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GRAND JURY SET TO PROBE ATTICA UNREST DISTURBANCES BEGAN AFTER INMATE'S DEATH

A Wyoming County grand jury will investigate last month's demonstrations in the Attica Correctional Facility that were precipitated by the death of an inmate.

Presentations to the grand jury, to convene early next month, will be based largely on information gathered by State Police investigators, according to Assistant District Attorney David DiMatteo.

DiMatteo declined to discuss the information to be presented or how many inmates might be brought before the grand jury.

Amy Colodny, spokeswoman for the Department of Correctional Services, had no comment.

The demonstrations, in which windows were broken and two guard stations and wood furniture in a recreation yard were burned, occurred the night of May 25-26 after prisoners learned that fellow inmate James Charles, 30, had died in the prison infirmary. He reportedly had been subdued by three corrections officers after he had rushed one of them.

When the demonstrations began, corrections officials withdrew guards from the yards, and State Corrections Commissioner Thomas A. Coughlin III sped to Attica to inspect the damage. No one was injured, but inmates were confined to their cells for several days.

In September 1971, Attica was the site of the nation's bloodiest prison revolt, in which 43 inmates and guards died when state police took the prison back from rioting inmates.

An autopsy conducted by the Erie County medical examiner's office determined that Charles died from exertion that magnified unknown inflammation of the heart and brain. The final autopsy confirmed a preliminary finding that Charles' body showed no signs of death caused by a beating, corrections officials and DiMatteo said.

A number of prisoners told inmate advocates that they saw Charles being subdued and have refused to accept the state's contention that his death was not caused by a beating.

An official for the corrections officers union said broken windows and the burned observation posts would cost as much as $1 million to repair. State officials disputed that estimate and set the damage at $35,000.

Melvin James, a former Attica inmate who produced a prison newspaper until he was transferred to Clinton Correctional Facility, said in a letter that what had been planned as an hourlong demonstration May 25 "grew ugly as correction officers abandoned the yards and rowdy elements among the 500 prisoners seized the opportunity to ignite fears and tempers."

James wrote that inmates regarded Charles' death as the second suspicious one at Attica in two years. Inmate Alfred Ryal died in May 1988 after a scuffle with correction officers. State officials attributed his death to a blood clot. But James wrote that Ryal was cremated before a state medical review board could conduct its examination.

The wife of an Attica corrections officer who asked that her name be withheld criticized newspapers for neglecting to publish the officers' side of prison work.

"Does the public realize or understand that the officers are confronted with tension amongst the inmates themselves (racial, territorial)? That the officers are confronted with homemade weapons? That inmates look on officers as the enemy?" she said.

The New York State Coalition for Criminal Justice, an inmate-advocate agency, last week asked Gov. Cuomo to name a special prosecutor to investigate the incidents.

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