Interview with Tom Wicker

When you got there you were met by an officer and they drove you to, to the penitentiary and you met with the other observers. What was it like when you first went into the yard, then you walked down that A yard, the A block, to the A yard, the difference with D yard. Just sort of give me a picture as to what it felt like.


Well I didn't go into the yard where the inmates were right away. When I first arrived in Attica it was kind of overwhelming. I had not at that time been into a prison since, oh, many years back in North Carolina I used to be the editor of a little magazine put out by the state board of public welfare. And we had it printed in the prison print shop. So I'd have to go out there once a month. But I hadn't been in a prison since then and anyone who has been into one of those places, particularly one that's as typically a big house, you know is Attica, which is really an overwhelming sort of place, monstrous walls and everything. Anyone who's been in to one of those places knows how terrible it is. I mean you feel oppressed right away. I mean oppressed in the emotional sense, not the political sense. And so, and in that particular instance, it was full of state troopers you know. And sheriff deputies, and guards, and guns. I mean it was really a war like atmosphere around there. So I went on and was shown into this little room where the, where the observers were meeting. And we met there and talked back and forth, as I recall it now, a couple of, three hours before I went into the yard with the inmates. So I had sort of become acclimatized to the whole atmosphere a little bit before going in there. But it also meant that we went in first, or I went in first at night, a group of us went in. And that was unquestionably an eerie experience because we crossed some of the ground inside the prison where they had been rioting the day before, you know, and it was all smashed and littered, and we could tell that. Then we went through this little short passageway into the A yard, I suppose we should say that there are four separate yards in that prison. Went through this little passageway into the A yard and I, I remembered as if it were yesterday coming out into the actual yard where the inmates were. And there was this vast crowd. My recollection is thirteen to fifteen hundred people in there, in an area about the size of two football fields. And there's this enormous crowd of inmates gathered there, but in front of them, and between them, between this crowd and our group of observers, there were a line of inmates who formed a human chain. That is one facing this way and one facing that way. And they had their arms linked together. A very strong chain that, I suppose, would have protected us if anyone had threatened us, which no one did. But, and then there were, the light was, you know, a few dim electric bulbs from up on the walls, but there were trash cans with fires burning in them and so forth. A very eerie flickering light, you know. So it wasn't entirely a, a, you wouldn't choose that experience for your ordinary weekend, I don't think. But on the other hand, I felt after that first initial feeling of being out of reach of what normally I thought of as the law, you know the sort of protection that every citizen takes for granted until you don't have it. Once I was past that shock, I felt relatively secure. I never felt particularly threatened in there in any sense. The, the whole situation obviously was precarious somewhat. You didn't know exactly what might happen or who might get out of hand. But I never felt, "Any minute now, you know, somebody's going to throttle me or drag me off to be chained," anything of that sort.