Reviewed: Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, by Heather Ann Thompson

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Thompson, Heather Ann. Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. New York: Vintage Books, 2016. Pp. 571. $17.95.

By Katarina Haley Andersen

In Blood in the Water, Heather Ann Thompson introduces her readers to one of the most inhumane assaults on vulnerable peoples in United States history. Thompson illuminates the legacy the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 by showing: (1) How the uprising came to fruition; (2) How New York State authorities allowed untrained men to use excessive force to retake the prison; (3) How prison authorities tormented, tortured, and violated inmates following the assault; and (4) How, to this day, New York State tries to keep many of the records of the event from public sight. New York State’s silencing of this history is so aggressive, that the documents Thompson used to craft Blood in the Water have disappeared. Thompson makes three major arguments. She asserts that the refusal of Attica prisoners to stay silent about their poor treatment in the prison in the early 1970s prompted reforms and lead to greater standards of living within the US prison system. However, the lies told about the uprising, which depicted the prisoners as sadistic, out-of-control animals, fueled the feverous War on Crime and Law and Order politics supported by the late Twentieth-century conservative revolution. Finally, Thompson’s work is a call-to-action. She contends that New York State has an ethical responsibility to own up to the true horrors of the assault on Attica, for, the public, victims, and their families deserve transparency from their government about wrong-doing. Yet, she declares that America’s incarcerated and most marginalized people have never stopped fighting for recognition and respect for their own humanity, which is the history of Attica’s true legacy.

Previous historical scholarship on United States prisons elucidates the ways in which white supremacist’s politics fueled the feverous ‘Law and Order’ rhetoric meant to criminalize Black and Brown bodies, which transformed the United States into the most oppressive carceral state in the world today.[1] However, Thompson’s work shows how the activism of the prisoners at Attica, and the list of demands they crafted during the uprising, helped guide later prison reforms. This led to greater resources and dignity within the US prison system, even if egregious abuse still occurs and disenfranchisement today mirrors the end of the nineteenth century due to mass incarceration. Thompson’s book is primarily organized chronologically into ten parts. In the first four sections, she depicts how vulnerable prisoners and guards were in prisons in 1971. Not only were the prisons overcrowded, but prisoners lived with other inhumane conditions, such as lack of sanitation, recreation, and excessive isolation. Also, correctional officers were undertrained and responsible for too many prisoners at once. Guards were often irrational, racist, and abusive towards prisoners, which chafed at prisoners who were increasingly conscious of the rhetoric of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. People in Attica were also aware that in several, then recent, prison uprisings, prisoners had spear-headed successful negotiations for better conditions with prison administrators. Thompson’s narrative relays how when the tension inside Attica finally peaked, prisoners were able to take control and take a dozen guards hostage. However, Thompson shows how the prisoners developed a leadership base that was devoted to transparency, solidarity, and the well-being of the prisoners and hostages within the prison. Men imprisoned in Attica were determined to force change in the institution that had long demonized them as an inhumane underclass.

The remainder of Thompson’s narrative depicts the vicious brutality of the angry and untrained officers sent in to re-take the prison, the subsequent abuse in wake of the takeover, and the many investigations and lawsuits related to New York’s handling of the assault. Not only were prisoners abused and murdered by the state, but correctional officers and state employees were caught in the crossfire or purposefully targeted. Additionally, the families of the prisoners and state employees were left without an explanation of the events, without breadwinners, and with insurmountable grief, which, to this day, the state refuses to ease by unveiling the complete details of the event. Throughout her narrative, Thompson clearly shows how the egregious lies that permeated government intelligence and the media, which demonized the prisoners as wild sadists, led to the brutality of the assault and helped crystalize the Law and Order philosophy of the last 50 years. Most importantly, she emphasizes that New York State first put the responsibilities of investigating the brutality and abuse of the Attica takeover right back into the hands of the law enforcement officers who perpetrated the massacre. To this day, New York refuses to apologize for the massacre. Thompson not only names names, she demands the state bring the details of these events to light so that the victims and family members can finally have some pathetic form of the closer denied to them for almost 50 years now.

Using newspapers, interviews, court transcripts, and materials from the slaughter, that the state surely meant to keep out of her hands, Thompson crafted a cohesive, engaging, and controversial narrative. Though her work engages minimal outside scholarship within the body of the text and reads as of a work of investigative journalism, she not only honors the Attica victims by meticulously bringing their history to light and making their political agency and humanity the foci of the retelling, she also calls out those who did everything in their power to silence them. Blood in the Water is essential for scholars of civil rights and mass incarceration and highly accessible for mature wider audiences.

[1] For more on the historical context of mass incarceration and racial solidarity in resistance to cruel and unusual punishment in the United States, see: Michael Flamm, In the Heat of the Summer: From the Harlem Riot of 1964 to the War on Crime and America’s Prison Crisis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016; Elizabeth Kai Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016); Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); and Dan Berger, Outlaws in America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2005).

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