Eyes on the Prize One Interviews
Washington University Digital Gateway Texts
Interview with Philip Watkins

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Interviewer: James A. DeVinney
Production Team: B
Interview Date: March 15, 1989

Camera Rolls: 2106-2107
Sound Rolls: 249-250

Editorial Notes:

Interview with , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 15, 1989, for . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection. These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, tell me what the prison was like before the riots.
PHILIP WATKINS: Well, before the riot, we seemed to be getting along with the, the population we had. Of course, they had a riot in Rikers Island, and they had one in Auburn, and within a period of time, I'm talking maybe about a year, we--
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Now let me just stop you, ah, don't scratch because that's coming up on the sound roll, OK. OK, OK within the last few months.
PHILIP WATKINS: Within a year or so we inherited all these ringleaders maybe from the riots and ruckus Auburn and they put them in Attica because I think they thought Attica was a secure place to hold them. And I feel that maybe this, we just overlay--loaded the guys that wanted prison reform or were just rebelli--rebellious.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Now the day the riot began, tell me where you were and what happened when it all broke out?
PHILIP WATKINS: I was assigned to D Block yard and, ah, I just, we knew there was something happening so, and I went in the corridor under Times Square and looked in the A Block yard and I, I could see they lost A Block. And I went back out in the yard but there was guys that, down raising hell down at Times Square. But I thought the place was secure. So, I went back out in the yard and maybe ten minutes later, twenty minutes later maybe, guys started coming through the door in the yard. So, they, that was, after they, ah, they took over Times Square. And, ah--


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Tell me what happened to you.
PHILIP WATKINS: Well a couple guys jumped me and whooped on me a little bit. I got a broken arm out of it. Guy hit me with a shovel. And then another inmate come out and said that was enough. And then they took me over in an area that wasn't, ah, there was nothing going on and I got myself together a little bit.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, let's stop down a little bit, make sure all the systems are working. I just want one short stop here.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: You're arm has just been broken and you've been taken in by a couple of these inmates, tell me what happened.
PHILIP WATKINS: OK, a couple in--an inmate, I got my arm broken, and then they took me over into a quiet area in the yard and a couple friendly inmates come over and, and brought some, ah, after a period of time, maybe ten, fifteen minutes, some inmates brought me over some inmate clothing, and, ah, took my uniform off so I wouldn't be recognized by the militant inmates. Ah, they thought at the time that they could get me out of the yard and get me out of the, maybe out to the part of the institution where I would be most secure. At that time the yard was quiet because the inmates that were taking over the institution come out and just, there was three COs out in the yard at the time. They, ah, they hurt them or put them out of commission and there was no more COs out in the yard that could do anything. But, ah, the yard was quiet so I decided to stay there. I didn't want to go back in the corridor or in the, or in the cell block to try to get out because that's where they were, was, there was a lot of commotion and trouble in there.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: So did you finally end up in the yard with a number of other guards who were also being held hostage?
PHILIP WATKINS: Yeah, OK, now, they started, after a period of time they started bringing other hostages out in the yard. In fact I wasn't even recognized for a while but then all of a sudden inmates that recognized me, said, "Well, there's another CO or another guy, bring him over here with the rest of the guys."


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, and which, which prisoners, who were some of the prisoners right about that time who were watching you most closely?
PHILIP WATKINS: Who were, I don't--?
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Well, I'm not quite sure what I'm looking for, but I guess I'm trying to get a sense of who you were confronting at that point? Were, were, what was it like? Was it scary? Were you threatened?
PHILIP WATKINS: No, I wasn't too scared at that time, no, ah, you know, you got roughed up a little bit but I wasn't scared. Ah, I don't know what you mean by who were they.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Well, I didn't know if these were people that were threatening to you?
PHILIP WATKINS: They were inmates, no, they weren't threatening to me, no.
PHILIP WATKINS: Well, because they were trying to help me.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: All right. OK, let's stop down for just a moment.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Tell me how you started to become aware of the change?
PHILIP WATKINS: Well, the inmates that were--
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Start at first you didn't, at first you didn't think it was going to be too long. Tell me that.
PHILIP WATKINS: OK. At first we're bringing, the inmates are bringing hos--COs, hostages.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: No, you said, "At first I didn't think it was going to be too long." That's what I want to hear. But then when did it change? OK, stop down, stop down. I didn't mean to confuse you. Well when we were talking there you said, "Well first we thought it was only going to be a few hours but then"
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: The words were, and I don't mean to put words into your mouth, but they're your words. Let me do it for you. Just a moment, it was you telling me what happened.
PHILIP WATKINS: OK, as I was in the yard, ah, the inmates were bringing other hostages out in the yard and they formed a group of hostages. I think there was 40, eventually the group grow to about 40 or so. Ah,, we all thought at the time that it would be over in a matter of six, eight hours. Then, of course it started getting dark and we knew they wouldn't come in and secure the prison after dark. We knew the State Troopers were coming in and then we knew that we were in a world of trouble. That, ah, we just, we just thought that, ah, the prison would be re--retaken immediately but it wasn't. And, ah, as time went on, we, we were in for a long siege and certainly after the, the negotiators started coming in and, ah, these other people that they let in, ah, observers then we knew we were, it was bad times.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Tell me about the observers.
PHILIP WATKINS: Tell you about the observers, well, the observers come in and they, they certainly didn't help the situation.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Tell me how they didn't help. I don't know what you mean, you said they didn't help. What, why didn't they help? What was wrong?
PHILIP WATKINS: Well, they just, I think, ah, Commissioner Oswald let them in figuring that they would, ah, he'd given in to this inmate demand that they needed observers. And he let them in and they, they just deteriorated. They encouraged the inmates for, ah, to stand up for their rights and get them more demands and stuff.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: So, they became part of the problem.
PHILIP WATKINS: Yeah, certainly they were, they were as much a, a lead in this riot as the leaders were.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Who stands out in your mind among the observers? I don't know who the observers were.
PHILIP WATKINS: Ah, I, I think of, I can't name them, there was, well certainly Kuntstable[SIC] was on the inmates side.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Kunstler?
PHILIP WATKINS: Kunstler, yeah.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: What did he do?
PHILIP WATKINS: Well he just, you know, more and more, he was, "Stand up for your rights." I mean, I don't know what he did but, ah, he certainly, ah, enticed them for more, ah.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: What about the issue of race, do you think race was an issue here?
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Nobody knows, "Yeah," because they don't hear my question. You have to talk, OK hold it.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, now, I'd just like to go back now. It seems to me, from some of the things that I've heard and read, that there was a real issue, that it was kind of a Black and White kind of an issue. Can you explain that?
PHILIP WATKINS: I think the inmates were probably just as racist, some of the inmates, were just as racist as some of the COs, I mean, this is just a natural thing in any group of people. I don't think the guards at Attica were any more racist than the, as a group, than any other group of people.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: How did that exhibit itself, if I could just ask you?
PHILIP WATKINS: I don't know--


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Bobby Seale came there at one point. Tell me what happened with Bobby Seale.
PHILIP WATKINS: Bobby Seale, in my opinion, come in and when he would see what was happening, I don't think Bobby Seale wanted to get involved. In fact, the way I understand it, he come up to the institution and the institution wouldn't let him in and he left back for Buffalo and the State Troopers had to go get him and bring him back. And then they let him in and he didn't seem to want to get involved, as far as I was concerned. I think the inmate population was awful disappointed with Bobby Seales[SIC].


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Why do you say that?
PHILIP WATKINS: Because he didn't get more involved in it.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Did they talk about it? I mean, could you overhear any conversations?
PHILIP WATKINS: Well, yeah, yeah, you could tell--
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: What did they say?
PHILIP WATKINS: I don't know that they said. You know, it, it just seemed like they thought he would probably get right down with them and fight for their rights and he didn't want to get involved in it.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: I thought you had overheard some conversation.
PHILIP WATKINS: No, no, we didn't, we weren't there.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: You were in, you were in uniform and you were blindfolded. Tell us about the blindfold situation.
PHILIP WATKINS: The blindfold situation was terrible. If you wanted to be blindfolded for three days, although they did take them off once in a while, and you could see down underneath them once in a while, you know. But it was, it was, it was terrible. You, you just imagine the noises that you heard and couldn't see what was going on. You just thought, when they took our blindfolds off I was surprised that the institution wasn't ground level, all the noise and stuff, it was scary.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, I'm going to stop down just a little bit because we're worried about the sound roll.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: We'll be right back into it.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, tell me what happens when they're getting ready for the takeover.
PHILIP WATKINS: Well just, the inmates, kind of thought that, ah, there was going to be takeover. All the hostages were assigned one or two inmates that were their, I'm going to say, quote, "executioners", they took some hostages up on the tunnels. Fortunately I wasn't one of them that went up on the tunnels 'cause they were right at the brunt of the takeover. The inmate that was assigned to me, of course I was blindfolded at the time, ah, didn't say too much. I believe he was a Muslim cause he was quoting scriptures and I thought. "I'd better start talking to this guy." So, I asked him if he knew an inmate by the name of Red Richardson, that, was an awful popular inmate, and he was assigned to me for maybe three or four years. Well, I asked him this question. And he said, "Yeah, I know you too Curly." And when he told me that he knew me, I felt a lot more safer than I felt before I knew he knew me. And, ah, the only thing that I had to do for him is when the helicopters come over, he, he fell down on his back and he'd pull me over on top of him and, ah, this happened a couple times as the helicopters were making their pass. And during these times he pulled my hel--ah, my blindfold off. And then I, after he pulled my blindfold off, I could see that, ah, troopers were already on the tunnels. And they had their guns aimed down into the yard and I knew this guy wasn't going to hurt me after that. So, I, ah, I released myself from him and I started running and I, ah, made contact with a trooper and the trooper escorted me up a ladder out of the yard, and--


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, I'm going to stop you because I want you to back up, you were still in prison uniform at this point, so how did they recognize you? Tell me what happened when they first saw you?
PHILIP WATKINS: Well, ah, as I was, after I got away from the inmates, the inmate that was holding me, ah, there was other guards down in the yard that were in the group of inmate, ah, group of hostages and when I got down, this trooper, this trooper actually put a gun on me but I told him I was a CO and then he got the high sign from a--
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: You have to tell me the story and tell me that you were in uniform because we don't know that.
PHILIP WATKINS: I was, I was in inmates clothing, OK. All through the riot I was in an inmate's clothing. And I'm running, OK, this trooper might have thought I was an inmate but he told me to hit the ground and I did hit the ground and then I told them I was a hostage and they had officers go into the yard with the troopers to help identify us. And one of the officers that did go in the yard identified me and then he took me up the ladder after I was identified. Before that the weapon was on me.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: I want to back up just a little bit because when you were getting ready for the takeover, executioners were being assigned, and, ah, what was, what were some of the other guards doing? There were a lot of hostages there. How did some of the other guards seem to be responding?
PHILIP WATKINS: Well everybody was, OK, the other, everybody was scared. I was scared. Ah,, a lot of guys were praying. A lot of guys were praying. A lot of the inmates were praying, OK. Ah--
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: It sounds like everybody was scared, not just guards but inmates?
PHILIP WATKINS: Oh, yes, certainly.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: That must cause a little bit of bonding between the guards and inmates. That must have had some people feeling pretty close.
PHILIP WATKINS: Well, it did, yeah.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, let's just stop down. We might be at the end. I just want to kind of review the questions a little bit. How much film do you have left?


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, just go ahead whenever you want.
PHILIP WATKINS: OK, after the, the, the inmates cir--the hostage circle was formed and, ah, the inmates had all the hostages that could get formed into a circle, we thought, as a group that, ah, that, ah, our fellow COs and COs from other institution that were called in, would retake it almost immediately. And when it wasn't taken immediately, the longer it went on, come, of course come nightfall, we knew they weren't going to come in. But the longer they didn't come in and retake it, the more, the more the inmates felt they were in control. OK.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, and what did they want to do with that control, the inmates, that they had?
PHILIP WATKINS: Well the more control they, they got the more demands they made. I think one of the, ah, bad parts about the negotiations were is, Commissioner Oswald come in and he'd, he'd give them, ten, ten of the points they wanted right off the bat but he didn't get anything in return. I feel, you know, negotiations, you negotiate something or you give them something and the inmates give up something. It seemed like he'd give up, give up 10, 12 points and, OK the inmates didn't have to give up anything. Maybe if, when he give up 10 points, let 10 hostages go. But he didn't do this. He just, I don't know, maybe he felt by the more they give him, the more they'd soften. But it seemed to me like the more he give them the harder they got.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, was there much communication between the guards because you said, "We thought it would all be over." Did you have a chance to talk to each other?
PHILIP WATKINS: Well, some. Yeah, we talked amongst each other a little bit but not that much, no. That was controlled by the inmates, yeah.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: How much time you got, Bob?
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, let, let me just stop down on that roll.