After Blood in the Water, Heather Ann Thompson’s masterful telling of the terrible events at New York’s infamous prison, the Attica Correctional Facility, in September of 1971 and its almost 45-year aftermath, little remains to debate except the legacy of what occurred. Thompson fully illuminated the facts. In short, Gov. Nelson A Rockefeller broke off negotiations seeking to resolve the prisoners’ rebellion and release the 42 guards and prison workers they held as hostages and ordered that the assembled state troopers and guards retake the prison. In the process, the attacking force killed nine hostages and 30 prisoners and tortured the survivors. In the aftermath, a team of progressive lawyers successfully defended the prisoners who were indicted and many years later obtained $8 million from the state for certain of the survivors and the families of the dead.
To Heather Ann Thompson, the legacy of this ordeal was: “The Attica prison uprising in 1971 shows the nation that even the most marginalized citizens will never stop fighting to be treated as human beings. It testifies to this irrepressible demand for justice. This is Attica’s legacy.”
As one of the observers who tried to negotiate a settlement, I believe the legacy of Attica is far different from the way Thompson sees it.
The legacy, if there is one, should flow from what changes were made at Attica and in other prisons since those September days. Put simply, did those terrible events lead to a more enlightened prison and penal system, or did things stay the same, or did the criminal-justice system and its prisons become harsher and more inflexible? If there is a legacy to Attica, it lies in the answer to these questions. The answer is clear. The repression became worse.
Prior to Attica, in 1971, there was a budding movement for prison reform. I know because I had worked with prisoners’ advocate groups, as had my partners at the time, Henry diSuvero and Dan Meyers. Inside the prisons, some prisoners were reading and trying to understand the causes of mass incarceration. Outside, support groups were publicizing inmate grievances and seeking political support. Even within the prison system, there was some flicker of recognition that reform was necessary. Thompson writes that, on New York, Commissioner Oswald was committed to reform when he became the head of the state’s correction department in 1970. In August, shortly before the Attica revolt, he recorded a speech to the state’s prisoners in which he said, “The main impact of the new direction of the department is the recognition of the individual as a human being and the need for basic fairness throughout our day-to-day relationships with each other.”
After Attica, however, reform was not on Oswald’s mind, and prisoner-support groups were shut out of prisons. Instead, the commissioner supported the troopers and guards who killed and brutalized those in the yard.
While the deaths and brutality of the retaking of Attica may have weighed on certain individuals who witnessed what happened—like a few among the attacking force and national guardsmen who entered the yard afterward, and the medical examiner who conducted the autopsies and stood his ground in the face of massive intimidation—the general public supported the state attack. Prison officials ignored federal-court orders allowing lawyers and medical personnel to enter the prison and blocked press access. Nelson A. Rockefeller also emerged unscathed and was later rewarded with the vice presidency by President Gerald Ford and the United States Senate to fill the vacancy created when Ford replaced Richard Nixon.
Long before Blood in the Water, despite an initial flurry of news stories and books in the 1970s, Attica had faded from our collective memory. Other books and documentaries have come and gone, but did not fix Attica in the public’s mind. In particular, Tom Wicker wrote an impressive telling of the Attica events from an insider’s perspective. His book, A Time to Die, was published to fine reviews and a large readership and served as one Thompson’s sources. Yet few remember Attica, because most Americans don’t think or care about how prisoners are treated.
Additionally, with the passage of the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws in New York, the state’s prisons became even more overcrowded, with some cells built for one man holding two. In other states, “three strikes you’re out” became widespread. As a result, many states engaged in building programs and the hiring of thousands of additional guards and staff. As the numbers of guards increased, their unions became more politically powerful, and more able to protect their members from discipline no matter how brutally they treated the inmates. States and the federal government also built “super max” prisons where prisoners were held in solitary confinement for many years, literally without any human contact. With costs rising, state legislatures cut back on funds for basic necessities. Rehabilitation programs also took substantial hits.
Federal law also turned repressive over the years, with much higher mandatory minimum sentences, especially for the drug crimes involving persons of color, and Congress significantly limited the circumstances in which the federal courts could intervene to require remedies for prison conditions which violated the constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.
Even now, after President Barack Obama has made criminal law and the reentry of individuals who have served their sentences into the country’s mainstream objectives of his last months in office, and state governors of both parties have begun to slowly reduce the numbers of incarcerated persons, a New York Times/Marshall Project team traveled to state prisons to review whether reforms have been made. The team reported negative findings. In an August 26, 2016, Times article they noted that Attica prisoners had not received a raise in 20 years for work paying from 10 to 25 cents an hour, that state and federal grants for educational programs had been eliminated, and Prisoners Legal Services budgets had been cut. Presently, inmates not only had no disciplinary representation, their complaints often led to retaliation by guards. As for health care, ibuprofen was the “all-purpose treatment for any ailment.” At both Attica and the Clinton prison, the guards remained virtually all white. The team also reported that “inmates in the general population can still spend years, even decades in solitary.” Heather Ann Thompson was also quoted in a September 6, 2016, Yahoo! article that conditions at prisons are worse now than they were in 1971.
On a positive note, for the first time in years a strong tidal wave of protest is developing, centering on the Black Lives Matters movement and affiliated groups coalescing around broad-based programs, which are gaining political support. Other groups such as The Incarcerated Organizing Committee and “Free Movements” in Alabama, Ohio, and Mississippi are organizing and new groups are spreading over the country. Old-line civil-rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are making meaningful criminal law reform, police practices, and prison conditions central to their missions. But that is nowhere near enough. It will not crack the closed world of prisons. Unless Americans on the outside make significant reform a high-priority demand, little will change. Organizations with equality issues on their agendas, including foundations and think tanks to groups devoted to prisoners’ rights, must allocate budgets and staff to develop and execute programs designed to bring about significant prison reform. They should work with the families of prisoners and bring them into the fold and hold conferences to coordinate their efforts. Issues in all probability will include curtailment of solitary confinement, educational alternatives to juvenile incarceration and the age at which juveniles can be placed in adult prisons, representation at disciplinary hearings, educational and rehabilitative programs, family and advocate access to prisons, location of new prisons and the closing of prisons far away from the cities where most of the prisoners come from, protection of prisoners from both guards and other prisoners, pay for work. The list is endless.
Academics also should study and write articles concerning the effects of solitary and other harsh prison conditions on inmates, and how that reduces their ability to reenter society as employees and family members. Studies should also compare conditions in American prisons to those in progressive, democratic industrial states. Law-oriented organizations such as the ACLU and its state affiliates should assign more staff to prison reform and both lobby and file suits all over the county. Legal-services organizations and private law firms should also add muscle to the struggle, both by participating in prisoners’ rights suits and challenging employers that arbitrarily use criminal records to deny applicants employment. Although it may take time to reorient public attitudes towards prisons and prisoners, large segments of the population can come to understand that significant improvement in prison conditions and programs will improve public safety by reducing the present high rates of recidivism. Twenty years ago, few thought that gays would have a constitutional right to marriage. Yet that right is now accepted by many millions of Americans.
Mainstream and alternative media and their journalists must also realize that prison reform is a matter of grave public importance as our prison population and its heavily black and brown inmates in many ways is a throwback to Jim Crow days and a threat to how American is perceived around the world. Sporadic and limited articles and posts will achieve little. For example, the August 26 New York Times/Marshall Project article was little more than a whistle in the wind. Buried inside the paper, it barely scratched the surface about the lives of prisoners in the very few prisons the journalist and Marshall Project representatives entered. There were no descriptions of day to day lives, the danger, or the frustration of living in a prison with little education, or training or other preparation for release, or the difficulties of families interacting with prisoners. Moreover, the focus of the article was on Attica, undertaken as a short follow-up to Blood in the Water. The mainstream media also ignored the recent September 9 nationwide prisoner strike, which centered mainly around pay-for-work issues and was supported by prisoner-rights organizations and the National Lawyers Guild. The Nation covered the strike, as did other alternative media, but to the national media it was a non-event. To effect meaningful change, such actions need and deserve national coverage. All 50 states are loaded with prisons, both public and private. All require significant media investigation and exposure. In comparison, the Times’s investigative articles on many other subjects often run two full pages. To adequately do the job, papers need beat reporters who will remain in contact with families and prisoner organizations and who conduct regular inspections. Moreover, magazines and alternative media, including The Nation, should provide regular coverage.
Blood in the Water will certainly provide historic background to these efforts and help readers face the horror of American prisons. But real progress will only come about when many Americans of all colors and races understand that American prisons reflect the worst of American values and that we are all responsible. The Attica Brothers had a saying, “Attica is all of us.” Until our prisons become much more humane, however, and offer inmates the tools to reenter society we remain a long way from internalizing and acting upon that saying or giving Attica a positive legacy.