Attica: The Present and the Recent Past

This week we’re revisiting Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (Pantheon Books, 2016). Today we are featuring an essay by LaShawn Harris.

First floor corridor in a cell block in Philadelphia County Prison, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection)

The process of researching and writing a book is no easy task. Moreover, writing a compelling historical narrative for diverse audiences is even more difficult. It takes time, discipline, the willingness to navigate and overcome methodological setbacks, and the ability to creatively weave together historical facts with powerful and accessible prose. Heather Thompson masterfully achieved this undertaking—researching and writing for nearly thirteen years about the 1971 Attica Prison rebellion.

From September 9 until 13, nearly 1,300 prison inmates seized and controlled New York’s Attica Correctional Facility. Inmates took hostages, received national media attention, and discussed their grievances and demands with legal scholars, journalists, and prominent human and civil rights leaders such as Black Panther Party founder Bobby Seale, lawyer William Kunstler, and New York Democrat politician Arthur O. Eve.

In telling this hidden yet important history, Thompson meticulously collected and combed through a diverse array of primary sources. She read through unreadable and redacted government documents, examined prison artifacts including inmates’ personal belongings and blood stained clothes, and conducted countless interviews with lawyers, police officers, and former Attica prisoners and survivors. She has produced, what many scholars, journalists, and prison reform advocates have called, the definitive account of the four-day prison uprising. Offering readers “all that she has learned and seen” from researching Attica, Thompson’s captivating narrative tells multiple gripping stories about mass incarceration, the 1970s prison reform movement, survivors’ long suffering pain and trauma, and New York state politicians’ painstaking efforts to cover-up the murders of 29 inmates and 10 hostages.

Horrific prison conditions politicized inmates, causing many to echo 1960s and 1970s national and international civil and human rights organizations’ call for prison reform. At the same time, “ordinary men, poor men, disfranchised men, and men of color had simply had enough of being treated as less than human,” (p. 570) and “connected everyday life in prison to the pursuit of social justice.”1 This is one of the many fascinating aspects of the book. Thompson refutes 1970s media and state officials’ accounts that portrayed inmates’ political activity as menacing or criminal.

Blood in The Water situates inmates—those with little or no political activism and those with ties to the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and the New Left movement—at the center of transnational movements aimed at bringing about transformation in prison policies. Attica men were activists within their own right. As articulated in the Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto of Demands and Anti-Depression Platform, which was modeled after Folsom State Prison inmates’ 1970 manifesto, inmates were on the front lines of advocating for prison reform. Men called for an end to prison mail censorship, cell confinement, and harsh disciplinary procedures. They demanded proper medical treatment, health food, minimum wage for all State institutions, and religious freedom. Attica men also insisted on receiving basic human rights. Their demands and struggle for human and civil rights and decent treatment was part of the Post-World War II democratization process that involved other underrepresented groups.

The 1971 Attica uprising has taught us much about mid-to-late twentieth century prison activism. At the same time, the 1971 rebellion informs audiences about the modern day penal system, encouraging readers to explore the vital connections between the recent past and contemporary outcries for prison reform. Blood in the Water compels audiences to reconsider contemporary narratives and media images that cast prisoners as irredeemable and problematic and as individuals who are undeserving of compassion and humane treatment. Thompson challenges readers to critically think about present-day prisoners’ living conditions and their longstanding struggle for fair treatment—especially when there seems to be little public awareness or media coverage about modern-day prison conditions and protests.

 In recent months, approximately 24,000 prison inmates in at least twenty-four states including Michigan and Wisconsin staged protests and strikes against inhumane treatment, inadequate living conditions, sexual assault, the defunding of rehabilitative programs, and forced prison labor. While considered the largest collective prison strike in the nation’s history, few media outlets have covered the story. With the support of several labor and prison reform organizations such as the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), inmates breached prison regulations, refused to work, led hunger strikes, took over cellblocks and damaged property, staged peaceful protests, and even discussed their grievances with prison officials. Deteriorating prison conditions and state governments’ increasing lack of concern for inmate care sparked collective demonstrations.

Moreover, recent protests purposely coincided with the 45th anniversary of the 1971 Attica uprising. Inmates connected their fight for human dignity and for a more equitable penal institution with those who raised their voices against horrific prison conditions over forty years ago. But like the nearly 1,300 inmates who seized Attica Correctional Facility in September 1971, twenty-first century prison activists were severely reprimanded for their actions. City and state officials subdued inmates with canisters of gas, placed prison organizers in solitary confinement, restricted what little privileges inmates received, and armed police officers and prison guards with guns and rifles. Prison activists at Michigan’s Kinross Correctional Facility were handcuffed with zip ties and left out in the rain for five or six hours. And in Wisconsin, hunger-striking inmates at Waupun Correctional Institution were force-fed through nasal tubes. Contemporary prison activism shows that incarcerated men and women will “never stop struggling against this country’s worst and most punitive practices,” and will continue to “fight to be treated as human beings” (p. 571).

Undoubtedly, writing about the recent past potentially stimulates conversations about modern-day issues. Yet, researching and writing about the recent past is not without challenges. The availability of primary documentation is conceivably a major setback. Throughout the research process, Thompson made countless Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, asking for critical New York State documents—including autopsy and ballistics records and trooper statements—that would offer a broader picture of what happen in September 1971.

Unsurprisingly, her FOIA requests were denied. Presumably, it was not in the best interest of New York State to release such records. Documents reveal evidence tampering and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and other state officials’ decision to forcibly retake the prison no matter who got hurt and their efforts to present the public with an acceptable narrative about the shootings. Records illuminate state politicians’ attempts to cast Attica inmates as brutal savages who mutilated and murdered hostages. Unreleased documents shockingly uncover how officials protected state police and prison guards who slaughtered 39 unarmed prisoners and hostages. Despite New York State’s refusal to release such critical materials to the public, Thompson, with the assistance of individuals who lived through the Attica tragedy and fought on behalf of the survivors, bravely exposes government obstruction and identifies Attica prison guards and State troopers (14 troopers and six correction officers) believed to have killed inmates and hostagesThe release of the shooters’ names has major ramifications for Attica survivors and their families. Such details have the potential to inspire criminal and civil charges against the alleged shooters.   

Blood in The Water is a master lesson on how to write about the recent past. Despite the incredible difficulties in collecting primary documentation, Thompson’s comprehensive account of the nation’s bloodiest prison revolt is meticulously researched; it sparks contemporary conversations about mass incarceration and demonstrates the work of a seasoned scholar. In presenting Attica’s unknown story, Thompson teaches us how to be sensitive to and appreciative of the lives that we as historians write about.

Throughout the pages, Thompson shows compassion toward Attica victims, survivors, and their families. She views Attica as an opportunity to discuss prison conditions, tragic murders, and government obstructionism. Thompson also seems concerned with offering Attica families answers to what happen to their loved ones while exposing New York State’s failure to provide adequate financial support to hostages’ families. But Thompson knows that “even this book can’t promise Attica’s survivors the full story. The state of New York still sits on many secrets.” She does “vow, however, to recount all that [she] was able to uncover, and by doing that, at least, perhaps a bit more justice will be done” (p. xvii).

Heather Thompson’s Blood in the Water is a remarkable book. Providing an account of one of the nation’s most significant human rights stories of the twentieth century, Thompson offers insight on economic and legal injustice, racial discrimination, prison reform and activism, and government corruption. Moreover, Blood in the Water indirectly raises important questions about how we as a society treat one another, especially the over two million men and women incarcerated in federal and state prisons and county jails.

  1. Dan Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2014), 1.
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LaShawn Harris

LaShawn Harris is an Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University. Her area of study focuses on twentieth century United States History. She is the author of the award-winning book 'Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy' (University of Illinois Press, 2016). Follow her on Twitter @madameclair08.