To the prisoners at Attica Correctional Facility who rebelled in 1971, Vincent R. Mancusi was a symbol of the conditions they deemed intolerable.
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: July 21, 2012
Vincent R. Mancusi, who was warden of the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York when inmates rebelled against prison conditions in 1971, sparking a riot that left scores of guards and prisoners dead or injured, died on July 5 at his home in Springfield, Va. He was 98.
His daughter, Judith Haase, confirmed the death.
Vincent R. Mancusi in 1971.
The Attica revolt gained national attention at a time of sharp racial and political divides that had been reflected by prison protests across the country. At Attica, a maximum-security prison, the inmates, most of them black or Hispanic, accused the guards, who were overwhelmingly white, of racist attitudes and actions.
In the months before the riot, Mr. Mancusi had stepped up searches of cells, cut out references to prison conditions in the newspapers that inmates received and canceled prizes for athletic contests.
On the evening of Sept. 8, 1971, a prisoner punched a guard, setting off a chain of events that led to a confrontation the next day in which prisoners hit a guard on the head. More guards were assaulted, and about 1,000 of Attica’s 2,200 inmates soon seized control, taking 33 staff members hostage and blockading themselves in parts of the prison.
The crisis grew more tense during four days of unproductive negotiations. Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller refused to yield to the inmates’ demands, one of which was to fire Mr. Mancusi. The governor ultimately ordered state troopers to take back the prison, and 29 prisoners and 10 prison employees died in a barrage of bullets and tear gas. The death toll eventually reached 43.
A state commission that investigated the takeover and response concluded, “With the exception of the Indian massacres of the late 19th century, the state police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”
The authorities ultimately agreed to 28 prisoner demands, but would not budge on the two biggest: firing Mr. Mancusi and granting prisoners clemency for their part in the riot. The corrections officials, backed by Mr. Rockefeller, clung to that position even after Mr. Mancusi offered to resign.
To prisoners, the warden was a symbol of the conditions they deemed intolerable. They said that medical care was inadequate, food virtually inedible and the pay for labor paltry — 30 cents to 50 cents a day. Mr. Mancusi’s brick Georgian mansion on the prison grounds — it included a putting green — heightened their resentment.
Frank Smith, an inmate who helped lead the revolt, told The Post-Standard of Syracuse in 1991 that Mr. Mancusi had ordered him to iron his shirts and clean the bed linens his wife sent, and paid him with a box of cigarettes for Christmas.
Julio Carlos, a prisoner who was paroled several weeks after the riot, said in an interview with The New York Times that Mr. Mancusi was “the cause of all this — with the little petty things he do.”
After the rebellion began, Mr. Mancusi, whose title had recently been changed from warden to superintendent, had little responsibility. Russell G. Oswald, the state corrections commissioner, arrived to take control of the situation and ordered Mr. Mancusi to remain at his desk.
Mr. Mancusi testified to the investigative commission in April 1972 that he could not even see what was happening. He did order that guards who seemed “emotionally involved” be relieved of their duties, and eight went home.
The rebelling prisoners believed that Mr. Mancusi was not only responsible for their living conditions, but also that he had been unresponsiveness to their demands. “Mancusi is a dog that has gone wild,” Richard Clark, a leader of the revolt, said. But Mr. Mancusi said he had not seen the list of demands.
Testifying before the House Select Committee on Crime in Washington in November 1971, Mr. Mancusi said that had he been in charge during the uprising, he would have used more force to quell it immediately. Mr. Oswald challenged that assertion, testifying that after arriving at the prison, he had ordered the guards to retreat because they were “overextended” and in danger.
Vincent Ralph Mancusi was born in Liberty, N.Y., on May 16, 1914. His father was a police detective in New Rochelle, N.Y. He graduated from what is now the State University of New York at New Paltz and earned a master’s degree in correctional administration from St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. He served in the Navy during World War II.
He taught elementary school for three years before becoming a corrections officer. After rising through the ranks of the prison system, he was named Attica warden in 1965. He retired in 1972 at age 57, saying he was leaving not because of the riot but because he wanted to move to the South and play more golf.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Mancusi is survived by his wife of 77 years, Dorothy; a half-sister; three half-brothers; five grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Mancusi had appeared to be unaware of the simmering mood at Attica. He confessed to being taken aback when the prison riot erupted. Even as the inmates were rampaging, he expressed puzzlement, asking, “Why are they destroying their home?”