Vincent R. Mancusi dies: Attica prison warden was 98

Vincent R. Mancusi, the prison warden whose iron-fisted command of Attica Correctional Facility in Upstate New York failed to prevent the bloody inmate insurrection there in 1971, one of the most dramatic confrontations in American criminal justice, died July 5 at his home in Springfield. He was 98.

His death, of cancer, was confirmed by his daughter Judith Haase. Mr. Mancusi moved to Northern Virginia after his retirement from Attica. His removal had been one of the demands made by inmates who staged the revolt in the maximum-security prison on Sept. 9, 1971. Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller (R) refused to accede, and Mr. Mancusi stepped down in 1972.

Within hours of the siege, New York’s correctional services commissioner, Russell G. Oswald, assumed control from Mr. Mancusi. After failed negotiations with the prisoners, more than 1,000 armed law enforcement officers were called in. The four-day standoff ended with a hasty government crackdown in which 29 prisoners and 10 prison employees died amid a storm of tear gas and bullets. The final death toll reached 43.

So wanton was the shooting that one state prosecutor described it as “a turkey shoot.” A state commission investigating the incident wrote that “with the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century,” the incident was “the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”

The inmates of Attica, who were rioting largely because of poor living conditions and the alleged racism of white correctional officers, became symbols of the prison reform movement. In the social unrest of the early 1970s, the word “Attica” became a rallying cry for anyone resisting the establishment.


Vincent R. Mancusi, the superintendent of the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York during the bloody insurrection there in September 1971, died July 5 at his home in Springfield. (AP /NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS AND COMMUNITY SUPERVISION)

In Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon,” set in Brooklyn and based on a real incident, a bank robber played by Al Pacino memorably tries to rile the crowd of onlookers by chanting: “At-ti-ca! At-ti-ca! At-ti-ca!”

At the time of the revolt, Mr. Mancusi was 57 and had climbed the ranks of the New York state penal system to his post at Attica in 1965. He oversaw policy at the prison, while the deputy superintendent presided over day-to-day operations.

Mr. Mancusi lived in a brick house on the grounds of the prison, where inmates were contained by 30-foot walls and 14 gun towers. One inmate, Frank Smith, told a reporter years later that he ironed the warden’s shirts, cleaned linens for the Mancusi household and received in payment a box of cigarettes at Christmas.

Such an arrangement was not unusual for correctional officers of Mr. Mancusi’s era. He was, in essence, an old-school warden and became known at Attica for his “cage approach” to criminal justice, the New York Times reported during the uprising. The method proved ineffective, and ultimately explosive, as the civil rights and the prisoners’ rights movements took hold.

Herman Schwartz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who served as the first intermediary between the Attica prisoners and law enforcement, said in an interview that Mr. Mancusi “was not responsible for the overcrowding, which is one of the worst things that can happen in a prison because it scares everyone.”

“He certainly was not responsible for the waves of social protests — black protests — that were rising throughout the country,” Schwartz continued. “On the other hand, he was something of a martinet who really didn’t understand what was happening.”

During the rioting, Schwartz said, he overheard Mr. Mancusi remark that he did not understand why the inmates were destroying the prison. “This is their home,” he said, quoting the warden.

Two months after the rioting, Mr. Mancusi testified before the U.S. House Select Committee on Crime that he would not have attempted to negotiate the release of hostages, as officials had done, and instead would have forcibly retaken the prison.

“I would have pushed on,” he said. “I don’t know what the result would have been. I would have gone as far as I could.”

In 1992, more than two decades after the insurrection, Mr. Mancusi’s deputy, Karl Pfeil, was found liable for having overseen the brutal reprisals against the prisoners — attacks that created a lasting bitterness against prison authorities. No verdict was reached at the time for Mr. Mancusi; he was later found not liable.

In a court settlement in 2000, New York state agreed to pay $8 million to the Attica inmates who were still living and $4 million to their attorneys. At the time, Mr. Mancusi said he “regretted the loss of life and injury.”

Vincent Ralph Mancusi, the son of a police detective, was born May 16, 1914, in Liberty, N.Y.

After Navy service during World War II, Mr. Mancusi graduated from what is now the State University of New York at New Paltz in 1954. He received a master’s degree in correctional administration in 1957 from St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

His daughter Marcia Mitchell died in 2011. Survivors include his wife of 77 years, Dorothy Sattler Mancusi of Springfield; a daughter, Judith Haase of Allentown, N.J.; a half sister; three half brothers; five grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

Arthur L. Liman, a former assistant U.S. attorney, served as chief counsel on the state commission that investigated the Attica revolt and spoke with Mr. Mancusi during a visit to the prison.

“One good thing that’s come out of the events,” Liman later quoted Mr. Mancusi as saying, “is that all the prisons have reexamined their gates.”

“I found the observation astonishing,” Liman wrote in his memoir. “It was obvious that gates and walls, no matter how strong, cannot forever contain angry and desperate men. . . . In that moment, even before our investigation had started, I think we had a vision of what had gone wrong at Attica.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.