The mistreatment of inmates in New York State’s Attica Prison over 40 years ago is relevant in scrutinizing current U.S. prison policy, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Heather Thompson argued in the Intercultural Center Auditorium on Wednesday.

The Prisons and Justice Initiative in partnership with Georgetown University Lecture Fund and the Department of History hosted Thompson to speak about her award-winning novel, “Blood in the Water: the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy.”

The riot that took place in the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York in 1971 remains relevant today because it reflects the current state of the American criminal justice system, Thompson said.

The United States incarcerates the world’s largest prison population and is an international outlier with regard to racial disparities in incarcerating minorities, according to Thompson.

Thompson said the Attica uprising has negatively affected the U.S. prison system. Based upon prisoners’ demands for better living conditions and political rights, the riot served as a defining uprising of the prisoners’ rights movement, a national effort by inmates to defend their civil rights.

A prison management decision to lock prisoners and guards in a hallway triggered a full-blown riot. The prisoners took hostages, most of them guards and civilians, in attempt to demand basic rights from the state.

“What we got wrong about Attica shaped the nation, for us all, for the worse,” Thompson said. Thompson categorized the uprising as a defining revolt in human rights.

“On September 9, 1971, a series of really unexpected kind of ordinary things led to one of the most extraordinary human rights protests of the entire 20th century,” Thompson said.

Thompson used a photo presentation to show the inhumane conditions in which the 2,400 men lived. Each inmate was fed on a budget of $0.63 per day, given one square of toilet paper per day and pushed to hard labor. They were seldom allowed to shower.

The prisoners assumed the correctional facility would provide them with support, according to Thompson.

“All of these men, the guards and prisoners alike, had this amazing faith in the system which is that you ask for help you explain the situation and somebody’s going to hear you and their going to step up and make it better for you,” Thompson said.

Thompson said prisoners’ demands included an end to labor, more Spanish-speaking guards and religious freedom.

Despite the state of New York’s initial agreement to most demands, Nelson Rockefeller, the New York governor, denied the prisoners’ request for amnesty in September 1971, and the uprising intensified, Thompson said.

“They all thought that the hostage lives mattered. They didn’t understand race in America in 1971,” Thompson said. “They didn’t understand what was really at stake for these politicians and how dispensable they all were if the battle was going to be between them and prisoners.”

Within minutes, 39 men, prisoners and hostages died. 128 men were shot multiple times by police forces in helicopters.

Thompson said the American public was left in the dark about the riot conditions. New York State officials told the world that the prisoners killed the hostages. Meanwhile, the prisoners at Attica were being brutally tortured.

The state of New York has not admitted responsibility since. Still, the riot appears on all records, but the documents that Thompson found during her research have disappeared.

“When we accept the story of what goes on behind prison walls from the people who are in charge, we can go down some very immoral, dangerous, horrendous paths,” Thompson said.

Thompson said despite powerful forces trying to silence stories, whistleblowers should fight to make their stories known.

“The thing about prison — and the thing about Attica — is, eventually, human beings, particularly those who are put in cages, particularly those who are denied basic human rights, will eventually speak up,” she said.

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  1. Pingback: VIEWPOINT: Giving a Voice to the Incarcerated

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