–By Michael Pierce
At 9:46 am on Monday, September 13, 1971 a force made up of New York State Police, former prison guards and current prison guards, began a bloody re-taking of the yard at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, bringing an end to an inmate uprising that had begun four days earlier. By the time their effort was over nine hostages, and 29 inmates, were dead. All but a handful had been killed by gunfire from that combined force. Inmates were subsequently tortured and coerced into false confessions and falsely accusing other inmates of committing a variety of crimes against their fellow inmates and hostages.
In Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (2016 Pantheon Books) Heather Ann Thompson has written a brilliant, and (occasionally) difficult to read, account of the riot, the ensuing trials, and the ultimate aftermath of those for days in 1971.
She details how, ultimately, 62 inmates were charged with nearly 1500 criminal counts in 42 indictments, while one state trooper was eventually charged with reckless endangerment.
Thompson also details the massive cover-up by state and federal officials in the years after the riot. The cover-up reached to the highest levels, to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (soon to be appointed Vice President under Gerald Ford) and President Richard Nixon.
For me, as a historian, the most fascinating portion of the book is its introduction. Thompson writes of ten years of sometimes futile efforts to gain access to official documents related to the any incidents surrounding the uprising and its aftermath. Ultimately, it was one serendipitous moment that provided what she needed.
The inmates at Attica rose up in an effort to obtain basic human rights and necessities, and to fight back against a system that brutally reinforced the idea which dictated that, as prisoners, they had no rights. Although the chapters regarding the trials tend to be repetitive, Blood in the Water is a fantastic resource for anyone wishing to gain a greater understanding of how America’s prison system worked at the time, and how it works today.