The End of the End of History?   /   Fall 2017   /    Book Reviews

A Legacy of Payback

John J. Lennon

National Guards at Attica (detail), September 1971; John Shearer/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

The first time I heard about Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, I was in the Attica Correctional Facility’s auditorium-chapel, attending a twelve-step meeting. A volunteer from the outside, who knew I was a prison journalist, told me about it. “This book is gonna be a big deal,” he said. “She’s naming the people behind the killing and the cover-up.”

He was right. Blood in the Water won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for history and a string of other awards. The buzz surrounding the book was huge. When I saw Thompson on my cell TV chatting with Tavis Smiley, I called down the tier for others to tune in. When Smiley asked Thompson about the current conditions in Attica, she told him they were just as bad as, if not worse than, they were back in the 1970s. Not so fast, I thought.

Of the sixteen years of incarceration I’ve served, walking down a sentence of twenty-eight years to life, almost a decade was spent at Attica. After the 1971 uprising—in which more than forty prisoners and prison employees died—some improvements were instituted, such as liaison committees, a grievance system, and changes in rules for visiting and correspondence. But there was also payback, including guards routinely beating up prisoners who showed any hint of disobedience. Then came a new breed of prisoners: gang members, the mentally ill, and the addicted. Attica corrections officers (COs) maintained control with psychological warfare, batons in hand, always barking orders: “No talking! Shirts tucked in! Eyes forward!” Prisoners were easy prey in a prison with virtually no oversight.

For years, Attica COs had been falsifying misbehavior reports, known as assaults on staff (AOS) reports, to justify “use of force” to beat up prisoners. In the last couple of years, however, the Attica facility has had almost 2,000 cameras and more than 900 sensitive microphones installed, and AOS reports are down 85 percent, according to recent research by The Marshall Project. Attica went from being America’s most dangerous maximum-security prison—if you accept the validity of these AOS reports—to being one of the safest for COs to work in.

The most gripping section of Thompson’s account of the 1971 uprising focuses on the tense four-day negotiations in which outsiders—state politicians, community organizers, lawyer William Kunstler, and, in my opinion, the most clearheaded one of the bunch, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker—made several trips into D yard, at their own peril, trying to strike a deal between New York corrections commissioner Russell Oswald and the prisoners, who were holding thirty-eight COs and state workers hostage.

On the third day, the prisoners issued thirty-three demands, twenty-eight of which Commissioner Oswald accepted. Considering how vague these demands were—for example, encouraging officers to understand prisoners’ needs and modernizing the inmate education system—it was fair of him to do so. (The prisoners also issued some outlandish demands, such as being flown to a country without an extradition treaty. I have imagined being in the yard at the time, the lone voice of reason: “Guys, let’s be real, they’re not gonna fly us to another country.…”) There were additional demands, such as grievance and inmate liaison committees (ILCs), many of which came to fruition in other prisons, but in Attica, ironically, were never effective. If my experience is any indication, few prisoners wanted to be elected to the ILC because, according to the prison rumor mill, they have had shanks planted in their cells or have been sent to solitary for what seemed like trumped-up reasons. Today, Attica ILC prisoners are puppets appointed by the administration.

The retaking of Attica was chaotic. Under a gray sky and in Grim Reaper get-ups—long raincoats and gas masks—state troopers and COs marched through Attica’s thirty-foot-high wall. Armed with rifles, handguns, and shotguns, they fired more than 400 rounds in D yard, hitting 128 people, killing thirty-nine—twenty-nine prisoners, seven COs, and three state workers. After the assault, the prisoners were stripped, beaten, taunted, and made to run through gauntlets of officers. Authorities then put out false reports claiming prisoners slit the hostages’ throats, castrated one, and even disemboweled another. A week later, Dr. John Edlund, a courageous medical examiner, with troopers literally breathing down his neck, revealed that all the hostages had died of gunshot wounds. The prisoners never had guns. Alas, with the deaths of CO William Quinn, who was pummeled by prisoners during the melee on the first day, and three other prisoners stabbed during the uprising, the eventual number of fatalities came to forty-three.

The prisoners who were initially prosecuted were the ones believed to be responsible for Quinn’s murder. Then the others were put on trial for the deaths of the three prisoners murdered during the riot. But who was investigating the shootings that took place when the prison was retaken? As it turns out, it was the state police, the same force responsible for the shootings. A whistleblower in the prosecution’s camp named Malcolm Bell disclosed that there was overwhelming evidence to indict state troopers and COs for some of the thirty-nine killings, but he was stonewalled by the state administration. Frustrated, Bell took his story to the New York Times. The result was sweeping clemency for both sides, closing the book on the criminal cases and allowing civil suits to begin. Settlements were completed only in 2005, more than thirty years after the uprising.

Thompson’s tale really comes to life in its depiction of its flesh-and-blood characters. In addition to good guys like Wicker, Bell, and Edlund, there were unlikely heroes like Frank “Big Black” Smith. Serving time for armed robbery, Big Black safeguarded the observers, including Commissioner Oswald, protected the hostages, then was tortured during the retaking, and, years later as a paralegal, advocated for hostages’ families to be compensated. Then there were Tony Strollo and his brother Frank. Tony was a state trooper who in 1971 found himself outside Attica’s wall while Frank, a CO, was held hostage inside, forced to squat naked and blindfolded, his hands tied, in D yard. But characters like the Strollo brothers are less developed than, say, Big Black.

Thompson’s sympathies clearly lie more with the prisoners than the COs. The officers are described as cowboys, and the stories of their sadism are related at length. But what can she realistically infer about the prisoners’ state of mind during the uprising? To this day, prisoners are blamed for the uprising because they started it. But I blame them for not ending it. During the riot, Attica prisoners, especially those at the negotiating table, found themselves going from irrelevant to relevant overnight. That’s the kind of ego-boosting notoriety I can understand. With the world watching, these prisoners must have thought they had the upper hand, that the authorities would never dare come in with guns drawn.

I agree with Thompson’s controversial decision to name the COs and the troopers who likely did the killings. Sifting through the reports, she learns, for example, that it was a state trooper named Vincent Tobia who shot Sam “The Mad Bomber” Melville in the chest with a one-ounce shotgun slug. Melville, who had bombed several New York buildings in 1969 and loved to preach Marxism in Attica’s classrooms, was the white radical in the trooper’s sights. Tobia claimed that Melville threatened him with a basket of Molotov cocktails, but none were found near Melville’s body. Testifying thirty years later, the dead revolutionary’s son said that his father “stood up for injustice, protected the hostages, and was targeted for assassination.”

At Attica, I swung a mop alongside Perry Ford, who, according to the rumor mill, had been in the Attica riot. Ford, a black man with slicked-back gray hair, used to ramble a lot about the quality of today’s convicts. “Prisoners stood for something then,” he said with a hint of nostalgic romanticism. (In November 2016, I was transferred to Sing Sing and was surprised to discover that Ford also arrived there from Attica a week later. I had just finished Blood in the Water—the book would never have been allowed in Attica—and read about Ford being tortured by COs during the retaking.) I sense a similar hint of romanticism in Thompson’s epilogue, particularly when she writes that Attica’s most powerful legacy is the “prisoners’ determined resistance of repression.” Referring to the 2011 beating of Attica prisoner George Williams, she writes that prisoners coalesced “in another dramatic fight to be treated like human beings,” but, instead of rioting, they went public and urged the county prosecutor to investigate.

I was in Attica when the Williams incident went down, and there was no “woke prisoner collective” calling for justice. The beating came to public attention because a brave Attica nurse spoke up, and her words led to the indictment of two officers and a sergeant. According to the watchdog group Correctional Association of New York, it was “the first time in the history of New York state that any guard has been prosecuted for brutality against someone in prison.”

I have written elsewhere about the larger significance of the drop in AOS reports. These reports support a tale of perpetual payback at Attica, a direct legacy of the 1971 uprising. Keeping prisoners down by all means out of an obsessive concern with security resulted in both prisoners and COs losing bits of their humanity. It’s a sad story, nothing to romanticize. In the end, it was relentless activism and good journalism—the story of the Williams beating was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist—that finally brought some justice inside Attica’s walls, in the form of surveillance. To me, this is Attica’s best legacy.