BLOOD IN THE WATER: THE ATTICA PRISON UPRISING OF 1971 AND ITS LEGACY by Heather Ann Thompson

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On September 9, 1971 the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York forced its way into newspaper headlines across the United States.  On that day roughly 1300 prisoners took control of the facility in response to years of mistreatment and harassment.  In American history there have been many violent protests that have led to the death or wounding of those who took part.  Whether they involved Native-Americans, Vietnam anti-war demonstrators, organized labor, or Afro-Americans the causes and results of these events were documented and analyzed carefully by historians.  In the case of Attica, where 40 individuals, prisoners and hostages were killed and hundreds wounded, government officials placed immediate road blocks to thwart an objective investigation.  Government officials did not want the truth to come out, particularly New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his administration because of errors in judgement and outright incompetence when hundreds of poorly trained New York State troopers and prison guards were sent into the facility with shotguns blazing.  The Rockefeller administration immediately put out misinformation about what occurred, particularly when autopsies showed that the hostages were killed by indiscriminate gun fire, and not by prisoners.  Coroners were pressured to bury the truth as were other officials who disagreed with prison administrators and Rockefeller and his cohorts. It took many years to overcome the opposition to releasing what actually took place.  Finally historian Heather Ann Thompson in her comprehensive history, BLOOD IN THE WATER: THE ATTICA PRISON UPRISING OF 1971 AND ITS LEGACY has addressed all the major issues and individuals involved through her doggedness and refusal to accept no for an answer as she rummaged, researched, filed numerous freedom of information requests, interviewed participants and survivors in her quest to uncover the truth.

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(Bodies and wounded hostages and prisoners after New York State troopers and Correctional guards stormed the prison)

According to Thompson the gap in the historiography pertaining to Attica existed because of the obstruction by those who knew what really occurred and were concerned with the backlash that would result if the truth came to the fore.  Part of that truth were the conditions that existed in Attica as well as many other prisons nationwide.  Thompson describes a system overseen by Attica’s Superintendent Vincent Mancusi that suffered from overcrowding, lack of medical care, poor training of correctional officers, using prisoners as free labor to the tune of $12 million per year, no visitation for common law families, which effected one quarter of the inmate population, a capricious and arbitrary parole system, censorship of reading material and letters, medical experiments, and an overall atmosphere of racism.  The prison itself was built in 1930 and by 1971 its facilities had never been updated to accommodate an increasing number of prisoners whose racial makeup was no longer predominantly white, and the crimes they were incarcerated for did not fit the patina of the 1930s.

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(Prisoners  vote on whether to accept demands of prison officials after riots)

Thompson’s book is very disturbing and the events of September, 1971 were greatly affected by the political climate of the 1960s. At that time politicians moved toward “law and order” planks as demonstrated by the Nixon administration in 1968 and as the 1972 election moved closer.  The “law and order” approach greatly affected the funding and operation of America’s prisons.  As politicians in the north and south saw crime as the greatest problem in society, they decided to wage war against it.  This would lead to the imprisonment of more inmates than in any country in the world.  In New York state Governor Rockefeller, known as a “liberal Republican saw Nixon’s crime agenda as an impediment to his own quest for the presidency.  By 1970 he began to change his image to a more conservative politician who was tough on crime.

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(the remnants of Yard D after the prison was retaken by troopers and guards)

An uprising at the state prison at Auburn, NY was a precursor to events at Attica.  What occurred at Auburn should have served as a wakeup for New York State Prison Commissioner Russell Oswald to investigate inmate grievances, because prisoner reform advocates, New York ACLU lawyers and others were becoming very involved and wanted to investigate prisoner complaints.  The prison population was younger and more politically aware than previous generations.  Members of the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Black Muslims, and Weather Underground placed an emphasis on acquiring knowledge as they worked for improved educational programs.  For them, knowledge meant power and it was used to convince prisoners that what occurred to them on the inside mirrored what was occurring in the outside world.  From that perspective Thompson is correct that Attica was a prison that was about to explode in September, 1971.

The first half of the narrative concentrates on prisoner frustration concerning their treatment and the lack of response by prison officials to their concerns, the seizure of the facility by inmates, the negotiations that were conducted to try and resolve the situation, and the final storming of the facility by New York State troopers and correctional officers.  In so doing Thompson provides intimate details of every important aspect of the crisis.  Thompson takes the reader inside the lives of inmates, negotiators, administrators, correctional officers taken hostage, and individuals brought in from the outside to try and alleviate the situation.  In each section Thompson introduces important individuals to highlight what was about to be covered.  A few of the most powerful are portraits of Michael Smith, a correctional officer who is severely wounded by gunfire; Tom Wicker, a New York Times reporter who was brought in as an observer; Tony Strollo, a New York State trooper whose brother Frank was a correctional officer inside the facility; Elizabeth Fink, a lawyer who defended the prisoners and tried to gain compensation for them and their families; and Malcom Bell, an investigative lawyer who turned whistleblower against the state.   The reader will witness the motives that laid behind the actions of the major participants and how it influenced their behavior.  Thompson leaves no rock unturned as she explores every aspect of her story and reaches the conclusion the massacre that takes place at Attica did not have to happen, but for Rockefeller’s selfish concern for his political career and the party line that “black revolutionaries” and outside agitators were responsible for the uprising, the lack of training provided for the New York State Police for this type of operation, and the seeming stubbornness and vindictiveness of prison officials and many correctional officers in dealing with a situation that had gotten totally out of hand.

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(New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who refused to entertain prisoner demands)

The second half of the narrative encompasses the attempts to cover-up the truth by the Rockefeller administration and statewide prison officials, the brutal treatment of prisoners by correctional officers following the retaking of the prison, the attempts by inmate families, and families of correctional officers (hostages) that were killed to learn the truth.  The obfuscation, misinformation, direct interference to learning the truth, and outright lies dominate the experience of anyone who disagreed with the findings that the leaders of the cover-up who feared what would happen should the truth emerge dominates the narrative.  The atmosphere that the different investigative commissions operated under created a very difficult situation as Thompson is correct in pointing out that “the nation’s most powerful politicians viewed Attica as part and parcel of a revolutionary plot to destabilize the nation as a whole would have profound consequences for how officials, both state and federal, handled official investigations.” (267)  A further impediment to learning the truth were the actions taken by Governor Rockefeller, his staff, prison officials, New York State Police officials and correctional officers to corroborate their stories to make sure they would achieve the outcome they desired from any investigation.

Thompson examines each investigation and then goes on to the legal effort by the families involved to learn the truth and gain compensation and better treatment for those who perished and those who survived.  Overall, it took three years for the state to bring inmates to trial for the uprising.  The most common theme dealt with those who were prosecuted, those who was not, the coercion of inmates to testify, and the uneven field that was created for prisoner defense lawyers.  As Malcom Bell, a lawyer recruited to Special Prosecutor Anthony Simonetti’s team pointed out when he became a “whistle blower” after experiencing the abuses of the prosecution, “it struck [me] as odd that so much effort was going into prosecuting prisoners from Attica when the officers had killed ten times as many people as the inmates had.” (403)  Bell tried to gain support for his findings, even writing a report for Hugh Carey, then the recently elected governor of New York.  After waiting months Bell grew tired and contacted Tom Wicker and the story ran in the New York Times  creating a firestorm.   The overall approach was clear, the prosecution of inmates was of the utmost importance and the case against law enforcement was a much lower priority.  What followed was an investigation of the investigation and perhaps Thompson’s best chapter.

Thompson discusses the prosecution of the prisoners in a very clear and concise manner.  The key conviction that Simonetti’s team sought was the murderer of corrections officer William Quinn.  The Quinn case as with other prosecution cases produced witnesses that were not very credible.  Most had not even been at the scene of the supposed crimes, they had been coerced into testifying, or they were promised early parole, reduced sentences, or total release.  Prejudiced judges in the first two cases gained convictions but once Bell became a whistle blower prosecution tactics began to change particularly when going after New York State police officials where increasing evidence that they interfered with the collection of materials and issued orders designed to protect troopers and themselves emerged.  Men in Simonetti’s office were fully aware that the top brass in the NYSP were hiding and destroying evidence.  Bell grew angrier and sent numerous letter to Simonetti pressuring him to go after State Police officials like Lt. Colonel George Infante, Captain Henry Williams, and Major John Monahan, but the Special Prosecutor chose to ignore Bell’s requests over and over.

The theme of culpability for the Attica uprisings pervades Thompson’s narrative, and like a fish that rots from the head down we see the interference and strategy of the Rockefeller administration throughout.  By the time a number of these cases finally reached trial, Nelson Rockefeller was undergoing Congressional hearings to be approved as Vice President once Richard Nixon resigned.  Angela Davis made the correct comparison when she pleaded before the committee not to approve Rockefeller.  Here was a man who refused any empathy toward the prisoners.  He would not go to the prison, he would not grant any paroles or pardons.  However, President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for his crimes, why couldn’t the Governor of New York do a little of the same?

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(New York Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz

Thompson completes her history of Attica by exploring the long road taken by inmates to seek redress in the New York State courts.  Led by attorney Elizabeth Fink they fought for years to overcome a new round of legal stalling and machinations as inmates, and families of inmates who had passed away fought “the system.”  As in other parts of the narrative Thompson provide minute details as the years passed until the trial of prison administrators in the early 1990s.  Partially successful the next battle would be over monetary damages to the inmates.  Fink led the former prisoners through the labyrinth that was the New York court system and finally in 2000, almost thirty years later a settlement was reached.  This created tension with the families of the forgotten hostages who received nothing from the state despite promises.  They would begin their own war to receive compensation that was somewhat successful, but just as with the prisoner settlement New York State refused to grant them an apology or any admission of wrongdoing for the massacre at Attica.

Reading Thompson’s study can be exhausting due to the detail and the emotion in which the author presents her material.  However, she has done a wondrous job of research and picking apart the documentation that she uncovered.  For those who lived through the Attica uprising you will be amazed at what Thompson has uncovered.  If you are younger and have never heard or thought about Attica and prison reform this book will be a revelation.

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