Last updated on January 1, 2020
On September 9, 1971, inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, staged a revolt in protest of the treatment they received by prison officials and the living conditions employed therein. Several days later, New York State Troopers regained control of the prison after approval from Governor Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979). The siege had tragic consequences and ended with the deaths of nine hostages and twenty-nine inmates. The fallout from the retaking was swift and to this day the story of Attica is considered the worst prison uprising in American history. The riot caused sharp division among people with some believing in the inmates’ actions and others supporting the State of New York. In fact, among Rockefeller’s most ardent supporters was President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) who would himself resign in 1974 due to the Watergate scandal. The riot and its aftermath were so powerful that even Hollywood became interested and produced the television series Attica (1980) starring Morgan Freeman and Against the Wall (1994) starring Samuel L. Jackson (1948-) and Kyle MacLachlan (1959-). Both film productions earned award nominations and the stars in each film would go on to have successful careers in Hollywood. However, the questions always remain, how much did the producers get right, how much did they get wrong and how much did they leave out? Further, how much do we, the public know about one of New York State’s darkest days?
Heather Ann Thompson composed this Pulitzer Prize winning account of the Attica prison uprising and the legacy it left behind. Contained within the pages of this book is a story that is sad, shocking and infuriating. Today in hindsight, we will be tempted to ask ourselves how could this have happened? For starters, the social environment in which the main characters existed is much different from today in some regards. Law and order were applied in a far more repressive context. Make no mistake, the prison system today is plagued with brutality and prisoners routinely complain of suppression of their basic human rights by guards and officials. The prison industrial complex has become a multi-million dollar business and each year more Americans enter the penal system generating more revenue for investors and contractors. This system of mass incarceration is exactly what the Attica inmates strove to fight against and today many of the lessons that were learned in the wake of the riot have been lost or neglected. But this book is the place to learn about the Attica riot and why we can never forget it.
Thompson acknowledges that many of the participants in the story are no longer alive and any secrets regarding Attica went with them to the grave. What remains are their public statements and official testimony. Some of the names are cemented in history such as Governor Hugh Carey (1919-2011), Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (1936-), attorney William Kunstler (1919-1995) and former New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner (1910-1991). But others will become known such as Frank “Big Black” Smith (1933-2004), former guard Michael Smith and prisoner L.D. Barkley whose speech was captured by television cameras as the inmates made their voices heard. The amount of research that went into the creation of this book is nothing short of painstaking. And as an added touch of intimacy, the author supplements the story with photos of those relevant to the narrative.
From the moment I opened this book, I literally could not put it down. At times I found myself sitting in disbelief and how and why the situation unfolded as it did. And incredibly, an inner conflict arose because as I waded through the book, I came to support the inmate struggle as they fought racism, class based discrimination and the monster that is mass incarceration while at the same time I found myself empathetic to the guards taken hostage, some of whom would also perish. And it dawned on me that they were all human beings who had different roles to play during those four days. Decisions and actions made many resulted in a tragedy that claimed victims both dead and alive. And that is one of the main points of the book. But perhaps one of the most shocking is the disregard by the State of the well-being of its own employees. What Thompson has truly shown us is that lives on all side were ruined that day and there truly were no winners. Everyone directed involved in the Attica riot carries with them scars to this day, some mental, some physical or possibly both. Thompson has done all of them a great service by re-telling the Attica story in a book that should be read by every American that wishes to understand the frustrations of those convicted of a crime and the direction of the American penal system. This is a definitive account of what truly happened at the Attica Correctional Facility between September 9 and September 13, 1971.