The same year President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” and before the major spike in the prison population due to the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, there was the prison uprising at Attica in 1971. Long before the term “prison industrial complex” came into parlance, and 45 years before Netflix released Ava DuVernay’s 13th, documenting the disenfranchisement and pernicious effects of mass incarceration of African-Americans, there was Attica. In Blood in the Water, Heather Thompson scrupulously, and masterfully, tells how the poor and disenfranchised men at the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, took over the prison on September 9, 1971, in a desperate attempt to have their grievances heard. Thompson explains and carefully documents how the State of New York quashed their rebellion with no regard for their lives, and little regard for the safety of their hostages. Thompson also exposes the State of New York’s decades-long fight against compensating any of the surviving inmates, their hostages, or the families of hostages who were killed by state police and correctional officers.
Thompson’s book is meticulously documented, relying on transcripts, police reports, interviews, and other reports and papers, covering not only the Attica uprising but also its aftermath spanning 35 years. She describes how difficult it was to gain access to many of the police reports and documents, which government agencies had long-withheld from public scrutiny. Using this primary source material, Thompson crafts a compelling story that touches upon themes that our nation has faced for decades—mass incarceration, racial tensions, law enforcement brutality, and government officials all too ready to spread fake news and shift blame to hide their tragic blunders.
More than recounting what occurred, Thompson attempts to explain why from the perspectives of the prisoners, correction officers, and government officials. Thompson gives a detailed account the horrendous conditions that led to the uprising, focusing on widespread malnourishment, unhealthy living conditions, and a work system that was tantamount to forced labor. She describes these conditions with sufficient depth and ample documentation that leads readers to feel the prisoners’ desperation. She also gives a balanced description of the correctional officers, many of whom had complained both about the living conditions of the inmates and their own safety concerns. Finally, Thompson uses interviews, news reports, and other documents to help the reader understand the tone-deaf governmental officials involved.
Even the correction officers at Attica were upset by the conditions, with one stating “if you can spend an extra dollar on feeding, it would solve a lot of our problems.”
At Attica, prisoners worked for as little as 6 cents a day, and even the highest-paid prisoners earned less than $3 per day. The prison work system was steeped with institutionalized racism. The prison population was 37 percent white, yet white prisoners held twice as many of the higher-paying jobs, while African American and Puerto Rican prisoners held nearly all of the lowest-paying jobs.
Prisoners received the barest of necessities. Prisoners routinely went to bed hungry, surviving on a prison food budget of 63 cents per day per prisoner. The prison also provided few necessities for free, such as one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper a month, and one shower a week. Prisoners had to purchase everything else from their meager wages, and half of all wages were withheld until their release.
Even the correction officers were upset by the conditions, with one stating “if you can spend an extra dollar on feeding, it would solve a lot of our problems.” The prison was also chronically understaffed, and correction officers had repeatedly complained of their unsafe working conditions. These and other horrible conditions persisted against a backdrop of medical care for prisoners that was either withheld or indifferently provided. Reading the book, one wonders if prison officials could have done anything more to intensify both the desperate conditions and racial animosity.
In response to these dire conditions in the summer of 1971, the prisoners drafted a list of demands for reform addressed to the prison commissioner Russell Oswald. The demands focused on improvements in living and working conditions, religious freedom for Muslims, and changes in the medical staff and procedures. The draft ended: “These demands are being presented to you. There is no strike of any kind to protest these demands. We are trying to do this in a democratic fashion.” Although Oswald replied that he was going to give careful consideration to the reforms requested, the summer past without Oswald or prisoner officials taking any positive actions.
By early September, tensions in the prison had heightened and Oswald agreed to visit Attica in person and meet with representatives of the prisoners. Instead of talking to the prisoners in person, Oswald left a taped message. A few days later, guards beat a prisoner for refusing an order, and other prisoners thought he was dead. Tensions mounted, and both prisoners and guards were on edge. The next day, September 9, the uprising began, when prisoners seized control of the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York.
State police and correction officers quickly secured most of the prison, but nearly 1,300 prisoners held several hostages, mostly prison guards, in an exercise field called D Yard. Close to start of the uprising, one guard was seriously injured, and he died a short time later after several inmates carried him to a gate where he could be evacuated. The inmates also released other guards who needed medical attention, and the remaining 39 hostages were kept safe and protected by the inmates. Four days into the prison takeover, guards being held hostage described their treatment to the press as “nothing but fine treatment,” and “[w]e all have been treated 100 percent, been fed well, gave us blankets, slept on mattresses while they [prisoners] slept on the ground, medication was given to us when they didn’t get any.”
When one guard, Captain Frank “Pappy” Wald, was asked by Tom Wicker, The New York Times journalist serving as an observer, if Mr. Wald had anything to say to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Mr. Wald “pleaded with the governor to do ‘anything you can’ to try to save lives.” Instead of heeding this plea, Governor Rockefeller broke off negotiations and authorized a massive use of force to regain D Yard.
State police and correction officers ended the uprising with “a white cloud [of tear gas] that immediately made people throw up,” and “gas-mask shrouded troopers poured onto the catwalks with guns blazing.” After firing more than 3,000 rounds for approximately 12 minutes into the crowd of hostages and inmates, none of whom had firearms, 128 men had been shot. The indiscriminate barrage of gunfire from troopers and correction officers ultimately tallied up a death toll of 9 hostages and 29 prisoners, some of whom were killed after troopers had control of the prison. Thompson describes, “Many of the deaths in D Yard—both hostages and prisoners—were cause by the scatter of buckshot and still others resulted from the devastating impact of unjacketed bullets.”
The state police and other officials threatened and intimidated the medical examiner in an attempt to have him falsify the autopsies to cover-up the fact that all but one person killed died at the hands of state police and correction officials. When the medical examiner, who feared for his safety and his family’s safety, refused to take part in the attempted cover-up, Governor Rockefeller, who was ultimately responsible for the horrible bloodshed, ordered the bodies re-examined by another medical examiner.
Within hours after officials had regained control of the prison, a public relations officer began to spin events and claimed that the dead hostages had their throats cut by prisoners. The lies multiplied to include tales of a guard being castrated and other hostages having their faces mutilated. Newspapers printed these false versions of events, only to retract the stories days later when the unvarnished truth came out—the hostages had died from the hail of bullets and buckshot. Only one hostage, who died soon after the prison yard was occupied, died from injuries caused by prisoners before the state regained control of Attica.
The state police and other officials threatened and intimidated the medical examiner in an attempt to have him falsify the autopsies to cover-up the fact that all but one person killed died at the hands of state police and correction officials. When the medical examiner, who feared for his safety and his family’s safety, refused to take part in the attempted cover-up, Governor Rockefeller, who was ultimately responsible for the horrible bloodshed, ordered the bodies re-examined by another medical examiner. When that second attempt to shift the blame to the prisoners also failed and the truth was out, officials simply maintained that the extreme use of force was necessary.
Thompson uses nearly two-thirds of her book to tell the story of the Attica aftermath, starting with the attempted cover-up, then moving to the state investigations, the prosecutions of the prisoners, the failure to bring any charges against the police or corrections officers despite ample evidence to support charges, and the lawsuits brought by inmates and the families of the hostages. She also shines a light on how the state conspired to deny meaningful compensation for the families of the hostages by arguing that the small workers’ compensation checks the widows cashed forfeited their right to sue for damages.
In addition, Thompson documents the long and torturous lawsuits by the prisoners and the families of the hostages against the state that ultimately, after three decades, gave paltry settlements to the inmates and families of the hostages. Despite the web of lies, deceit, and denial by state officials, the State of New York never apologized or admitted any wrong.
In an era of fake news and “alternative facts,” Thompson’s book points out that today’s problems echo those of the past. Like the growth in the prison population, they have been magnified greatly.
Although Thompson details tragic events that should have never happen, she also points out the heroes and heroines—the brave medical examiners, the good guards, the inmates who risked their own lives to protect hostages, the widows and the children of hostages who pressed their claims against the state, and the lawyers for the prisoners and families of correction officers who battled the state for decades to win some compensation for those wronged. Thompson weaves the history of Attica and its aftermath into a very readable, interesting, and at times gripping book. Almost every page contains some revelation that the State of New York tried mightily to suppress.
It is hard to read Blood in the Water and not think of 2016 rather than 1971, however. Things have not seemed to change for the better when it comes to prisons in the United States, where the number of persons in prison has grown more than five-fold. Nor have local, state, or the federal governments ceased using cover-ups and denials when they act wrongly. In an era of fake news and “alternative facts,” Thompson’s book points out that today’s problems echo those of the past. Like the growth in the prison population, they have been magnified greatly.