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Unsealing Attica’s distant brutality

ALBANY – In the aftermath of the storming of Attica state prison by law enforcement, National Guardsman Kevin Burke reported seeing guards beat inmates with clubs, bandages ripped off injured inmates and a prison doctor pushing an injured prisoner off a medical cart and kicking him while on the ground.

Officials blocked Dr. Robert Jenks, a staff physician at Genesee Memorial Hospital, from getting a prisoner with a severe brain injury to the hospital for treatment.

And Ontario County Sheriff Ray Morrow described “acts of brutality” against inmates.

But all three – like several others – were unable to identify the perpetrators because state investigators did not interview witnesses when their memories were fresh.

That is a major theme that becomes evident with the release Thursday of redacted portions of the 1975 state investigative report locked up in a Buffalo state office building since then.

“Today, we are shining new light on one of the darkest chapters of our history,” said Marty Mack, executive deputy attorney general for regional affairs, who has overseen the handling of the documents and the release of redacted portions of the report.

State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman last year convinced a state judge to approve the release of long-secret portions of the report on the 1975 investigation by Bernard S. Meyer. Volumes II and III, as they are known to people still alive with ties to the bloody Attica uprising that took 43 lives in September 1971, have been sealed ever since Meyer submitted the full 570-report to then Gov. Hugh L. Carey and Attorney General Louis J. Lefkowitz on Oct. 27, 1975.

The Buffalo News obtained a copy of the two volumes in advance of the public release. They are heavily redacted, as per an order last year by State Supreme Court Justice Patrick H. NeMoyer that no material be made public that references grand jury evidence, such as witness testimony.

As a result, only 46 of the approximately 350 pages of Volumes II and III are being made public, and a number of those pages are heavily redacted.

The newly released documents focus on allegations of brutality following the retaking of the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility and suggest that state officials were in no rush to quickly or completely investigate the allegations.

The passages are disturbing. The newly released volumes quote Jacques Roberts, an inmate, who said a guard knocked out his teeth.

The document reported that he said he heard a shot fired after an officer in an orange raincoat said, “This … ain’t dead yet,” using the N-word.

He said he also had a lit cigarette “shoved by a trooper into his rectum.”

James Watson was a young National Guardsman and law student, who testified that on Sept. 13, 1971, he observed “inmates beaten on stretchers” and while they were run through gantlets. He said he witnessed seven guards beat one inmate. Though he said one official who appeared to be in charge was the “most vicious,” he did not identify the participants but said he could have done so through photographs “if he had been interviewed immediately” after the retaking.

Some of passages raise questions. For instance, the report, in a passage about findings of brutality, starts with one paragraph: “James O’Rourke. A United States Army observer who …”

The rest of the information about O’Rourke is redacted.

Meyer was a judge from Long Island when Carey named him as a special deputy attorney general to look into “charges related to the conduct of the investigation into the retaking” of Attica. Meyer’s first volume, released in 1975, said there was no “intentional cover-up” in the conduct of the state’s Attica investigation following the retaking, but said that there were “serious errors of judgment in its conduct” and that “important omissions” regarding the State Police’s gathering of evidence occurred.

When he submitted his findings 40 years ago, Meyer said he expected that the “full report” eventually would become public, but that the timing would depend on criminal probes of Attica and the rights of individuals to due process. In one of the newly released documents, Meyer noted that a section on the “Administration of the Investigation” of Attica was purposely put into Volume II “because of its revelations concerning …”

The remainder of that sentence was redacted.