Attica (ăt′ ĭ-kə) n. An ancient region of east-central Greece around Athens. According to Greek legend, the four Attic tribes were unified into a single state by the Athenian king Theseus.
Today the word Attica is almost instructional. Two words — “fight back ”— have supplanted its meaning. Fifty years ago this month, that’s what the incarcerated men in Attica State Prison in the state of New York did in an attempt to call attention to their grievances.
A five-day seizure of the prison by unarmed inmates led to what is by far the most egregiously planned state-sponsored massacre of prisoners in U.S. history.
Blood in the Water (2016), by Heather Ann Thompson, portrays a plain truth: “that many men at Attica went to bed hungry.” As one correctional officer stated, “…if you can spend an extra dollar on feeding, it would solve a lot of our problems.”
Core demands made by inmates at Attica are much like those in today’s prison industrial complex. Thompson outlines some basic demands, such as for the state to establish an inmate grievance system, stop mistreatment, to be paid a minimum wage, and “stop slave labor.” And, they wanted to end all censorship of newspapers and magazines.
As the decade of the 1960s turned, Thompson describes how “…the profile of the average prisoner coming to Attica had changed.” No surprise, “Many more prisoners were young, politically aware, and determined to speak out when they saw injustices in the facility. These were Black and Brown youth who had been deeply impacted by the civil rights struggles of this period…”
Thompson does a superb job exposing the treacherous circumstances that steered the prisoners’ rebellion and developed from a work stoppage, to taking hostages, negotiations, and the take-back of the prison by guards who used extreme violence and deadly force.
There is no protagonist in Blood in the Water, but a more subtle inference that draws a connection between George Jackson’s killing at San Quentin, three weeks earlier, social conditions and the prisoners’ uprising at Attica. Readers who have insightful knowledge about prison may conclude not much has changed, and that the powers that be continue to transgress.
As one prisoner at Attica said before the 1971 rebellion, “…if there are any lives lost in here, and if a massacre takes place…in the final analysis the world will know that the animals were not in here, but outside running the system and the government.”
The 50th anniversary of the Attica uprising coincides with the 10th anniversary of the 2011 prisoner-led hunger strike in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to end long-term isolation in Security Housing Units.
Thompson’s descriptions of events center readers’ attention on the incredible world of incarcerated men who are at the mercy of overwhelming totalitarian state power, and its willingness to exact vengeance upon the downtrodden held in its care. What follows is the concealment of additional crimes committed by state officials in the aftermath.
Each chapter details a remarkable account of history, beginning with the siege of the prison on Sept. 9, 1971, and ending in violence on Sept. 13. “Ultimately,” Thompson writes, “the human cost of the retaking was staggeringly high: 128 men were shot — some of them multiple times.”
More importantly, nine hostages were killed by prison guards and law enforcement that provided mutual aid. Twenty-nine prisoners were fatally wounded too. Many of the deaths, both hostages and prisoners, were caused by “the scatter of buckshot… others resulted from the devastating impact of unjacketed bullets.”
Who did what? One might ask. Thompson’s research places accountability on “The New York State Police, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, and Attica’s correction officers and correction officials from as far away as the Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock.”
No prisoners had firearms, yet “…a total of 33 rifles had been sent to Attica in preparation for the retaking, and 217 shotguns had been passed out to the troopers from various troop supply trucks,” Thompson writes. “There were also uncounted numbers of personal weapons.”
No details are spared, including the great lengths the author says the state went to hide evidence and the truth, to avoid accepting responsibility, or more importantly, civil liability for the carnage left in the wake of its crimes.
The takeaway underscores a point many prisoners understand only too well. That is, if prison officials settle a suit, it is tantamount to an apology, or tacit admission of unlawful activity. The state, as Thompson shows, refuses to admit any wrongdoing.
I had the good fortune to meet Thompson shortly after the publication of Blood in the Water. At the time, she said it took her about 13 years to research and write her book. The 578 pages are indexed and backed by endnotes that direct scholars and naysayers to court transcripts, legal briefs, personal interviews, websites, news stories and other documents. This is where at least some truth is revealed.
No stone is left unturned. From President Richard Nixon to New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, down to prosecutors and rank-and-file guards, Thompson illustrates that the state was complicit in the demise of dozens of lives — including some of its own.
To be sure, Blood in the Water is also a survivors’ story where we learn about the Forgotten Victims of Attica (FVOA), families of slain officers who waited decades to receive compensation for the deaths and injuries of their loved ones at the prison.
Everyone was expendable, as Thompson makes clear: “New York’s Attica prosecutors had far more evidence to work with than the lack of law enforcement indictments implied, even for some of the most high-profile prisoner killings,” but the state failed or refused to do what it asks of its prisoners, and that is to accept responsibility.
Throughout the book, Thompson uses clear details and facts to keep readers engaged, cover to cover, in what feels like a page-turning novel where the roles of heroes and villains are reversed. Yet, readers feel comfortable learning the naked truth.
In the end, some FVOA “…saw that the prisoners and (correctional officers) had both been sacrificed by the state and thus that they weren’t each other’s enemies.”
In terms of state failure, today the word Attica could be supplanted with COVID. Not much has changed, but hopefully reading books such as Blood in the Water may spark change in the trajectory of current calamities in America’s penal colonies and produce improved results 50 years from now.
“And let it here be noted that men are either to be kindly treated, or utterly crushed since they can revenge lighter injuries, but not graver. Wherefore the injury we do to a man should be of a sort to leave no fear of reprisals.” —The Prince, by Niccolo Michiavelli