In 1971, prisoners took over Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. The uprising followed a wave of protests in prisons and jails across the state and nation. Prisoners sought to draw public attention to years of mistreatment and abuse as they held prison employees hostage and invited the media into the facility. Four days after the takeover, state officials ended talks abruptly and retook the prison using massive force. Both prisoners and guards were killed and injured in the ensuing gunfire. In Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (Pantheon, 2016), University of Michigan professor, Heather Ann Thompson, tells an untold story of this uprising and its legacy. After the retaking of the prison, state troopers and corrections officers violently retaliated against the prisoners, committing human rights violations for which the state of New York failed to prosecute any officials. Thompson’s book thoroughly documents the state’s decades-long cover-up of officials’ criminal violence during and after the uprising. Instead of substantially reforming prison conditions or thoroughly investigating crimes on all sides, they focused on prosecuting prisoners and publicly blaming all violence on them.
Blood in the Water is extremely relevant today. Criminal justice reform has become an urgent political issue in the 21st century. Prisons are overcrowded and as numerous scholars and politicians have noted, the current system of mass incarceration overwhelmingly targets black and brown men, ruining lives and causing upheaval in communities of color. Historians have recently been examining the roots of this modern system in an effort to understand both its origins and its present character. Thompson’s work provides key insights into the ways this system developed and how it protects and perpetuates state violence.
In this episode of New Books in History, Thompson discusses her new book. She tells listeners about the uprising and its aftermath. She also discusses the difficulty of completing this research, which speaks to the continued efforts of the state to keep the full narrative of events during the uprising from public view. Finally, she briefly speaks to the importance of the Attica uprising for understanding mass incarceration and the broader criminal justice system today. This acclaimed new book reveals important new information about the uprising and its aftermath that has previously been concealed from the public. It is a National Book Award finalist and has received significant praise. It has been written about or reviewed in the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Book Review, among other publications. Thompson has given Congressional staff briefings on the subject of mass incarceration in the United States and written about the topic in numerous popular and academic venues.
Christine Lamberson is an Assistant Professor of History at Angelo State University. Her research and teaching focuses on 20th century U.S. political and cultural history. She’s currently working on a book manuscript about the role of violence in shaping U.S. political culture in the 1960s and 1970s. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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