Prison Uprisings, From Attica to Today

Prison Uprisings, From Attica to Today

Heather Ann Thompson, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, discusses the uprising and the current wave of prison strikes.

“Attica itself is slightly less overcrowded today than it was in 1971… but it is clearly more punitive.” (Jayu / Flickr)

Since September 9, thousands of prisoners in at least twenty-four states across the country have joined a series of strikes and protests demanding “an end to prison slavery.” The wave of strikes, now entering its fifth week, was timed to coincide with the forty-fifth anniversary of the 1971 Attica Prison uprising, which left twenty-nine inmates and ten hostages dead after a brutal raid by state troopers.

Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy is the first comprehensive history of this pivotal civil rights struggle and the lengths to which the state went to repress it. Here, Thompson discusses how the story came to light, and what it means for prison organizing today. —Editors

Tim Barker: This book is the product of many years of research. Do you remember when you first started thinking about writing a history of Attica, and why you were drawn to it?

Heather Ann Thompson: Probably all the way back in 2001 or 2002. My first book was coming out, and I was thinking about the importance of writing civil rights history that we thought we knew, but we didn’t really know very much about, and Attica looms large as one of those events. Everyone seems to know the name “Attica,” but in terms of the details of what had brought 1,300 men together—the most marginal men, because they were behind bars—to stand up for human rights, I’m not sure we knew that story. More importantly, I couldn’t figure out why there had been so little on the fact that this particular protest had ended with such extraordinary bloodshed. So I decided to pursue the book primarily as a civil rights story, not really knowing much about prisons, and the book changed my life for sure. First of all, it became a thirteen-year journey to actually research and write the book because of the state barring access to public records. But it also made me understand how critically important prisons were to every facet of American society.

Barker: You say that one reason you found out that the book hadn’t been written yet is that the state had gone to such pains to prevent people from accessing the records. I was curious to hear your thoughts about the recent announcement, by the New York attorney general’s office and the New York State archives, that they’re creating a new website showcasing documents relating to Attica.

Thompson: That’s incredibly interesting because that announcement came a week, perhaps two weeks after the book was released. There was an enormous amount of media scrutiny over the issue of the records in the wake of the book being published. There’s already been pretty sustained pressure on the part of the hostage survivors to get these records open. So two weeks after the book is out, this website goes live and they get a lot of PR fanfare that they’re going to finally release the Attica records. What they’ve actually said, if you look at their website, is that they are going to release publicly available documents. That’s not the problem. The problem is not the documents that are already public. You know, these are all fairly available. What we need to see is the state’s own records, what it was doing at Attica, what it did in the aftermath of Attica, and what it did in the thirty years of litigation to really deny that anything had happened at Attica. And my attempt to search on their website has not turned up any of those documents. So I think we are sort of getting a bit of a bait and switch here.

Barker: Getting back to Attica, we remember it as a pretty singular event, in part because the outcome was so violent. But it was part of a much bigger wave of prison unrest, both nationwide and in New York state. Could you talk a little bit about that context that people might not know behind the explosion at Attica?

Thompson: Well, first of all, there have been protests in American prisons since their inception. People who are confined behind bars—human beings who are confined in cages—invariably, inevitably, and historically have erupted when conditions become too brutal, and when what is really at stake is their very humanity. So there is a long history of prison uprisings. But in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a particular attention on them, and perhaps an intensification of them, because there were also numerous protests happening on city streets, and there was a civil rights moment where people felt that speaking out actually might make a difference. That was no less true behind bars than it was out in city streets. So across the nation, but certainly in the state of New York, there were a number of really important uprisings, the first being in 1970 in the New York City jail system, and then in Auburn prison right before Attica. So there have been many historically, but particularly around the time of Attica.

Barker: And were they able to win any concessions in those earlier strikes?

Thompson: Absolutely. In all of these uprisings, there has been a lessening of abusive conditions, at least initially. Even at Attica, prior to the uprising, there was a very important strike in the metal shop that netted some important gains in the increase in pay, for example. The problem is that the state’s ability to come back with such repression has compromised many of those gains. Its ability to do that is dependent on the fact that prisons, despite the fact that they are public institutions, have this extraordinary ability to resist inquiry from the outside. They are able to commit abuses and atrocities because they have been able to remain sealed from public inquiry. And it’s an extraordinary thing that they are allowed to do that, considering that they are funded at taxpayer expense and that they are charged with keeping the public safe.

Barker: So you mentioned the strike in the metal shop. The Attica uprising in September 1971 was not exactly a strike, but the prisoners at Attica were all workers—that’s what they did every day. Can you talk about the role that prison labor played in their grievances?

Thompson: Prison labor was fundamental to the rebellion, because everyone understood that not only were they being held in these repressive conditions and underfed and mistreated, they were also being forced to labor, and that labor was exploitative. That the institution actually made items that it was then able to sell to other state institutions, that the prisoners themselves were not given the choice whether to do that labor, and that their labor was being extracted in a way that they likened to slavery—these were some of the prisoners’ fundamental grievances. So one of the most important Attica demands was an end to slave labor. That theme has always been there in American history. Going back to Southern prison plantations, resisting labor was always one of the most important ways to resist prison oppression writ large.

Barker: Besides the violence, another reason that Attica is so famous is that the national news media were allowed in the yard, which you say is the first time Americans got an inside look at a prison rebellion. How did media coverage help create possibilities for the prisoners, and how did it limit them if in any way?

Thompson: That’s a really great question. I think people assume that it’s not all that important whether or not the media is allowed to cover prison protests, because at the end of the day, the institution is going to do what the institution wants to do. But the truth of the matter is that we would not hear what prisoners really needed at Attica, nor would we have any clue as to how badly things had gone once the state ended their protest, had it not been for the media. So the media’s presence during a prison protest was central back in 1971, and it remains central today. That’s the upside—in no small part, the reason I was able to write the book is that the media provided me a tremendous look at the inside of that rebellion. The downside was that, as we see today, the media is all too willing to believe the state’s side of the story. So when the media steps outside in front of Attica and says the prisoners have killed the hostages, that utter lie goes out on the front page of the New York Times, the LA Times, every AP paper in between, and that was a devastating event. It really fueled this carceral state that we’ve been in the process of building these last forty years. The media played a direct and devastating role in that as well.

Barker: As you allude to there, Attica can be seen as the end to an era of sixties protests, but also as the beginning of the kind of mass incarceration we have today.

Thompson: It is absolutely both. It is remarkable evidence of the power of human rights activism and this irrepressible demand for justice. But at the same time, the lies told about what had happened at Attica is the emotional engine that will drive the creation of the punitive carceral state that we have today. The result of that is that prisons today are worse than they were in 1971. It’s a deep and really painful irony. Attica itself, the actual institution, is slightly less overcrowded today than it was in 1971—and that’s only a recent development—but it is clearly more punitive. People do far more time in the box, people do many more years behind bars, and certainly the evidence that we’ve been seeing coming out of Attica suggests that physical abuse is rampant. And that is true across the country. That said, it is very interesting to me that on this forty-fifth anniversary of Attica, while we are surrounded by the oppressive legacy, we are also seeing the importance of that the other legacy, which is that prisoners, no matter where they are, and no matter how repressive the conditions, still insist on speaking out.

Barker: To turn to the strike that was launched on the anniversary (September 9), it’s been fairly difficult to find out exactly what’s going on inside. Do you have a general impression of the strike and its place in post-Attica activism?

Thompson: Yeah, I am delighted to see the journalistic contention on this strike. Much of the mainstream media has dismissed this as either it didn’t happen, or if it did, it was a few lone renegade prisoners trying to make a ruckus, or even that it was some pipe dream of the left on the outside. Attica shows us that, not only can we not trust what state officials say is happening in these institutions, but that it is entirely likely that there is resistance, and that if we are really interested in finding this resistance, we have to go to the source. We have to go to the families of the incarcerated and ask what is happening to their children, we have to go to the local town and talk to the guards and ask what is happening behind those walls, and we have to talk to the incarcerated whenever we can.

My limited access indicates that there have been lots of prisoners who have resisted work in protest, and that there have also been many prisons that have utterly erupted—with 400 prisoners joining the strike in Florida, another 400 in Michigan, to name a few. And not only that, but they are acutely aware that what they are doing is protesting. Despite what corrections officials are saying, this is not gang warfare, this is not just chaos, it is absolutely an act of protest. And I would say further that even corrections officials are now admitting that that’s exactly what’s happening. They call it a riot, but they acknowledge that this disruption is happening. I hope that the media starts putting more attention on what is happening to the prisoners where we know that there has been interruption. For example, in Florida or Michigan, I shudder to imagine the repression that is going on behind those walls right now. Again, the only reason we know what happened after Attica is because the media and the lawyers kept banging on the doors and demanding to be let in. So there’s a lot going on, and I think we have a responsibility to watch out for the people inside now.

Barker: One of the things that you draw out really well in the book is showing how prison guards at Attica were, though certainly not as vulnerable as the prisoners, also very concerned about their safety, and that many of them were aware of the risks that they were running themselves. It seems like there’s been some of that in the current wave of strikes. There were reports out of the Holman prison in Alabama that there’s been high prison guard absenteeism, especially since a guard was stabbed last month.* What role does understanding the experience of prison guards have to play in thinking about this most recent strike?

Thompson: I think it’s critically important. People are often quite surprised when they read my book and find that it does in fact talk about guards as workers, and that it talks about this as an issue that’s important to people who work in corrections as well. I received an email recently from a corrections officer in a county facility, and it was one of the most painful things I’ve ever read. He read the book and said, “Look, you know, it’s even worse now, and we know it. . . . We see the abuse and we see the pain, and we know that this is not sustainable and that it’s terrible.” Guards see horrible things, and the overcrowding and the abuses and the fact that they are understaffed makes them terrified, which in turn makes them dangerous. People who are scared are very self-protective, and they often will be proactively violent to somehow protect themselves. So it is really important we understand prisons not just as places of caging and confinement, but as abusive workplaces as well.

Barker: Thinking about prison guards brings up the question of labor unions, which represent lots of the prison guards and other people in the correctional industry. They’ve been pretty wary of talking about prison labor, much less the possibility of organizing prison laborers. You’ve written at some length about the importance of incarceration in the history of the postwar trade union movement. Could you talk a little bit about that, and if you think there’s a possibility for some more productive engagement between American unions and prison activism?

Thompson: I feel like a bit of a loner sometimes beating this drum, as someone who’s very interested in prison activism but also very interested in labor activism and how those two are intimately connected. We need to be aware that the first racialized mass incarceration, which was in the wake of the Civil War, was also fundamentally about forced labor—the forced labor of African-American prisoners. There were many paths to ending convict leasing, but one of the most important was organized labor. It was the fact that people on the outside understood that when you hold some people in bondage and force them to labor, you actually harm the broader society. You harm working people on the outside as well. That realization was really important, because it helped to build a coalition to end slave labor in prisons.

Fast forward to today: it’s very important that we understand prison reform not just as a human rights issue, but also as a labor issue. We have historical precedents for this, and we must continue to think of it in this way. The good news is that there are certain trade unions that have taken a stand against mass incarceration. I was at the AFL-CIO convention two years ago, for example, and I was startled by the number of times that the president, Rich Trumka, took a very firm position against mass incarceration. I’m also well aware that prison guard unions are in a very tortured position, as are police unions, as to how to position themselves vis-à-vis a reduction of prisons and incarceration in general. I’m not minimizing the thorny issues that trade unions face, but it is imperative that they understand that this is a working-class issue. Not just for guards or for the police, but because mass incarceration renders huge swaths of our society permanently unemployable.

Barker: The recent strike has been distinctive in that it’s put a heavy emphasis on labor. There’s a range of demands, but the most central revolve around unpaid or underpaid prison labor, and the tactic that’s been adopted is one of work stoppages as opposed to hunger strikes. How much leverage do prisoners have by withholding their labor?

Thompson: I think the question you’re asking really touches a nerve because academics are deeply divided about whether or not prison labor matters or not to the broader economy. My position is that it matters a great deal. Whether or not it is a substantial percentage of our GDP, that is not the question. The question is: does the ability to force some people to labor for free have a wage dampening effect on the free world, and is it exploitative, and does it take real jobs out of the free world and put them in a slave-like workplace? To me those answers are unequivocally “yes.” For that reason, prisoners have a great deal of power because they have the ability to refuse to let businesses do whatever they want with their labor force: not pay them, not allow them sick days, and not allow them basic worker rights. So in that sense they have a lot of power, and they could cost companies a lot of money. But implicit in your question is, “Will they really make a difference?” And unfortunately, we know that the price that they pay for their labor organizing is far higher than anyone in the outside world right now. That makes it a very steep struggle.

Barker: In reading your book I was struck that the people at Attica, despite being insurrectionaries, have a somewhat reformist approach. They issued demands that it would have been, in theory, quite possible for the state to meet. And it seemed like one of the things that made that was possible was that they had allies on the outside, or at least people willing to relay their demands to the public, including elected officials and a few judges who were sympathetic. Do you think that is the case today, or that it could be the case in the near future?

Thompson: I think it is the case. In every moment in American history, there are always allies to struggles like this. But I think that we need to be careful about how we look at this. When we look back in history, we look back on moments like Attica with a degree of nostalgia—for how much support the Attica brothers had, or that there were elected officials willing to go to bat to have the truth told. Indeed in this book there are heroes that did exactly that. But we need not be nostalgic. We need to remember that this all took a great deal of time. Attica comes at the tail end of massive protests in the streets and in prisons that had been going on for about twenty years. It was the culmination of a lot of consciousness-raising. It was the culmination of a lot of people who were forced to see what was happening, sometimes right in front of their faces.

I feel very strongly that we are in that moment again. Five years ago when I was trying to do policy work and advocacy work around prison reform, it was like trying to speak out in an empty park. There was so little traction. Then when Ferguson erupts, and Baltimore erupts, and Chicago erupts, finally we start to get politicians being forced to wake up, and judges being forced to wake up, and police departments being forced to wake up. And now prisons are erupting. So I think we are in the beginning of a very important shift, and I think that we need not be nostalgic for those moments of yesteryear, because I think we’re actually in the process of building a new such moment.

Tim Barker is an editor-at-large at Dissent.

* The Alabama Department of Corrections has confirmed several work stoppages at Holman in recent weeks, including at least six corrections officers walking off the job last Sunday.