Blood in the Water is as harrowing as the title suggests. It is about “The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.” Those of us of a “certain age” may remember it in a vague way as a few days of dread and fear. At the time, I’m sure that I would have thought the prisoners were the bad guys who dared to challenge the system.
It doesn’t take long reading Heather Ann Thompson’s careful, well-researched account to realize that the story is much more complicated than that. The dedication is “For all who were killed at the Attica Correctional Facility more than four decades ago.” The list of 43 follows. I found myself going back to that page as I learned more about those individuals. Many were innocent hostages; several were men who had just arrived as prisoners at Attica, not “hardened criminals;” even some of those who were prisoners were men who had risked their own lives to protect the hostages.
Thompson and the reader are indignant that even after all these years, officials who could have and should have told the whole truth about Attica have kept the secrets and denied access to the records. As so often seems to happen, it was fear that drove good people to allow actions that were clearly unwise and dangerous. There was a “serious misperception” in the United States in 1964, Thompson believes, when punitive laws and more aggressive policing began. Yet the crime rate was historically unremarkable. The shift in public policy eventually led to our imprisoning more people than any other country.
Even if you consider such policies justified, the result was extreme overcrowding in the prisons. It was that overcrowding that added to the unacceptable conditions at Attica. The prisoners asked for relief, requesting such things as clean trays in the mess hall and being allowed more than one shower a week during the hot summer months. It was (and is) a very complex problem, and Thompson holds our attention by introducing individual prisoners, guards, and prison officials.
Thompson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2017 for this book. Her research convinced her that “all the violence was state violence,” and, chillingly, “things are much worse now than they were in 1971.”
When the prisoners realized that the promises being made to them about improvements were empty, in desperation they took action. At breakfast on the morning of September 9, 1971, when the prisoners thought that they were being trapped they seized guards and moved to the courtyard at the prison.
Officials of course called in state police and additional law enforcement. The story of how the prisoners tried to manage and how the government and prison hierarchy tried to cope is fascinating and terrible. It becomes hard to tell those “good guys” from the “bad”. Blood in the Water is available at the Mary Willis Library.