SUMMARY: In September 1971, Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York became the site of a bloody uprising that would shock the nation. Over several days, some 1,300 inmates seized parts of the prison, demanding better living conditions. Heather Ann Thompson documents the untold story in her new book, “Blood in the Water,” and joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the truth about the riot's violent end.
JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour): September, 1971, Attica Prison in Upstate New York became the site of a bloody prison clash that would shock the nation. Over several chaotic days, some 1,300 inmates seized parts of the prison and demanded better living conditions.
ELLIOT ‘L.D.' BARKLEY (prisoner): We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be driven or beaten as such!
JEFFREY BROWN: In the initial takeover a guard was killed. Inmates held about 40 prison employees as hostages, negotiating with the state of New York, and bringing in outside counsel including Attorney William Kunstler. Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused a face to face visit, talks soon disintegrated. And on September 13th, hundreds of armed troopers stormed the prison to retake control.
MAN: The instructions is your weapon is not to be taken or you to be taken.
JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty-nine inmates and ten hostages were killed in the takeover, scores more injured.
The story, much of it long kept hidden from view, is told in the new book “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising o f 1971 and Its Legacy.”
Author Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan.
Now, you argue there are two stories to tell. One is the “what happened”, one is the aftermath. Start with the “what happened.” What did the period leading up to the riot, what led to it?
HEATHER ANN THOMPSON, Author, “Blood in the Water”: Well, prisons in 1971, much like today, were these out of sight, out of mind places where people were treated very badly, and the guys inside worked through the system first to try get their conditions improved — again, very basic things, enough food to eat, sufficient sanitary supplies — and when that really fails, frustration mounts.
Ultimately, they erupt in a protest, and the book tells that story. It's a remarkable story of men from very different backgrounds who stand together, negotiate with the state of New York, with the help of observers.
JEFFREY BROWN: The riots were not planned.
HEATHER ANN THOMPSON: No, not at all. It actually begins in a quite unexpected clash between prisoners and guards that morphed into something much more organized. The guys elect representatives from the cell block to speak for them, they begin negotiating to the state for better conditions and, for four days, the world watches as the media is there to see how this thing is going to unfold.