.com, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

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