ATTICA, N.Y. (WIVB) – Deanne Quinn Miller admits it is difficult to wrap her head around the fact that it has been 50 years since the riot which claimed her father’s life. She can barely believe it.
Billy Quinn is one of 43 people who died after inmates at Attica Correctional Facility rioted on September 9, 1971. Most of them lost their life four days later, when over the course of 15 minutes New York State Police re-took the prison in a raid filled with gunfire.
By the time that had happened, Quinn was already dead. The prison guard had been seriously injured in the first moments of the inmate riot. The Official Report of the New York State Commission on Attica notes he had been struck on the head. Quinn would eventually be let out of the prison, but died in a Rochester hospital two days after he was attacked. He was just 28. Miller, his daughter, was 5.
“Who is Billy?” she asked. “That’s exactly what I didn’t know.”
That one question led Miller to years of searching for answers. It led her to cross paths with some of the unlikeliest of sources. At first, she turned to close family. But that didn’t work out as she had hoped.
“I got limited knowledge from my family,” Miller said. “My grandparents, his parents, once my dad was killed in the riot, they just literally stopped talking about him. I think it was their way of dealing with his death. I mean literally stopped talking about him, like he didn’t even exist.”
Miller also found that questions about her father saddened her mother. But she thirsted for information about her dad and how he died. So she turned to other family members, family friends, and prison guards. She also turned to veteran journalist Gary Craig.
“Ultimately where I ended up getting a lot of the information was Gary Craig helped me make some amazing connections with inmates who were there that day, that assisted my father within the prison, and gave me a lot more of the puzzle pieces that I was missing,” Miller said.
She would find many of the answers she was looking for, including how her father ended up getting out of the prison after being assaulted thanks to the help of an inmate.
“He got a mattress out of A-block,” Miller said. “And he got three other Muslim inmates to help carry my dad on a mattress to the administration building. They brought him to safety. That was something I never knew.”
Miller and Craig chronicled their search for answers in a book called “The Prison Guard’s Daughter: My Journey Through the Ashes of Attica”.
“I’ve said that if I was going to help anybody write a book and tell their story, I wanted it to be (Deanne), because she and the story are both so special and remarkable,” Craig said.
A key component of the 1971 takeover of Attica was prisoners’ rights. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which operates the correctional facility, notes the prison is far less crowded in 2021 than it was 50 years ago, having about 600 fewer inmates.
“The Attica Correctional Facility of today is markedly different from the Attica of 1971,” DOCCS said in a statement. “In the 50 years since the uprising, the department has made significant changes, at Attica and at its facilities across the state, to more humanely supervise and prepare incarcerated individuals for a successful release back to the community.”
Specifically, DOCCS says they’ve implemented de-escalation tactics training for security staff and a pepper-spray program. The prison has hosted events such as a TEDx event, an evening with cast members of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and it has an on-going relationship with the Glimmerglass Opera Company. And corrections officials say the incarcerated population has access to health care delivered at the community standard.
They’ve also invested millions of dollars to install fixed cameras in some DOCCS prisons. Attica has nearly 1,900 of them.
But Miller wonders if more can be done.
“I think at times DOCCS would like to think that everything is okay in our prisons, but we can clearly see that it’s not,” she said.
“I don’t think that that’s a job that you can ever make not dangerous,” Miller said of corrections work. “And although I think the department thinks they’re doing a good job, there is probably plenty more to be done.” She declined to mention any specifics.
But she openly admits she’d still like to receive an apology from New York State.
“You would think that an apology is the easiest thing to do,” Miller said. “It doesn’t cost anything. What you give to people when you apologize is a sense of peace and maybe a little bit of, I don’t know about forgiveness, but it just gives you a feeling that you can let down your guard a little bit and not always be so mad.”
Miller and other members of the group “Forgotten Victims of Attica” will be in front of the prison on Monday to mark 50 years since the riot. She planned to reach out Thursday to the office of Governor Kathy Hochul with an invitation, hopeful the request would resonate with the Western New York native.
When asked by News 4 whether Hochul had plans to acknowledge the 50-year mark, or offer the apology Miller was seeking, a spokesperson for the governor did not immediately have a response.
Chris Horvatits is an award-winning reporter who joined the News 4 team in December 2017. See more of his work here.