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Attica: How the Suppression of an Uprising Fed the Prison Industry

Those who ordered the slaughter at Attica prison intentionally sent the US down the path of mass incarceration.

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, by Heather Ann Thompson, Pantheon Books, 2016

Anyone who wants to understand mass incarceration needs to understand Attica. And anyone who wants to understand Attica must read Heather Thompson’s new book, Blood in the Water, the first scholarly history of the Attica prison uprising. It is a riveting tale, but a difficult one to read. Several reviewers have noted that they had to stop reading at several points, to breathe and to wipe the tears from their eyes. I join that group. As difficult as it is, this is a story that must be told.

Forty-five years ago today, on September 9, 1971, almost 1,300 prisoners took over an exercise yard at Attica prison. For months, they had filed petitions, written grievances and tried everything they could to ease the horrid conditions at Attica. They often were hungry, as prison officials only budgeted 65 cents a day per prisoner for food. There were few jobs and no opportunities for education. Racial and ethnic discrimination was rampant: Black prisoners were assigned the dirtiest, hardest manual labor jobs. While all mail was censored, any letters in Spanish were simply thrown away, hitting the Puerto Rican prisoners who received mail from their Spanish-speaking parents the hardest. Medical care was grossly inadequate, with one doctor for the entire prison. Guard brutality was unchecked.

After months of fruitless negotiations, prisoners learned that a renowned Black Panther leader, prisoner George Jackson, had been murdered in California. Prisoners at Attica honored Jackson with a one-day strike — no one said a word during breakfast and they ate nothing; no prisoner did any work or said anything to any guard all day long. In response, several prisoners were taken to solitary, infuriating the other prisoners.

On September 9, as prisoners were being escorted back from breakfast, they discovered that they were locked into the D Wing corridor. The realized that they were isolated and started to fear that they were being set up for beatings by the guards. They desperately tried to escape, eventually breaking down the gate separating the corridor from the main control area. From there, they opened the yard gate, and took over D Wing of the prison, seizing several guards and civilian employees as hostages.

After the initial outburst of violence, the prisoners quickly became organized, appointed leadership and created a security committee whose main job was to protect the hostages. They figured out how to feed 1,300 people and obtained medical care for those most in need. They even quickly negotiated for the release of those hostages in need of immediate medical care.

Over the next four days, the prisoners engaged in negotiations with the administration. The state eventually agreed that virtually all of their complaints were legitimate — the prisoners needed education, better food, less censorship, fairly distributed jobs with better pay and an end to race discrimination. The state agreed to provide all these things. However, the one issue that separated them was amnesty: In the takeover, one guard had been severely injured and had died a few days later. For the prisoners, this meant that some or all of them would potentially face a life sentence.

The Brutal Suppression of the Attica Uprising

Rather than continue negotiations, Governor Nelson Rockefeller authorized the state police to retake the prison with force. First, a helicopter dropped powerful teargas into the yard, effectively immobilizing the prisoners. Then, with the prisoners rendered helpless, the state police and guards unleashed their pent-up fury on the prisoners. Armed with a staggering array of weapons, from personal handguns to automatic rifles, but with no riot control training or plan, the state police and correctional officers opened fire — first from the catwalks high above the yard, and then as they stormed the yard itself. Twenty-nine prisoners were slaughtered, along with 10 of the hostages.

Over the next few hours, the prisoners were all stripped naked, made to crawl through the mud and then forced to run a gauntlet of prison guards who hit them with batons, belts, fists and clubs. Some who were writhing on the ground in agony from gunshot wounds were kicked and punched. Some prisoners were shot as they lay helplessly on the ground. The people who officials believed to be “leaders” were singled out for special treatment, and many were tortured for hours before being finally placed in solitary confinement (another form of torture).

The beatings and reprisals continued for several days and in this book, the horrific violence of the takeover is described in great detail. It is tough to read; it is hard to get your head around the fact that people could treat other humans so brutally. Yet, it happened. It is documented. It is inescapable.

Over the following decades, the state of New York did whatever it could to obscure what happened, hide the brutality of the takeover and shift blame from state employees to the prisoners. This cover-up started immediately. Before a single body was examined, the state announced that prisoners had eviscerated guards and castrated at least one of them, cutting off his genitals and stuffing them in his mouth. Nothing of the sort occurred. All of the hostages killed in the takeover were slaughtered by law enforcement; none were even injured by the prisoners.

In a final irony, in the end, the state agreed to precisely the amnesty that the prisoners had demanded. Had it simply done so at the beginning, the uprising would have ended peacefully. Instead, 39 people lost their lives and hundreds of other lives were destroyed.

While the broad outlines of this story have been known for decades, Dr. Thompson spent a decade prying documents loose from the state, reviewing trial transcripts and exhibits, reading court opinions, interviewing witnesses and digging deep into the state archives. In the end, she has produced a masterful account of exactly what happened before, during and after the Attica uprising. She names the individual troopers who killed specific prisoners — details suppressed until now. She traces the cover-up from the walls of Attica, to Governor Rockefeller’s mansion, and then all the way to the White House (thanks to the now-infamous taping system installed by Nixon).

Dr. Thompson is a riveting writer. After a brief overview of the history of the carceral state, she provides an almost minute-by-minute narrative of the uprising by the prisoners, and the takeover four days later, by the state. This section is hard to read, but is so fascinating and hard to put down. She then turns to the decades long political and legal maneuvering as the state first sought to bring criminal charges against the prisoners, and the prisoners — and ultimately the family of the hostages — sought compensation from the state. What could have been a dry recitation of pleadings and court opinions reads more like a John Grisham thriller.

Attica’s Place in the History of Mass Incarceration

As important as it is to understand Attica as a story unto itself, it is even more important because of when it occurred: at the birth of mass incarceration in the United States. This graph is well known — Attica happened right as the slope of the red line began its upward movement.

2016 0909prison2

For years, when I have talked about the rise of mass incarceration, I have said that the US made a huge mistake in the early ’70s: as this country began to lock up more people, prisons became overcrowded and prisoners began to rebel. We did not say, “Wait a minute; maybe we made a mistake and need to rethink this.” Instead, many people in this country decided that the people in prison were really bad people and what we needed was tougher prisons to lock up even more “bad people.”

When that didn’t work, we doubled down and built more prisons. When that didn’t work, we locked down prisons, removing college classes and other “frivolous” programs. When that didn’t work, we doubled down again and built “supermax” prisons, where prisoners can be controlled because they literally never have human interactions with other persons.

But as it turns out, I was wrong. US leaders did not make a “mistake” in sending us down this path. Those who ordered the slaughter at Attica intentionally sent us down this path.

There are two competing narratives that come out of Attica. One is the need for prison reform to avoid conditions so harsh that they force prisoners to rebel. That lesson is reflected in some of the changes implemented by New York State in the wake of the Attica uprising, such as with mail censorship and education. But there is a competing narrative: that given half a chance, prisoners will inflict obscene violence on guards and ultimately, the community. The facts of Attica — as Dr. Thompson has demonstrated — do not support that narrative, or anything like it. Nonetheless, Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon pushed that narrative on the public. In the days immediately after Attica, Nixon repeatedly assured Rockefeller he did the right thing, because Attica was “the Blacks,” and part of a nationwide conspiracy by the communists and Black radicals to undermine America.

Within a year, Rockefeller had enacted the harshest drug laws in the country, and other states and the federal government quickly followed suit. By 1980, corrections departments nationwide began to abandon any pretense of rehabilitation, telling the public that “nothing works” to rehabilitate a criminal. In 1988, George H.W. Bush ran the infamous Willie Horton ad, blaming Dukakis for allowing murderers to leave prison on “weekend passes.” By the ’90s, the rapid increase in prison populations nationwide had swamped any attempts at reform. Today, conditions at Attica and prisons all over the country are in many ways far worse than they were at in 1971.

Dr. Thompson has demonstrated in detail — referencing hundreds of footnoted sources — that the entire prison industrial complex is built on a lie. The only murderous rioters at Attica were the state troopers and guards who killed prisoners and hostages alike, inflicted torture on those already writhing in pain, and beat and humiliated over 1,000 people in the days following the retaking of Attica. Perhaps knowing this truth will allow us to begin to return justice to our criminal injustice system.

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