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Unveiling the long-hidden story of the Attica prison takeover

In September 1971, Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York became the site of a bloody uprising that would shock the nation. Over several days, some 1,300 inmates seized parts of the prison, demanding better living conditions. Heather Ann Thompson documents the untold story in her new book, “Blood in the Water,” and joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the truth about the riot's violent end.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next, a look back at a pivotal moment in this nation's criminal justice history. It's a story with themes of racial tensions, mass incarceration and policing that continue to echo today. And to Jeffrey Brown.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    September, 1971, Attica Prison in Upstate New York became the site of a bloody prison clash that would shock the nation. Over several chaotic days, some 1,300 inmates seized parts of the prison and demanded better living conditions.

  • ELLIOT ‘L.D.’ BARKLEY:

    We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be driven or beaten as such!

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In the initial takeover a guard was killed. Inmates held about 40 prison employees as hostages, negotiating with the state of New York, and bringing in outside counsel including Attorney William Kunstler. Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused a face to face visit, talks soon disintegrated. And on September 13th, hundreds of armed troopers stormed the prison to retake control.

  • MAN:

    The instructions is your weapon is not to be taken or you to be taken.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Twenty-nine inmates and ten hostages were killed in the takeover, scores more injured.

    The story, much of it long kept hidden from view, is told in the new book "Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising o f 1971 and Its Legacy."

    Author Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan.

    Now, you argue there are two stories to tell. One is the "what happened", one is the aftermath. Start with the "what happened". What did the period leading up to the riot, what led to it?

    HEATHER ANN THOMPSON, Author, "Blood in the Water": Well, prisons in 1971, much like today, were these out of sight, out of mind places where people were treated very badly, and the guys inside worked through the system first to try get their conditions improved — again, very basic things, enough food to eat, sufficient sanitary supplies — and when that really fails, frustration mounts.

    Ultimately, they erupt in a protest, and the book tells that story. It's a remarkable story of men from very different backgrounds who stand together, negotiate with the state of New York, with the help of observers.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The riots were not planned.

  • HEATHER ANN THOMPSON:

    No, not at all. It actually begins in a quite unexpected clash between prisoners and guards that morphed into something much more organized. The guys elect representatives from the cell block to speak for them, they begin negotiating to the state for better conditions and, for four days, the world watches as the media is there to see how this thing is going to unfold.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Also violence, though. I mean, one guard is killed early on.

  • HEATHER ANN THOMPSON:

    Indeed.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There is real violence, not just the specter of violence. So what happened — days go by, and the state decides to go in. Now, why? What led to that?

  • HEATHER ANN THOMPSON:

    Well, that was one of the guess I had. This is a prison protest that starts with a great deal of violence initially but becomes a very peaceful and orderly protest. And, yet, suddenly, in the middle of the negotiations, the state decides to retake this prison with enormous force. Nearly 600 heavily-armed law enforcement personnel enter the prison, and it's a massacre.

    And what was remarkable was that everybody in the governor's office, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, had been told don't do this. It is going to be a massacre, and he did anyway. And so, part of my question was that, why, in the midst of negotiations, did we end this with such violence?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What do you conclude?

  • HEATHER ANN THOMPSON:

    So, I think the short answer is Nelson Rockefeller was very interested in his own political aspirations. He wanted to be the president. He was moving rightward as his party, the Republican Party was moving rightward. This is the early '70s. This is — Nixon is in the White House. Really, Attica becomes this line in the sand, this moment where he's going to be tough on crime.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The politics of law and order.

  • HEATHER ANN THOMPSON:

    Indeed. And therefore, the story — the civil rights story, this human rights story is a pivotal moment in American history where we go from civil rights era discussing civil reform to a very punitive era to where we become the country with the most prisons in the world.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The second part of the story, as I said, was the information suppressed, kept secret, including efforts to avoid holding anyone accountable in your telling.

  • HEATHER ANN THOMPSON:

    Yes. When I began the book, I had a very difficult time telling this history, because it turns out the state of New York has largely shut down access to all of the records related to Attica, and that is in no small part because all of the deaths that happened on the 13th of September, 1971, the day the state retakes the prison are as a result of law enforcement bullets. None of those people —

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Friendly fire, in other words?

  • HEATHER ANN THOMPSON:

    Well, indeed. They are coming in, shooting thousands and thousands of bullets into this prison, and the carnage is prisoners, hostages die.

    And so, the records thereafter are very controversial and they get shut down and, ultimately, no member of law enforcement is indicted for what happens during this retaking, even though all of the deaths during the retaking were at the hands of law enforcement. So, those records have been sealed, and it's been very difficult to find out what happened, who committed which acts in the yard, and, thus, the length it took to do the book.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, your sense that there was never any resolution or justice for anyone on all sides?

  • HEATHER ANN THOMPSON:

    Indeed. So, ultimately, it's both prisoners and guards were killed during this retaking, and both groups suffer tremendously. Indeed, for 40 years, they want to know what happened that day, what happened to my father, what happened to my brother, why was there so much violence?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What is the legacy? How did you come to see it? To what extent are the issues still with us?

  • HEATHER ANN THOMPSON:

    Indeed. The legacy is mixed. On the one hand, because the retaking is so bloody and because the state then steps out in front of the prison and tells the world that the prisoners killed the hostages, which was simply not true, the world is very much encouraged to think that prisoners are animals, they are not deserving of human rights, let alone civil rights.

    And Attica helps to fuel a very punitive turn in this country that we see today. Indeed, conditions in places like Attica are worse today than they were in 1971. So, one legacy is repression, a real punitive moment. But, at the same time, Attica was a story of 1,300 men who stood together against tremendous odds to ask to be treated as human.

    And that legacy is also with us. We see today prisoners again speaking up to humanize the conditions behind bars, to be clear that containment for serving time does not mean a license for abuse or deprivation. So, I think it's a mixed legacy.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The book is "Blood in the Water". Heather Ann Thompson — thank you very much.

  • HEATHER ANN THOMPSON:

    Thank you.

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