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Book Review: Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, by Dr. Heather Ann Thompson
(Pantheon Books, 2016). 752 pages, $24.00 (hardcover)

Book review by Alan Mills

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. 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 tears from their eyes. I join that group. But as difficult as it is, this is a story that must be told.

On September 9, 1971, almost 1,300 prisoners took over a yard at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. As prisoners returned from breakfast, they broke down the gate and took over the yard and a wing of the prison. They seized several employees as hostages.

The prisoners quickly became organized, created a security committee and elected spokespeople. They negotiated for the release of 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 racial discrimination. State officials agreed to those demands. However, the one divisive issue was amnesty. One guard was severely injured during the takeover and died a few days later. For the prisoners, that meant some or all of them would potentially face a life sentence.

Rather than continue negotiations, Governor Nelson Rockefeller authorized the state police to retake the prison. A helicopter dropped powerful tear gas into the yard, immobilizing the prisoners. Then the state police and prison guards unleashed their pent-up fury, opening fire indiscriminately. Twenty-nine prisoners were slaughtered, along with 10 of the hostages.

Thompson describes both the retaking of the prison, and the beatings inflicted by the guards over the next week, in 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. The state’s brutality is inescapable.

All of the hostages killed in the retaking of Attica were shot to death by law enforcement; none were injured by the prisoners. Yet over the following decades, New York did whatever it could to shift blame from state employees to the prisoners. This cover-up started immediately.

In the end, the state agreed to precisely the amnesty that the prisoners had demanded. Had it done so at the beginning, the uprising would have ended peacefully; instead, 39 people died and hundreds of lives were destroyed.

Attica is doubly important because of when it occurred: at the birth of mass incarceration in the United States. Attica happened right as the nation’s prison population began to increase exponentially.

For years, I have said that we made a huge mistake in this country in the early 70s. As we locked up more people, prisons became overcrowded and prisoners began to rebel. We decided that the people in prison were bad people, and we needed 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 doubled down again and built “supermax” prisons.

But I was wrong; we did not make a “mistake.” The government 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 we force prisoners to rebel. But there is another narrative – that given half a chance, prisoners will inflict obscene violence on guards. The facts of Attica do not support the latter narrative. Nonetheless, Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon pushed that perception publicly. Rockefeller enacted the harshest drug laws in the country. By 1980, corrections departments nationwide began to abandon any pretense of rehabilitation, telling the public that “nothing works” to rehabilitate criminals. In the 90s, the rapid increase in prison populations nationwide swamped any attempts at reform. Today, prison conditions are worse than they were in 1971.

Dr. Thompson has demonstrated, citing hundreds of sources, that mass incarceration is built on a lie; the only murderous rioters at Attica were the state troopers and prison guards. Perhaps knowing this truth will allow us to begin to return justice to our criminal injustice system.

Blood in the Water is available from Amazon and other booksellers; it is currently only available in hardcover. 

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