The Attica Prison Uprising, which took place in 1971, doesn’t make it into most high school history textbooks, but it should.
Heather Ann Thompson’s book, Blood in the Water, provides a comprehensive history of the uprising — its causes, a moment-by-moment account of the four days in which prisoners held hostages and negotiated for more humane prison policies, a searing account of the horrifyingly violent retaking of the prison by law enforcement, and a damning indictment of the institutional cover-up that followed and persists until this day.
Attica’s prisoners were denied water, food, soap, toilet paper, healthcare, newspapers, books, fresh air and were subject to brutal harassment and violence, disproportionately inflicted upon Black and Brown men. These are conditions that persist for many of the United States’ 2.2 million prisoners today. Any teacher wanting to address criminal justice and prison reform in their classes would do well to take a look at the history of Attica.
Here is an excerpt from the book,
Despite the sense of foreboding, there were moments of levity and, for some, even a feeling of unexpected joy as men who hadn’t felt the fresh air of night for years reveled in this strange freedom. Out in the dark, music could be heard—”drums, a guitar, vibes, flute, sax, [that] the brothers were playing.” This was the lightest many of the men had felt since being processed into the maximum security facility. That night was in fact a deeply emotional time for all of them. Richard Clark watched in amazement as men embraced each other, and he saw one man break down into tears because it had been so long since he had been “allowed to get close to someone.” Carlos Roche watched as tears of elation ran down the withered face of his friend “Owl,” an old man who had been locked up for decades. “You know,” Owl said in wonderment, “I haven’t seen the stars in 22 years.” As Clark later described this first night of the rebellion, while there was much trepidation about what might occur next, the men in D Yard also felt wonderful, because “no matter what happened later on, they couldn’t take this night away from us.”
Video Interviews with the Author
September 30, 2016: Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
September 9, 2016: Democracy Now!