A Tough Book to Read, But An Important One

Attica is only a muddled memory for most people, but for 5 days – September 9-13, 1971 – the United States citizenry turned its attention to this western New York state prison. There, 1300 inmates took control, held hostages and demanded changes. The prisoners charged they received inadequate medical care, lived in overcrowded conditions and suffered cruel and appalling treatment from corrections officers.

When state troopers stormed the prison yard on Sept. 9 in order to regain control, there was unwarrantable violence including castrations and slit throats. In the process, 29 unarmed prisoners and 9 civilians were killed, and 118 more people were shot. The commission established to study the incident afterwards described it as “the bloodiest encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”

In this remarkable recounting, Heather Thompson provides an exhaustive history of the convoluted events of those days. Her 10 years of research and writing provide an important narrative of this ill-famed prison riot. But what makes this book especially compelling is her discussion of the Attica legacy. In addition to the countless court cases brought by prisoners and correctional officers against the state of New York, she details the role of every major participant in the uprising, including New York Correction Commissioner Russell Oswald, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon.

Initially, the standoff was peaceful. A blue ribbon team of negotiators was sent in to settle the demands made by the prisoners. Then Governor Rockefeller arbitrarily decided to intervene with 600 state troopers and National Guardsmen. Tear gas, dropped from helicopters, added to the mayhem. The book title comes from a prisoner who said only 10 minutes after the assault commenced: “all I could see was blood and water.”

The reckless use of force killed both prisoners and hostages. Thompson writes that William Kunstler, the well-known civil rights lawyer, an observer of the negotiators “found himself sitting alone, unable to speak, with tears running down his face.” National Guardsmen physician John W. Cudmore used these words when he testified to the McKay Commission:

“I think Attica brings to mind several things. The first is the basic inhumanity of man to man, the veneer of civilization as we sit here today in a well-lit, reasonably well appointed room with suits and ties on objectively performing an autopsy on this day, yet cannot get at the absolute horror of the situation to people, be they black, yellow, orange, spotted, whatever, whatever uniform they wore, that day tore from them the shreds of their humanity. The veneer was penetrated. After seeing that day I went home and sat down and spoke with my wife and I said for the first time, being a somewhat dedicated amateur army type, I could understand what may have happened at My Lai.”

Thompson shows the extreme measures government officials went to in order to cover up their disorganized and bloody effort to regain control. The prisoners did not have guns, but in order to blame prisoners for the deaths, state troopers were sent to morgues and funeral homes to try to find bodies in which injuries other than gunshot wounds could be recorded as a cause of death, but there were none. The New York Legislature also took excessive measures to hide and seal information in an effort to protect the state from any legal claims and financial liabilities.

Thompson personalizes the book by opening each section with a story of a central character in the uprising: a prisoner, a correction officer, a trooper and a civil rights lawyer. The 574-page book also includes many disturbing photographs of the incident.

This is not an easy book to read. It is heartbreaking; the incidents of inhumanity are devastating, tragic. But this is essential reading in this time when our society is taking a closer look at the criminal justice system.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal-justice research and advocacy group, estimates the United States has roughly 2.4 million people locked up, with most of those (1.36 million) in state prisons. There is little established effort to retrain and rehabilitate these prisoners to prepare them for a more productive life upon their release.

Russian novelist Theodore Dostoevsky wrote in the 1800s: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Thompson’s definitive account asks, “What is the capacity of our legal system to provide some measure of justice?” It also asks each of us, “How do you treat your fellow human beings?”