In September 1971, roughly 1,000 prisoners at Attica Correctional Facility near Rochester, NY rioted and took some 40 guards and civilians as hostages. After several days of tense and complex negotiations involving the prisoners, outside observers, and the state of New York, the uprising was brutally crushed.
The Attica uprising dominated the news at the time. But as the years passed, the details of the story faded. And, perhaps since prisoners are not generally regarded as a sympathetic group, it is little known today beyond those who study criminal justice.
Thanks to Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, a magnificently comprehensive study of the incident by University of Michigan professor Heather Ann Thompson, this important event is likely to now receive the attention that it merits.
Thompson sets the stage by noting that even by the standards of the time, Attica was a hellhole. Prisoners were systematically underfed (the state spent 63 cents per day on food for each inmate) and their mail was censored (or simply destroyed if it happened to be in Spanish, a language prison officials did not speak). They were only allowed one bar of soap and a single roll of toilet paper a month. They got to shower once a week. Medical care and dental care were infrequent and substandard. Discipline was swift, arbitrary, and severe.
The rioters’ initial list of demands mostly focused on these basic issues and for a while it looked as if a settlement might be reached. But there was a huge sticking point: The prisoners wanted amnesty for their actions during the uprising but a guard had been killed when the riot started and there was no way that the state would grant amnesty, even though the hostages themselves pleaded with the state to do so. As time went by, tensions rose and positions hardened and, eventually, the state allowed New York State Police, the National Guard and assorted volunteers to retake the facility.
They were not trained for the task and poorly supervised. They carried weapons designed to cause the greatest possible carnage. Within 30 minutes, some 130 inmates and hostages had been shot: 29 prisoners and 9 hostages died. The prisoners who survived were subject to an orgy of official violence with, Thompson says, even medical officials committing acts of torture.
But the Attica nightmare was just beginning. Led by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the state launched a systematic effort to prevent a full investigation or exposure of the abuses that had taken place. A meeting shortly after the riot was held at Rockefeller’s house to allow those who had approved the retaking of the prison to agree on a story. Several state investigative panels were empaneled (and systematically undermined) and a large number of prisoners were indicted.
No charges were ever filed against those who retook the prison despite clear evidence that excessive and reckless use of force had been commonplace. Thompson makes clear that evidence was destroyed to make such a step impossible and, whenever investigators seemed to be getting close, their efforts were shut down by the state.
Eventually, public interest lawyers successfully sued the state and many of the prisoners killed or injured during the retaking (or their estates) received modest settlements. Ironically, the last group to settle were the survivors of the hostages. After promising to take care of them, the state quickly sent workers’ compensation checks to the families of the deceased. They neglected to tell them that cashing the check meant foregoing the right to sue the state for any damages. The last monetary settlement came in 2005 – more than three decades after the riot.
The savage retaking of the prison and the vengeance meted out afterward to the prisoners who survived makes for grim reading. A few of the public officials involved in this long saga deserve praise, such as Dr. John Edland, the Rochester Medical Examiner who insisted – despite great pressure from state officials – that the hostages had been killed by weapons fired by those retaking the prison. Or New York State Judge Michael Telesca, who brokered settlements of the suits filed against the state by the prisoners and families of the hostages. But the list of public servants who acted nobly is distressingly short.
It is commonplace to suggest that trust in government was shattered in the 1970s by revelations about the Vietnam War and Watergate. Attica should be on the list as well. But, thanks to the cover up organized by the state officials, the extent of government misconduct was never widely known.
Thompson’s book is a masterpiece of historical research; it is thoroughly researched, extensively documented and reads like a novel. Her sympathies clearly lie with the prisoners and the families of the hostages but the analysis is fair and evenhanded.
There is some controversy surrounding the book because Thompson identifies by name individuals who may have killed inmates during the retaking, even though they were never charged with any wrongdoing. It’s not clear that such speculation is even needed – the catalogue or abuses and litany of mistakes are extensive enough to represent a strong indictment of everyone involved in the retaking. So readers can decide for themselves whether it was necessary or desirable to identify individuals for alleged misconduct.
Despite the exhaustive research, Thompson makes clear that there are many official records that are still under lock and key. Indeed, she writes of revisiting one of the large archives where she uncovered some of the most useful documents only to discover that the materials had been moved. Nobody will admit to knowing where they went. In short, even 45 years later, the cover up continues.
Perhaps at some distant time we will have the absolutely definitive historical study of the Attic prison riot. Until we do, "Blood in the Water" will provide the most accurate, complete, and horrifying record.