An Attica Story
When Leroy Howard Dewer, Jr. hit Senior Lieutenant Richard Maroney with a two-piece in A yard at Attica Penitentiary on the afternoon of September 8, 1971, it was the spark that lit a powder keg that was long in the making. As part of a rising tide of consciousness nationwide, inmates had been requesting and then demanding improvements in prison conditions. They wanted more favorable work arrangements, enhanced medical care, reduction in exorbitant commissary prices, and adequate representation at parole hearing. By August of 1971, groups that had sometimes been at odds, Black Muslims and Black Panthers in particular, had begun to unify in agitation. However, they achieved no substantive gains. In fact, Superintendent Vincent Mancusi heightened the repression despite the liberal posturing of Russell Oswald, who served as the Commissioner for Correctional Services. Tensions mounted when George Jackson, a hero to many prisoners, was assassinated at San Quentin on August 22. That the prison would revolt over the Dewer incident was no surprise. After many believed that the slightly built Dewer had been assaulted and maybe killed by guards in reprisal, inmates seized control of a large chunk of the facility on September 9. Mancusi remarked, “Why are they destroying their home?” After massive media coverage and four days of negotiations, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who refused to visit, ordered the retaking of the prison on September 13. In all, forty-three people were killed during the rampages, thirty-nine by law enforcement officers. A state commission reported that, “With the exception of the Indian massacre 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.”
Attica has spawned numerous stories including a spate of books. Heather Ann Thompson even won a Pulitzer for her 700-page Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. However, in all the narratives, I have yet to see much about Dewer. We get a version of the incident: Either he was fighting with a white inmate, Ray Lamorie, or he was sparring, or he was engaged in football activity that guards mistook for a fight, or he was tossing a football back-and-forth with Lamorie, activity that was regarded as a no-no in a segregated environment. Accounts agree that Dewer refused to leave the yard as ordered, that Maroney attempted to grab him, and that Dewer spun and swung. Presumably, he was locked in Housing Block Z, “the box,” while the prison exploded. His narrative trail seems to end there for journalists and scholars.
The Other Side
But there was a Leroy Dewer before and beyond Attica. Some of us knew the person, not just the incident. We were his neighbors in Corona, Queens. He had a twin sister and four other siblings, all with names beginning with L like their father, whom we knew as Big Leroy. He had a beautiful mother named Dorothy, who, along with her husband, was very supportive. He had a paper route as a number of us did. We remembered that he worked in the butcher shop. We knew his street name---always the lure of the streets---as Jacquin (pronounce Wah-Keen). We knew that he had turned 23 years old just one week before that fateful day at Attica. We also knew that any time he had to do in New York State was going to be especially hard after hitting a guard and setting off the most famous prison revolt in American history. And it wasn’t just Attica. He had been identified as “trouble” for being involved in the Black Solidarity Day Protest at Auburn Prison the previous fall. That is, in fact, why he had been transferred to Attica.
I don’t know all the details of his record but do know that he had hit the bricks by the early 1980s. I ran into him a couple of times, including once at the home of his sister Lorraine, who is a dear friend. I remember hoping that he was out for good because I feared for him. They would always have their tale of who he was and would love having him under their control.
Unfortunately, the streets got him again. While out there, he was robbed and decided to exact revenge---he never could put up with much---resulting in charges of attempted murder in the second degree, assault in the first degree, criminal possession of weapon second degree, and criminal possession of a weapon third degree. He pleaded guilty to all that in 1985. I didn’t think that he, prisoner 85A2940, could do the time.
As the years stretched into decades, I heard reports about his deteriorating physical and mental condition. As part of his stretch, he spent fifteen years in solitary confinement. I heard he was shot by a guard during a disturbance. I was not at all surprised. I was only surprised that he had not been killed. Eventually, when he might barely have known who he was, he was released to a nursing facility. He died on November 7, 2015, at the age of 67. I attended his funeral at Greaves-Hawkins Funeral Home on Merrick Boulevard.
Superintendent Mancusi, a Navy veteran and son of a detective, lived to the age of 98. 57 years old at the time of the rebellion, he retired the following year and headed south to, by his account, play more golf. Oswald, also a Navy veteran, was 63 and left his post in 1973 for a less stressful job on the Crime victims Compensation Board. He lived to the age of 82. Rockefeller, the 63-year-old liberal Republican governor (you still could have those back then) who needed some conservative bona fides to boost his presidential chances---he had failed in 1960, 1964, and 1968---became vice president to Gerald Ford in 1974. He died of a heart attack at age 70 in the company (saying it safely) of 25-year-old Megan Marshack.
Prison conditions did not improve in the aftermath of the rebellion. In fact, they grew worse during a wave of revenge. I do not know exactly how things stand now 50 years later. I do know that Leroy’s sister and I still talk about her brother.