What a 1971 Prison Revolt Tells Us About Incarceration Today

A new book uncovers the complicated, disturbing history of the uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility.

Rebellious inmates in Attica give the black power salute while Commissioner R.G. Oswald negotiates with leaders of the takeover. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 6, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

For 13 years, historian Heather Ann Thompson has been chasing state secrets. From dusty boxes of bloodstained, forgotten inmate uniforms to myriad government-records requests to decades-old corrections officers’ grievance forms, Thompson worked tirelessly to construct the first comprehensive history of the 1971 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility. Her new book, Blood in the Water, traces the four-day revolt led by prisoners who demanded better living conditions in the maximum-security facility outside Buffalo, New York.

In the end, 29 prisoners and 10 corrections officers were killed, and 89 more people were wounded after state police stormed the facility in a cloud of tear gas and a hail of bullets. Authorities told the public that prisoners had slit the throats of a corrections officer held hostage, strengthening the nation’s growing anxiety around crime and bolstering the lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key ideology that drove the country’s prison population through the roof in recent decades. Autopsies later revealed that all the hostages were shot by police, provoking a congressional investigation. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

TakePart: What was it like to dig into a history that is so closely guarded by the state?

Heather Ann Thompson: The story of doing the book sometimes feels as complicated as the book itself. These places of confinement, which are state and federal institutions, are public—yet it’s extremely difficult to get access or know what happens to our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, at taxpayer expense and in the public’s name. In addition to all of that, Attica was a story that state actors were deeply invested in not having fully revealed or talked about from the moment it happened. The closer I got to really understanding the story, to the names that were most important in the cover-up or to the parties that were most instrumental in making this all go away—that’s when everything started to dry up.

TakePart: In that process, what were some of the most shocking or interesting things you learned?

Thompson: My first lucky break was finding this cache of records in an Erie County courthouse. They were records of the presiding judge in the Attica criminal cases, and I think they were there by accident. That was the most pivotal find, and they were exactly what I needed to piece together what the state knew and when they knew it.

Even I have to admit I was at times startled and sickened by what I read and learned. The Attica story goes on for 45 years, and at every step of the way, people with power—from the lowest-level clerk at the state insurance fund to local judges to state politicians to the Rockefeller administration to the White House—nobody did the right thing. Nobody stepped in to help these guys who were being tortured and abused, and nobody helped the hostages, who had been swindled by the government.

TakePart: What holes were you not able to fill that still bother you?

Thompson: I’d love to really understand the connections between decisions made at Attica and the federal government, specifically the presidency of Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell. I have a bit of evidence that they were involved from the beginning, but I feel like it’s the tip of the iceberg. I’d also like to know more for the survivors—I want to know the full story and have all of the records of who did what and when so there can be some healing.

TakePart: As a scholar of mass incarceration, you’ve written about many facets of the criminal justice system. How did you land on Attica for the book?

Thompson: Attica came first. I was a civil rights and labor historian, and I saw a short documentary about Attica. It blew me away: a civil rights movement going on behind bars. I began to see the world differently and to understand how central the criminal justice system is to how everything works in the nation. I don’t know what I will write next, but I know it will always be in the orbit of this issue now. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

TakePart: How does the book work to illuminate problems facing prisoners today?

Thompson: On the one hand, Attica was profoundly important because it put a check on the state, and it still does. It still resonates with prisoners, and it represents their ability and right to demand to be treated like humans. But it’s a dual legacy, because it was also spun to the public with so many falsehoods and lies. Those lies about [the prisoners’ violence] soured a nation on prisoners’ rights, made a generation of people more punitive and in turn their children more retributive. Prisons are actually much worse today than Attica was.

TakePart: Are you optimistic about the current movement for criminal justice reform?

Thompson: I’m optimistic that millions of family members of incarcerated people aren’t going to stop speaking up and that people aren’t going to just go away on this issue of police shootings and the abuse of drug laws. But that is tempered by the fact that I very much worry that these bipartisan discussions of reform do not acknowledge that you can’t just reduce the prison population; you have to invest in those structures that make people healthy and whole on the other end. We have not addressed the fundamental question of why we as a country try to fix social problems through the criminal justice system rather than social welfare and public health systems. Until we do that, it’s kind of a shell game.