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.

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