Editor’s Note: Kevin Patrick Kelly’s “Towards A Millennial Revolution” is published every Monday OR Wednesday.
Forty-five years after the prison uprising at Attica, much of it remains shrouded in mystery. Even more revealing, most Millennials and Americans are unfamiliar with the prisoner rebellion. Thankfully, the brilliant historian and University of Michigan Professor Heather Ann Thompson has penned a new book, “Blood in the Water,” that not only tells the story of inmates demanding basic human rights, but also unearths new information that those who wish to perpetuate the system of mass incarceration would prefer be kept secret.
During our conversation, Thompson describes the conditions that led the inmates in Attica to throw off their shackles and how the lessons of Attica can be applied to prisons across the nation in the present day.
Kevin Patrick Kelly: What were some of the conditions that led to the uprising in Attica?
Heather Ann Thompson: Well, very much like today, prisons in 1971 were terrible, terrible institutions that had not just the job of confining people, but depriving them of basic things like sufficient food, people were being fed on sixty-three cents a day, insufficient sanitary supplies. They were given a bar of soap a month, a square of toilet paper a day, a shower every week, and also there was just terrible medical care. Terrible rules regarding censorship and really, basic human rights issues such as the ability to get dental care. For many of these guys, their teeth were falling out. Again, these are the kind of issues that led people to first write letters to their state senator or try to petition the commissioner, but it got them nowhere. Again, I just keep drawing the parallels of today. After first trying to beg for improvements and getting nowhere, eventually the frustration and desperation lead these men to take over the prison.
KPK: After the uprising began, what were some of the demands of the prisoners?
HAT: Well, what was really interesting is that after the initial chaos of the takeover, the guys in the yard elected representatives to speak for them. Two representatives out of each of the cellblocks, and they stood up in the front of the group … and hashed out what those demands would be with the whole group. All the demands were voted upon and so it took a list as to what the final list of demands were, in the initial mix there were some that management considered a bit “out there,” but ultimately the list is about thirty-two demands which are, again as you point out, very basic. Things like, livable wages for the work that prisoners were forced to do in the prison so that they could afford that extra soap or the extra food that they needed. Things like religious freedom. So that, for example, Muslims could have the ability to eat something other than pork.
Things like new clear parole rules. Back during that time, you could get parole, but you couldn’t get out of prison. They would had you a phone book, an outdated phone book, and they would tell you that you had to write to an employer and that employer had to hire you before you could be let out. Of course, the guys had to buy their own stamps, buy their own paper, buy their own envelopes. So you could imagine. People were never getting out of prison even if they had parole.
Also, things like getting rid of the particular warden, that was important at the times because he was abusive. Things like getting better doctors. Things like getting corrections officers who also spoke Spanish because a lot of the prisoners were Puerto Rican and couldn’t understand some of the things that were being demanded of them by prison management.
KPK: A central character in your book is Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller. You document that he did not intend to negotiate with the prisoners. Do you think he had ulterior motives for this decision? Or was his intention always to use brute force?
HAT: I think that the evidence shows that it was both. Rockefeller was very, very clearly one of the most politically ambitious men of his day. He had wanted to be the President of the United States for some time and he was a liberal Republican and his party was becoming increasingly conservative. There is no question that Attica was his moment, where he could not look like he was “soft on crime.” But it’s also the case that —
Again, this was a time of enormous tension between the government and the Black community. It was on the zenith of the Civil Rights Movement and it’s pretty clear to me looking at these documents particularly conversations between him and Nixon that it’s beyond ambition. It was about making sure that poor Black folks who were daring to speak out were going to be put in their place. As evidence of that, he commissioned the state police to retake the prison who basically have no training whatsoever, and who everybody on the scene is telling him they are going to commit a massacre if they go in and he does it anyway. So, I think it is beyond political motivation, but there is no question that he’s got his eye on the White House.
KPK: After the uprising was suppressed, were there any meaningful reforms passed?
HAT: It’s interesting because there were some brilliant reforms that come out of Attica. It is important not to minimize those. If one would look back at Attica after the last forty years, it’s easy to say, the only thing that happened after Attica is that prisons got worse, which they did. At least in the immediate aftermath, a lot of important reforms, a lot of key things that the Attica Brothers had wanted do get implemented not just at Attica, but other state New York prisons. Arguably New York’s system overall becomes much more progressive than systems in a lot of other states. There is no question that is linked to Attica.
So, things like having inmate committees established, things like relaxing visitation rules, things like improving the parole system. In fact there is a New York Times article, if you are curious, that compares or lists what the improvements were that came out of Attica and whether or not they made a difference. I think many would say, no. None of these things had lifelong impacts. The repression was too enormous, but at least in the moment there was serious reform and what that shows is that it indeed it took people standing together in this dramatic fashion to get anything to change because nothing had changed from the basic letter writing and filing of complaints.
KPK: Shifting to today, do you find it ironic that there are many Republicans who have repudiated the Rockefeller legacy? Now, you have Republicans like Rand Paul pushing for criminal justice reform.
HAT: I think what it shows is that the backlash to the Civil Rights movement and the backlash to events such as Attica, was so catastrophic. It was so overkill that today we face a situation where we have a major, major crisis on our hands. It’s a human rights crisis. It’s a financial/economic crisis. Now, for politicians to endorse these proposals still, it forces them to ask themselves really hard questions about the budget, about human rights, and really in Rand Paul’s case about the reach of government. About the right whether the government has the right to regulate to such an extent, that we now have seven and a half million people in the system.
It is ironic, but it’s also so interesting to me that we are maybe perhaps coming full circle back to that moment when Attica happened because the conditions are so bad, prisoners are rising up again, politicians are again being placed in the position where they have to take a stand on criminal justice reform and again, we are in a moment of possibility. If we do not learn the lessons of Attica, if we do not understand that it cost the entire society so much that we overreact to prisoners basic demands for human right.
If we do not learn that lesson, God help us in terms of what will be on the other side of this. How much more repressive could it get?
KPK: One of the correlations that I have noticed between the abuse of prisoners and the killings of unarmed African Americans is that the detractors always demand to see some form of video of the abuse occurring in real-time. Do you think one of the reasons prison abuse is not widely reported is because we need to see some form of video evidence? Is that where we are at as a society?
HAT: Well, I think that is an excellent, excellent point. Primarily because what is shows is — Well, first of all we would not know the half of what we know about Attica had in not been for the fact of the state police in their really barbaric attitude were filming and taking pictures of so much of the abuse that they actually engage in. So, that’s interesting right? We have a lot of our documentation of the horrors of Attica from law enforcement. It’s also the case though that for decades and decades and decades, nobody believed anybody at Attica because those tapes were hidden and protected. So, nobody believed the atrocities happening in Attica.
Today it is a similar situation. Police do have footage of a lot of what they do wrong, but they don’t release it. Today, just like then, one of the ways we know what’s happening is from the people themselves. They refuse to just keep letting it happen so they speak out and today, unlike back in the day, there is now technology in the hands of the victims. They can tape it when someone is shooting their husband to death or someone is committing an act of brutality on the part of law enforcement. I think it is one of these moments where we still don’t believe it until we see it. We still have a hard time seeing it because law enforcement does not want to disperse their own footage to the public and yet today, the victims keep trying to show us, keep trying to tell us. I find it very interesting that even today, even with evidence, people doubt it. People want even more than visual proof.
KPK: The mainstream media is not covering it, but right now prisoners are engaging in a massive protest to draw attention to the poor conditions they are currently living in. Similar to how the Attica inmates had a team of advisers, if you were advising these prisoners, what would you tell them to do?
HAT: First of all, that there is a long history for what they are trying to achieve and that in that sense they are not alone. Prisoners throughout American history have erupted because it’s the only way they can bring attention to the human rights abuses where they live and where they are locked up. I would also tell them that they really, really need outside allies. They need people on the outside to keep banging on those doors to demand to see what’s going on inside and to help represent their interest. Frankly, had there not been those people on the outside of Attica, God knows what would have happened.
Outside activists and lawyers and ordinary community folks just kept demanding what are you doing to those guys inside? What are the consequences of them rising up? Filing injunctions against the abuse and trying to get in to make sure those guys were okay and I feel like right now, they need that. God knows what is happening inside of these institutions and retaliation … again, they are closed institutions. So, when they dare to rise up, the price they pay is staggeringly high and so they need to have outside allies to continue that fight for them and help them with that fight. Not because they cannot articulate what they need or what they want, but because they are at the mercy of … prison management, the law, and law enforcement. My advice would be to get the story out. Try everything they can do. Write letters to the outside about what is really going on.
END NOTES: More information on “Blood in the Water” and Heather Ann Thompson’s appearances can be found at the following link.
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