Blood in the Water (Book Review)
The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy By Pulitzer Prize Author Heather Ann Thompson
The first half of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy deals with an almost minute by minute account of the uprising. The second half, after the retaking by the state, has to do with the aftermath and legal cases that took place. In addition to reading Blood in the Water, I had the pleasure of hearing the author speak recently as she discussed why the 1971 uprising matters today.
Thompson discussed how in 1972 and 1973 “prison rates in the US skyrocketed. This was on the heels of the uprising, and on recent prison reforms.” In 1976, New York state shut down the records from the uprising, making Thompson’s work in uncovering what actually happened span 13 years. Thompson stated that she considered the Attica uprising “one of the most important human rights stories in American history.”
Prior to the uprising, inmates in Attica Prison tried a variety of methods aimed at reform, beginning with nonviolent tactics and going through the prison system. However, this was unsuccessful.
“To most, it seemed clear that their foray into the democratic process and their patience as well as pledge of nonviolence had produced not a single improvement in their living conditions. If anything, it had resulted in more censorship, more cell shakedowns, fewer minutes outside the dismal blocks, and an administration even more suspicious and watchful of their every move.”
When this route continued to fail and backfire, they seized an chance opportunity for a different route and prisoners took hostages and control of a yard in the prison for five days. They asked for media and observers to come into the prison to see the conditions, and met with these observers daily. They asked the state of New York for a list of demands again, including amnesty for all involved in the uprising. The governor of New York state refused to come see the conditions of the prison, and flatly refuses amnesty, so the uprising continued. One the fifth day, the inmates still thought negotiations were going on, but state police ambushed them with a cloud of pepper spray and started shooting men indiscriminately (including the hostages) with a constant flow of racial slurs. Prior to the Attica uprising, prison uprisings had been dealt with through the use of nightsticks- never guns. L.D. Barkley, one of the young leaders of the Attica Uprising who was in prison for violating parole by driving without a license, was shot in the back toward the end of the take back, in what prisoners said to be execution style.
In the aftermath, the prison reported to the media that the hostages that had died all had slit throats from the inmates, but when the bodies went through autopsy, it was clear that they were riddled with bullets and showed no signs of perishing because of throat wounds. Still, no police officers were charged with a crime, but 62 inmates were indicted after the retaking of the prison.
Though the actual demands of the prisoners were never met, indirect impacts were that the New York State Department of Corrections began a grievance procedure, started more dialogue with inmates and prison staff, and began the allowance of year round packages for inmates.
1. We Demand the constitutional rights of legal representation at the time of all parole board hearings and the protection from the procedures of the parole authorities whereby they permit no procedural safeguards such as an attorney for cross-examination of witnesses, witnesses in behalf of the parolee, at parole revocation hearings.
2. We Demand a change in medical staff and medical policy and procedure. The Attica Prison hospital is totally inadequate, understaffed, and preju¬diced in the treatment of inmates. There are numerous “mistakes” made many times; improper and erroneous medication is given by untrained personnel. We also demand periodical check-ups on all prisoners and sufficient licensed practitioners 24 hours a day instead of inmates’ help that is used now.
3. We Demand adequate visiting conditions and facilities for the inmate and
families of Attica prisoners. The visiting facilities at the prison are such as
to preclude adequate visiting for inmates and their families.
4. We Demand an end to the segregation of prisoners from the mainline population
because of their political beliefs. Some of the men in segregation
units are confined there solely for political reasons and their segregation
from other inmates is indefinite.
5. We Demand an end to the persecution and punishment of prisoners who
practice the Constitutional Right of peaceful dissent. Prisoners at Attica
and other New York prisons cannot be compelled to work as these prisons
were built for the purpose of housing prisoners and there is no mention as
to the prisoners being required to work on prison jobs in order to remain
in the mainline population and/or be considered for release. Many prisoners
believe their labour power is being exploited in order for the state to
increase its economic power and to continue to expand its correctional industries
(which are million-dollar complexes), yet do not develop working
skills acceptable for employment in the outside society, and which do not
pay the prisoner more than an average of forty cents a day. Most prisoners
never make more than fifty cents a day. Prisoners who refuse to work for
the outrageous scale, or who strike, are punished and segregated without
the access to the privileges shared by those who work; this is class legislation,
class division, and creates hostilities within the prison.
6. We Demand an end to political persecution, racial persecution, and the denial
of prisoner’s rights to subscribe to political papers, books, or any other
educational and current media chronicles that are forwarded through the
7. We Demand that industries be allowed to enter the institutions and employ
inmates to work eight hours a day and fit into the category of workers for
scale wages. The working conditions in prisons do not develop working
incentives parallel to the many jobs in the outside society, and a paroled
prisoner faces many contradictions of the job that add to his difficulty in
adjusting. Those industries outside who desire to enter prisons should be
allowed to enter for the purpose of employment placement.
8. We Demand that inmates be granted the right to join or form labour unions.
9. We Demand that inmates be granted the right to support their own families;
at present, thousands of welfare recipients have to divide their checks
to support their imprisoned relatives, who without outside support, cannot
even buy toilet articles or food. Men working on scale wages could support
themselves and families while in prison.
10. We Demand that correctional officers be prosecuted as a matter of law for
any act of cruel and unusual punishment where it is not a matter of life and
11. We Demand that all institutions using inmate labour be made to conform
with the state and federal minimum wage laws.
12. We Demand an end to the escalating practice of physical brutality being
perpetrated upon the inmates of New York State prisons.
13. We Demand the appointment of three lawyers from the New York State Bar
Association to full-time positions for the provision of legal assistance to
inmates seeking post-conviction relief, and to act as a liaison between the
administration and inmates for bringing inmates’ complaints to the attention
of the administration.
14. We Demand the updating of industry working conditions to the standards
provided for under New York State law.
15. We Demand the establishment of inmate worker’s insurance plan to provide
compensation for work-related accidents.
16. We Demand the establishment of unionized vocational training programs
comparable to that of the Federal Prison System which provides for union
instructions, union pay scales, and union membership upon completion of
the vocational training course.
17. We Demand annual accounting of the inmates Recreational Fund and formulation of an inmate committee to give inmates a voice as to how such
funds are used.
18. We Demand that the present Parole Board appointed by the Governor be
eradicated and replaced by the parole board elected by popular vote of the
people. In a world where many crimes are punished by indeterminate sentences
and where authority acts within secrecy and within vast discretion
and given heavy weight to accusations by prison employees against inmates,
inmates feel trapped unless they are willing to abandon their desire
to be independent men.
19. We Demand that the state legislature create a full-time salaried board of
overseers for the State Prisons. The board would be responsible for evaluating
allegations made by inmates, their families, friends and lawyers against
employers charged with acting inhumanely, illegally or unreasonably. The
board should include people nominated by a psychological or psychiatric
association, by the State Bar Association or by the Civil Liberties Union and
by groups of concerned involved laymen.
20. We Demand an immediate end to the agitation of race relations by the
prison administration of this State.
21. We Demand that the Dept. of Corrections furnish all prisoners with the services
of ethnic counsellors for the needed special services of the Brown and
Black population of this prison.
22. We Demand an end to the discrimination in the judgment and quota of parole
for Black and Brown people.
23. We Demand that all prisoners be present at the time their cells and property
are being searched by the correctional officers of state prisons.
24. We Demand an end to the discrimination against prisoners when they appear
before the Parole Board. Most prisoners are denied parole solely because
of their prior records. Life sentences should not confine a man longer
than 10 years as 7 years is the considered statute for a lifetime out of circulation,
and if a man cannot be rehabilitated after a maximum of ten years
of constructive programs, etc., then he belongs in a mental hygiene centre,
not a prison.
25. We Demand that better food be served to the inmates. The food is a gastronomical disaster.
We also demand that drinking water be put on each table and that each inmate be allowed to take as much food as he wants and as much bread as he wants, instead of the severely limited portions and limited
(4) slices of bread. Inmates wishing a pork-free diet should have one,
since 85% of our diet is pork meat or pork-saturated food.
26. We Demand an end to the unsanitary conditions that exist in the mess hall:
i.e., dirty trays, dirty utensils, stained drinking cups and an end to the
practice of putting food on the table’s hours before eating time without any
protective covering over it.
27. We Demand that there be one set of rules governing all prisons in this state
instead of the present system where each warden makes rules for his institution
as he sees fit.
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