What We’re Reading: Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson

The men of Attica Correctional Facility heard the helicopters first. Then came the gas, cloaking them in a layer of snowlike white.

The noxious chemical took hold of their bodies, swelling their eyes shut and bringing many to the ground. Others vomited blood and gasped for breath, their lungs on fire from the fumes. Soon, gas-masked soldiers entered the prison, all identifying emblems removed from their fatigues. The military phalanxes opened fire into the crowd of already incapacitated men. The militarized response to the 1971 Attica riots was underway.

The attack lasted mere minutes, but left 128 men with gunshot wounds and other severe injuries. In the end, there would be a total of 43 casualties.

Heather Ann Thompson’s book “Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy” takes readers inside Attica Prison during the four day uprising and the long-term fallout that directly impacted the criminal legal system. Thompson’s work sheds new light on the uprising and includes in-depth interviews with hostages, guards, and those incarcerated during the September 9 - 13, 1971 uprising. Many of these primary sources provide their first on the record accounts for Thompson’s engaging study.

The men incarcerated at Attica faced abhorrent conditions. Attica had just two doctors caring for 1,300 people. The physicians rarely gave their patients physical examinations and most men were sent away with an aspirin (Thompson 10). The state’s food budget allotment was meager - a mere 63 cents per prisoner a day (Thompson 8). Attica’s men spent fifteen to twenty-four hours of every day in their cells (Thompson 9). The prison’s overpopulation in the 1960s was not met with the hiring of more employees, but stoked aggressiveness from overworked Correctional Officers (Thompson 14).  

In Attica’s powderkeg atmosphere, the tipping point for its historic riot sprang from a misinterpretation of guards’ actions. After a morning of minor infractions met with solitary confinement and brutality, a group of men were held in a tunnel connecting one wing of the prison to another. Believing they were vulnerable to the guards’ violence, the men of Attica attacked and overtook the unsuspecting guards. News of the uprising tore through the cell blocks. When the men held in the tunnel finally broke free, they stepped into an Attica under their control.

The uprising created a society within the confines of Attica, where those inside differed in efforts to meet basic needs. One group raided the prison infirmary for drugs. Some men sought vengeance and brutally beat guards. That same day, the men of Attica created a set of behavior guidelines, elected leadership from among their ranks and constructed a list of ‘28 Attica demands.’ The demands asked for basic rights including better nutrition, an end of censorship to their letters, appropriate visitation facilities, adequate medical care, and more. They set up camp in the open-air courtyard at the heart of the prison. One man had not seen the stars in 22 years.

Over the course of several days, representatives from Attica negotiated with Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller - he responded to their requests with force. Under Rockefeller’s orders, 700 New York State police officers, local volunteers, and National Guard infantry launched an aggressive operation to end the riots - resulting in the deaths of 33 inmates. Nine guards held hostage by those incarcerated also died during the raid. Despite eyewitness reports from the incarcerated men and guards, New York only brought charges on the men of Attica involved in the riots. No law enforcement official has ever been charged in any of the 43 raid-related deaths. To this day, New York has never officially admitted wrongdoing.

The past decade has seen a wealth of essential texts on  mass incarceration, including Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”, “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime” by Elizabeth Hinton, and Bryan Stevenson’s  “Just Mercy.” Thompson’s research adds new depth to illuminating the widespread culture of violence in prisons. Mass incarceration systematically targets people of color and indigent people, costs taxpayers billions of dollars, and is one of the largest drivers of inequality. Thompson shows how little has improved in four decades, and in fact, how the carceral state has worsened over time. 

Thompson’s work uses the history of Attica to shine a light on the present state of American incarceration. Thompson astutely marks the connection between the Attica uprising to the Rockefeller administration’s 1972 draconian drug policy:

“Legislation was enacted that created mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of narcotics - about the same as a sentence for second-degree murder. These drug laws were subsequently duplicated across the country, in ever more punitive iterations, over the next two decades,” (Thompson 563).

The ghosts of Rockefeller’s sentencing guidelines continue to haunt the predominantly low-income individuals trapped in the criminal justice system. As the American prison and jail population hits new records, we should look at Thompson’s analysis to better understand the repercussions of an overcrowded, unjust carceral state.

Today, to protest unfair treatment in the carceral state, people currently incarcerated are in the midst of a three-week prison strike. Participants have published their demands online and are refusing to work or spend money to curtail the profits private prisons reap from their incarceration.The strike began on August 21st and ends on September 9th, the anniversary of the Attica Uprising.

At Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, we are committed to criminal justice reform in New York - launching campaigns such as #ClassroomsNotCages, mobilizing volunteers with the Dollar Bail Brigade, and advocating for statewide policy reform.   

We cannot ignore the visceral and dehumanizing process of our broken incarceration system. Nearly half a century later, Americans - incarcerated or not - continue to bear the burdens of the failed War on Drugs. Thompson’s “Blood in the Water” shows us what happens when the prison system breaks down. It is on policymakers and activists to demand justice.