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.