this day in crime history: september 9, 1971

On this date in 1971, over 1200 inmates at the state prison in Attica, NY started a riot that would last four days.  The riot began with the killing of a corrections officer, then the rioters took about 40 prison employees hostage. Three inmates were killed during the riot in what appeared to be cases of “prison justice.” When negotiations broke down, Governor Rockefeller — hoping to look tough on crime for a possible Presidential run — ordered State Police to retake the prison by force. In the ensuing assault, 29 rioters and 10 hostages were killed.

Wikipedia: Attica Prison Riot

Talking History: Attica Revisited

Attica Prison by Karl R. Josker

My visit to Attica  in March 2012

Advertisements

this day in crime history: july 31, 1945

On this date in 1945, inmate John Giles escaped from the federal prison at Alcatraz. Giles, a convicted train robber, worked on the prison’s dock loading and unloading military uniforms that were cleaned in the prison laundry. Over a period of time, Giles managed to steal a complete uniform, which he hid from guards. While dressed in the uniform, he boarded a ferry carrying a forged pass and left the island, headed for freedom. Or so he thought.

Luck and math weren’t working in Giles’s favor. The guards at Alcatraz soon realized they were one inmate short on their dock detail. And the senior officer on the ferry saw that he had somehow picked up an extra soldier. When the ferry arrived at its destination, nearby Angel Island (not San Francisco, as Giles had hoped), Giles stepped off the boat and into the hands of Alcatraz guards.

Further reading (and viewing):

Alcatraz History – Alcatraz Escape Attempts

Video – John Giles 1945 Escape Attempt

this day in crime history: june 12, 1962

On this date in 1962, prison officials at Alcatraz discovered that inmates Frank Morris, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin had apparently escaped from the federal prison. The escape took over two years to plan and execute. The escapees used stolen materials to make a raft to escape on and dummies to place in their bunks. They tunneled from their cells into the prison ventilation shaft, through which they climbed up to the roof of the prison. They climbed down from the roof, made it to the water, and paddled away on their homemade raft. The men were never found and were presumed drowned in San Francisco Bay.

Further reading:

“The Great Escape from Alcatraz”

FBI Files: Alcatraz Escape

IMDb: Escape from Alcatraz

this day in crime history: june 10, 1977

On this date in 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, escaped from the maximum security Brushy Mountain State Prison in Tennessee.

The escape happened after dinner. A disturbance began in the recreation yard of the prison. As the corrections staff was distracted, Ray and six other inmates scaled the wall on the opposite side of the yard using a makeshift ladder.

One of the inmates, who had injured himself in the escape, was captured just outside the prison wall. The remainder were captured over the course of the next two days. Ray was tracked down by bloodhounds. He was found hiding in a pile of leaves five miles from the prison.

James Earl Ray died in prison in 1998 at the age of seventy. Brushy Mountain State Prison was closed in 2009.

Further reading:

TimeASSASSINS: Capture in the Cumberlands

Wikipedia – James Earl Ray

this day in crime history: may 15, 1981


On this date in 1981, Donna Payant became the first female corrections officer in New York State to be killed in the line of duty. Payant, 31, was assigned to the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County, NY.

At the end of her scheduled shift, Payant had turned up missing. An exhaustive search was conducted of the prison and the surrounding grounds, but there was no sign of her. Officials expanded their search to a local landfill where trash from the prison had been dumped earlier in the day. They found her mutilated body buried in the trash.

Police and prison officials began an investigation into the murder of Officer Payant. Bite marks had been left, and the medical examiner thought that the pattern looked familiar. As it turns out, he had seen the same pattern on a previous case he had worked: one of the victims of rapist and serial killer Lemuel Smith. Smith was an inmate at Green Haven CF when Officer Payant was murdered.

Once the case was built, Smith was tried for murdering Officer Payant. He was represented by C. Vernon Mason (of Tawana Brawley fame/infamy) and William “Black Rage” Kuntsler. In spite of such big-name legal representation , Smith was convicted of 1st degree murder and given the mandatory death sentence. In 1984, his death sentence was overturned as unconstitutional.

Lemuel Smith is currently incarcerated at Five Points Correctional Facility in central New York. He is eligible for parole in 2029, when he is 87 years old.

Further reading:

Wikipedia – Lemuel Smith

The Officer Down Memorial Page – Corrections Officer Donna A. Payant

Find-a-Grave – Donna Payant

this day in crime history: may 2, 1946

On this day in 1946, an aborted escape attempt led to what became known as the Battle of Alcatraz. The incident began when convicted bank robber Bernard Coy attacked guard William Miller as he frisked inmate Marvin Hubbard in the prison’s C Block. Coy and Hubbard were able to overpower Miller. They then released inmates Joseph Cretzer and Clarence Carnes from their cells.

Coy climbed up to the block’s elevated gun gallery, which was unattended at the moment. He had previously noted a flaw in the bars protecting the gallery which allowed him to use a makeshift tool to widen the bars. Once he had done that, he managed to squeeze through the bars and into the gun gallery. When guard Bert Bunch returned to the gun gallery, Coy overpowered him and relieved him of his keys, rifle and pistol. He also availed himself of other items in the gun gallery, including clubs and gas grenades.

Coy lowered the keys and weapons to his accomplices, keeping the rifle for himself. He then moved to D Block where he forced a guard, at gunpoint, to open the door to the cell block. About a dozen inmates left D Block, which was used as a disciplinary block. Most returned to their cells. Two of the inmates, Sam Shockley and Miran Thompson, joined the would-be escapees.

The inmates’ plan was to get out of the prison, make their way to the dock using hostages as human shields, then use the prison launch to get to the mainland. The next hurdle they faced in their plan was unlocking the door to the outside. After multiple unsuccessful attempts with the wrong keys, they finally found the right one. Unfortunately for them, the lock was damaged from having the wrong keys shoved in it. They were unable to open the door.

While the inmates were fighting their losing battle with the lock, several other guards wandered onto C Block, unaware that inmates had seized control of that part of the prison. They were taken hostage and put in cells. The number of hostages eventually reached nine guards, who occupied two cells.

Frustrated by the uncooperative lock, Cretzer opened fire on the hostage guards, wounding five. One, William Miller, later died from his wounds. Coy used the rifle to fire on guards in the prison towers. Thompson, Shockley, and Carnes elected to return to their cells. Coy, Hubbard, and Cretzer decided to stay and fight.

An assault by guards was met with gunfire. Officer Harold Stites was killed and four guards were wounded. Warden James Johnston called for help from the military. Two platoons of Marines were sent to help with the assault on C Block and to assist in guarding the other inmates.

That evening, a contingent of guards engaged in a rescue operation to free the hostages while armed guards exchanged gunfire with the three inmates. Once the hostages had been rescued, guards and Marines subjected C Block to a barrage of fire using, machine guns, grenades, and mortars.

Early the next afternoon, the inmates telephoned the warden in an attempt to negotiate a deal. There was no deal to be had, short of unconditional surrender, which was unacceptable to Coy and his accomplices.

The barrages continued through into night. The next morning, armed guards entered the cell house to find Coy, Hubbard, and Cretzer dead.

Inmates Thompson, Shockley, and Carnes were all convicted for their roles in the escape attempt and the death of two guards.  Thompson and Shockley were sentenced to death. Carnes received a life sentence, but was released in 1973.

Further reading:

Wikipedia – Battle of Alcatraz

Alcatraz History – Battle of Alcatraz