As part of the 22nd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, Heather Thompson, a University of Michigan history professor, discussed the Attica Prison Uprising and its context within today’s mass incarceration, as well as her book “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy” in a lecture Tuesday night at the Duderstadt Center.
Thompson was the first to uncover the events that unfolded at the Attica Prison Uprising in full. She went on to discuss the difficulties she faced over the course of the 13 years she spent researching and writing the book, including unveiling the documents that detailed the events that unfolded at Attica Correctional Facility in 1971.
Thompson said she hoped to give light to incarceration in the United States today.
“When we look at our past, we don’t do it just because it’s interesting — we do it because we hope it’s going to tell us something about the present,” Thompson said. “In this case, I think what we’re hoping that history will tell us is it will give us some sense, some explanation for how did we end up the world’s most punitive nation.”
Karen Smyte, president of Children’s Literacy Network — a group that goes into several southeast Michigan prisons and records parents and grandparents reading bedtime stories to their children — came to the event because of the relevancy it has to her work and what she has witnessed within prisons.
“I see it as related to the United States’s history of slavery,” Smyte said. “The justice system is terribly broken and this mass incarceration is disproportionately impacting poor people (and) communities of color.”
Thompson argued mass incarceration in the United States did not happen overnight; a number of factors contributed to the situation, such as the Attica Prison Uprising and the criminalization of all-Black spaces after the Civil War.
“And overnight, the South goes from penitentiaries and prisons that were all-white to all-Black,” Thompson said. “Again, not because white folks stop committing crimes and Black folks lose their minds, but because there were policy decisions made, and as a result of those policies decisions, … we get forced labor, we get removal of voting privileges and we get stability to white power essentially in the South.”
Thompson continued the discussion on prison conditions, exploring the circumstances Attica Prison inmates faced before the rebellion. Each inmate was allocated $0.63 of food and one square of toilet paper each day, among other inhumane treatments.
“What’s really remarkable is that these men still somehow had faith in the system,” Thompson said. “So they wrote letters … they wrote letters to state senators, they wrote letters to every person in power they could imagine, saying, ‘Would you please help us, we want to do this in a democratic process … can you please just improve the food or let us practice our religion?’ ”
On Sept. 9, 1971, the inmates broke out of their cells and set up a tent city in one of the yards farthest from the front gate, commencing a four-day period of negotiations. The state of New York accepted 28 of the 32 demands, and on the fifth day, troopers and state police stormed the prison after dropping tear gas on the inmates, resulting in 39 deaths and 128 others shot severely. The prisoners did not have access to guns.
The events following the massacre spanned numerous actions carried out by the state of New York to cover up the events that unfolded in the prison, Thompson said — events that, before her work, were unknown. Within the prison, the inmates were tortured and not given any access to medical help.
“These men were stripped, they were lined up, they were meant to run gauntlets, they were thrown into cells (that had) nothing in them,” Thompson said. “They were tortured for days and hours and weeks, (with) guards urinating into their open wounds.”
Mary Heinen, co-founder of the Prison Creative Arts Project and a formerly incarcerated individual, said the story of Attica is one known within prisons, but hopes the book can shed light on what goes on within the confines of a prison to the rest of society.
“The history of this is told among members of the inmate nation to each other and other atrocities as well that have happened across the United States,” Heinen said. “One of the most terrible things that’s happened in my lifetime is the criminalization of people that are mentally ill and drug-dependent, which is a lot of what I saw.”
These events were also covered up by the state of New York, giving most Americans only the narrative of how prisoners caused the deaths and were at fault for the massacre. Since then, Thompson said, no one has been held accountable for the actions at Attica.
“Not one member of law enforcement is indicted and serves time,” Thompson said. “Nobody in law enforcement was ever held accountable for what happened at Attica.”