Few people read the 46 pages released last week from a long-secret report about the conduct of the criminal investigation into the 1971 Attica prison uprising more closely than Malcolm Bell, the former special state prosecutor whose allegations of a cover-up sparked the inquiry. Bell’s job was to investigate crimes committed during the retaking of the prison. But in late 1974 he quit, saying his efforts to win indictments against state troopers and others had been stymied. In response, the newly elected governor, Hugh Carey, appointed a special investigator to examine Bell’s charges.
Essentially it was an investigation of an investigation, a seemingly hopeless bureaucratic tangle. But it was one fraught with political peril and at the center of a searing public debate about the nation’s bloodiest prison riot. The death toll from the four-day, September 1971 rebellion totaled 43, including 39 slain by police bullets during the retaking of the prison. Ten of those killed that day were state employees who had been held hostage; the rest were people in prison, who had armed themselves with knives, spears, and clubs, but no guns. The man who ordered the controversial assault was former Governor Nelson Rockefeller whose nomination to become Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford was pending before the U.S. Senate at the time of the Attica probe.