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The Public Has a Right to Know About Atrocities Happening Behind Prison Walls

CounterSpin interview with Heather Ann Thompson on prison access.

(Photo: Thevinman / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Also See: What’s Hidden Behind the Walls of US Prisons

Janine Jackson: We hear the numbers: something like 2.3 million people locked away in US prisons and jails, nearly another million on parole, more than 3-and-a-half million on probation. The numbers suggest the scale of things, but not the substance. They don’t explain what happens to people in prison, or broach the question of the societal purpose of incarceration, so that one could ask whether it’s being met.

Though the subject of a lot of cultural fare, US prisons remain opaque in important ways. And while you would hope that journalists would be especially curious about what’s hidden — and some indeed are — overall, it sometimes seems that while prisons put up barriers to access, some of media’s barriers may be self-imposed. We need to know what’s happening inside the supposedly public institutions of the criminal justice system. We also have to want to know.

Heather Ann Thompson teaches at the University of Michigan, in the Afro-American and African Studies and History departments and the Residential College. She’s author of Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor and Race in a Modern American City and of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, which, among other accolades, won 2017’s Pulitzer Prize in history. Thompson’s article, “What’s Hidden Behind the Walls of America’s Prisons?,” appeared last month on She joins us now by phone from Detroit. Welcome to CounterSpin, Heather Ann Thompson.

Heather Ann Thompson: Great to be here.

The state of public knowledge about prison conditions, and the system more broadly, is itself interesting. I hesitate to say things like “most people don’t know,” because, of course, millions of people know very well, especially when you start adding family members and friends of incarcerated people. But for those who don’t have to know, that unawareness is by design. Prisons, you write, are “built to be out of sight and are thus out of mind.” Can you give us a sense of the history of the fight to be able to see inside, which is intertwined with the fight for prisoners’ human rights?

You’re absolutely right to say that this is certainly a problem that many millions of people know firsthand — either because they’re incarcerated or because of family members. But what’s notable is that this is a situation that the voting public, by and large, doesn’t know, and, of course, that’s because we’ve disenfranchised those folks inside, and in many, many states, people even when they come home. So what’s important here is that the portion of the population that gets to weigh in on whether or not prisons should exist as they do, or how they’re run, is largely in the dark about what happens behind the walls.

And that’s always been the case — certainly throughout American history, that’s been the case. But in world history, in human history, it’s not the case. You know, jails used to be in the center of the city. There was a great sense on the part of the broader population, of what went on in them. They could see them, they could see what happened inside.

But throughout American history, we’ve really hidden, at least, the institution of prisons, while we have made very public supposedly the archetypal prisoner. So we’ve seen the prisoner on a chain gang, or we’ve seen the prisoner working beside the road, picking up trash, often marked by a certain uniform or a certain way in which we know that they must have done something wrong, but we have absolutely no sense of, what are these institutions they return to? And we really never have.

And so there have been various legal fights to try to get the public aware of what’s happening inside, primarily because what’s happening is brutal, and, indeed, the public needs to know that, because that’s what they’re paying for, right? It’s not just a confining of somebody, but often an abuse of someone, a torture of someone.

Right. And we can’t have a conversation about whether we all agree that that’s the purpose of incarceration; we can’t even get to that deeper conversation, because we’re not hearing about it.

What has some of the history been? You say it started in the 19th and 20th century; it was very clear that there was a hands-off doctrine, you just weren’t supposed to know what was going on inside prisons. And because of concerns, people started to press and started to press. But when did anything official actually happen, legally?

It really is not until the 1960s. And it’s largely because journalists are pushing for their First Amendment rights of access, and because civil rights attorneys are shining the light inside of prisons via litigation, that we get any real sense of what’s happening. And sometimes this occurred because of literal whistleblowing kind of investigations. You had, for example, in the South, prison reformers like Tom Murton, who go into the Southern prison plantations and — the idea is to reform them, but in the process, there’s exposés done of them. And then in litigation, we read depositions, or the public gets little snippets of what’s going on.

But by and large, our primary access is by filing Freedom of Information requests. And again, this is the legacy of the ’60s. But the problem is, even though these are state institutions, overwhelmingly, or federal institutions — in other words, public institutions — these requests can be denied on the basis of “security.” Well, of course, that can mean anything, and it often does mean anything that the prison administrators want it to mean. So access has been extremely difficult to have, despite legal tools on our side like Freedom of Information.

It’s interesting, because it’s so often presented as a right of prisoners, and not as a right of the public to know. It’s as though the exposure is a gift to the incarcerated.

Well, that’s important, exactly. So, notably, it’s actually prisoners’ First Amendment rights that raised a lot of these questions. In other words, the prisoner’s ability to speak with a journalist, or to speak with people on the outside, was really the kernel, the core of so much of that initial push to get some kind of access. So protecting of the prisoners and prisoner rights law is where a lot of this comes from.

Unfortunately, though — again, because those are so limited — journalists have come at it from a different direction, which is largely through the Freedom of Information Act. And between the two, you would imagine that we would pretty much know in any given prison, first of all, how people are being treated, how they’re being fed, how many people are in solitary confinement for how long, these kind of basic facts about the inside of the institution. Not only do we not know, but we often only get a glimpse when horrific, horrific things happen.

So whether that is in Tom Murton’s exposé of the Arkansas prison system in the ’60s, whether it is at Attica Prison in the ’70s, whether it is in New Mexico State Prison in the ’80s, or today, on a daily basis, we are reading about the St. Louis prison workhouse, or in Michigan recently a prisoner was just killed by a fellow prisoner for being homosexual, and, of course, this prisoner had been complaining to guards for weeks for protection. So it’s just an example; we don’t hear until someone is dead or harmed or severely, severely abused before we hear.

Yes, you can’t separate the question of access from the question of human rights. But for some people, there’s no interest in reporting on abuses because, well, they’re in prison and it’s supposed to be bad. When I was looking into different — states vary, as you know, in terms of the access that they give. And Rhode Island is a fairly open state; they’re proud of the programs they have and the activities that they have in prisons, but they note that sometimes coverage brings a backlash, you know: “Why aren’t they breaking rocks?” It speaks to the poverty of the general conversation. And with that, I would say — it’s one of the other things that you talk about — it speaks to the idea that we don’t seem to think about prisoners as ever coming home.

Yes, or even as people. And I think that one of the reasons why we are now having these conversations much more seriously about access and about prisoner rights — and we really have not had this discussion, at least this robust of a discussion, on prisoner rights since the 1960s and ’70s — the reason for that is that, as you mentioned in your opening, we now have so many people — some estimates upwards of 100 million people now — with a criminal justice record. And with so many people on the inside, and so many people that might go right back inside for the slightest infraction on parole, this question of who prisoners are is now a little bit dicier than it has been at other moments in history. We can no longer just say, “That person, I don’t who those people are, I don’t care who those people are.” Often now, in many American families, including white middle-class families, “those people” are their children, those people are people whom they recognize and with whom they identify.

And so the upshot of this now is that access is becoming a family concern. And, frankly, this idea that people should be sentenced and given the harshest, harshest treatment, we’ve always had that sentiment, and I know administrators experience it when they try to bring a reform to a prison. But the truth is that when people just stop for a moment and think, No. 1, is the jury sentencing someone to being removed, or are they sentencing them to being tortured? And people have to be very clear that we don’t live in a country where we sentence people to torture. And so, what kind of a Constitution do we have, what kind of a country do we want to have?

That’s more the theoretical or the ethical, moral questions, but then we bring it home and we ask ourselves, if our own kids did something untoward or illegal, what would we want their punishment to be? And so I think that the discussion is starting, in part because the numbers of folks inside are becoming a little too large to say everyone’s there for a good reason.

Right. Well, it should surprise no one that other countries don’t do things this way.

Yeah, that’s right, and that’s another interesting thing that I tried to cover in this piece, is that the way in which we keep prisons separate from society is certainly not uniquely American; there are many societies that don’t put their prisons in the town square. But the idea that the public has no right to know what goes on inside of them is a very strange phenomenon here. And let me be clear, there are plenty of people who get inside, there are plenty of people — journalists and people providing services to prisoners and people visiting prisoners — but they’ve had to fight so hard for that access.

And that’s what’s weird; we have institutions that we pay for, we fund, we support, and I would venture to say there are no other public institutions like that, with the exception of perhaps the military, that we put so much faith in with so little information about how they’re actually run, what their outcomes are, and whether or not they merit that level of support.

You say in the piece that you think access is a responsibility, even if it has yet to be a guaranteed right. That seems to me to be a call to journalists to amp up those efforts, not even just as individuals fighting, but, perhaps, as an entity. I guess I would like to see reporters being involved in pushing more broadly for daylight in these institutions.

Well, I say it’s a responsibility, because frankly that’s how I come to this piece that I wrote, as a historian. I have spent much time looking at episodes in our past where something pretty horrific has happened, and the only reason we know about it, and, frankly, the only reason folks inside were protected to any degree, was because folks on the outside demanded access.

And, of course, you mentioned my book on Attica. That’s the best example of that, where you had a prison protest for better conditions, the state of New York retook it with incredible force, and set about, over the next weeks and days, torturing people. And had it not been for the journalists and the lawyers and even state politicians essentially banging on those doors on a daily basis, insisting upon access, what was a horrific situation would have been unimaginably worse. Indeed, the public was the only presence between an even worse massacre than occurred, because they kept saying, we need to get inside, these are human beings, what are you doing, what’s happening?

And, frankly, today, there’s been prison uprisings across the country, and it’s a little disheartening; we don’t see the public banging on the door, saying, what is happening inside? There was a prison uprising in Delaware earlier this year, and one of the scariest things to me, watching the outcome of it, was that there was nobody showing up at that prison en masse, meaning the media, either national, or international in the case of the ’60s, saying, what’s happening to the guys inside? Right? What kind of retaliation is going on, what’s happening — we don’t have a clue, we have no idea. But history shows us that whatever’s happening is probably pretty ugly, and certainly not within the bounds of our Constitution.

We’re coming up in a month or so on the anniversary of the uprising and massacre at Attica. Last year around the anniversary, there was the largest prison strike in US history. We noted at the time that national media largely ignored it. You said, in something that I read, that because of the mistruths told about the origins and the bloody end at Attica, Americans came to embrace justice policies and police practices that are again tearing the nation apart. You started to tell us the story. But it’s 46 years ago now, as strange as that is. What are, to you, the most significant misrepresentations or mistruths of what happened at Attica?

Here is the perfect case in point about why public access is so important. Even though at Attica, it was the state police that came in and killed 39 men, hostages and prisoners alike, and shot 128, tortured many more, even though that’s what in fact happened at Attica, the public was told that the prisoners had killed the hostages, that none of that torture had happened. And, in fact, because they were told that the prisoners had caused such violence, the public says, “You know what, forget civil rights for prisoners, forget human rights.” It really ushers in, or at least certainly helps to fuel, this punitive, punitive spirit.

So in this case, it wasn’t even just that access would have prevented harm coming to real human beings, but the lack of access actually touches off decades-long misperceptions about who prisoners were and who law enforcement was. You know, not one member of law enforcement was ever held accountable for the killings at Attica. Most Americans think it’s the prisoners that made Attica such a violent place.

So access is about knowing how to get the future right, not just what’s happening in that moment. And, indeed, you rightly point out that these strikes happened, all these prison uprisings happened, all over the country last year on the anniversary, and yet the national press didn’t report on it. Well, if you ask most reporters, the reason why that was, they will tell you, because we couldn’t get any information.


You know? We had no idea what was really happening, so we chose not to report on it. The reporting didn’t happen until the stories began trickling out. And, frankly, that only happened because prisoner family members were talking. And that’s a pathetic and really dangerous situation, when that’s the way we have to know how our public institutions are being run.

Well, I just want to bring it back to a point that we talked about earlier. Paul Wright from Prison Legal News was interviewed by NPR’s Bob Garfield last year, and Garfield didn’t seem persuaded that there was, as he put it, “any compelling constitutional reason that reporters should have access to prisoners whose liberty has been legally taken from them.” And as we noted earlier, it’s as if the daylight is only a kind of gift to the prisoner, and not knowledge that the public is entitled to. And Wright says, well, the Supreme Court may say no, but he as the journalist says yes. And it seems to come back again to this question of seeing it as a public right to know. Yes, we care very much about the conditions of prisoners, who are human beings, and that is itself a valid and compelling interest. But, again, it also is our right as a society to know what’s being done in our name.

Well, it’s all three, right? Because it’s also the right of the human beings on the inside to be protected when they are utterly at the mercy of their captors. I mean, that is basic ethical human rights, not only ethos but law, in fact, if you consider, for example, the UN’s statement on the treatment of prisoners. So it’s the prisoner’s right to be protected. And, by the way, that is a constitutional right. You do not lose your constitutional rights just because you are locked up. You may lose your voting rights, but you certainly don’t lose your Eighth Amendment rights to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment. It is the journalist’s right of access, and it is the public’s obligation and right to know.

So the triad means that we use Freedom of Information law, we use First Amendment law, but at the end of the day, none of that will be effective if the body popular does not make clear that we’re not going to support or pay for institutions that we just have to accept on blind faith are doing what we want them to do, and, in fact, not creating harm in our name. And so for that reason alone, I think that that’s why I was hoping that just general folks would say, “You know what, yeah, we have an obligation, we have a right to know where our tax dollars and our faith goes.”

We’ve been speaking with historian Heather Ann Thompson of the University of Michigan. The book is Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. Heather Ann Thompson, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thanks for having me on.

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