BOOK REVIEW: Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

By Michael Avery

Michael Avery is Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, and a former president of the National Lawyers Guild.

Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, Pantheon; 2016. Hardcover: 752 pages. $35.00.

Blood in the Water, by Heather Ann Thompson, provides a remarkable historical record of the tragedy of the Attica prison rebellion. In prose that at times will stop your heart, she takes the reader from the uprising on September 9, 1971 to the final settlement of the last set of claims on July 12, 2005. Throughout, the brutality and racism of the State and its officials weigh heavily on the narrative.

In September 1971, I had been a lawyer for one year. I was nearing the end of my employment by the ACLU, representing Black Panthers and others who protested the murder trial of Bobby Seale, Erika Huggins, and others in New Haven. I was dimly aware of the events at Attica and the trials that followed. I knew friends from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) who had gone to New York to handle those cases. But Attica hovered only on the edge of my radar screen. I became busy with police misconduct litigation in New Haven, and later Boston. To my embarrassment today, I knew very few details of what was happening in the aftermath of Attica. I mention this because, even though over the years I have handled horrible cases for the families of victims of police murder and innocent defendants who spent decades in prison as a result of government frame-ups, reading Blood in the Water was stunning. I was simply not prepared for the shock of Thompson’s painstaking recreation of the brutal retaking of the prison by the state police, or for her detailed account of the decades long callous indifference of New York State officials to the consequences of their actions.

Thompson sets the stage by recounting the abominable conditions at Attica before the rebellion. Prisoners were required to work, but few earned more than six cents per day. The prison supplied little by way of necessary supplies—one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper per month. The men received only one shower per week and only two quarts of water per day, with which they had to do all their washing, take care of their personal hygiene, and keep their cells clean. Exercise opportunities were severely limited. There were no newspapers, few books, no television, and only three avail- able radio stations. Talking in one’s cell was forbidden after eight p.m. Only two doctors served the more than twenty-two hundred prisoners, and they were largely unresponsive to the men’s needs. The prison provided no books in Spanish, and officials refused to deliver any letters from the outside that were not written in English. The untrained and underpaid guards often had to work a second job, leaving them stressed and exhausted. Brutality was common and tensions at the prison were high.

Political consciousness among the prisoners had been increasing. News of protests and rebellions in other institutions had raised hopes for change. Activists from the Black Panthers, The Nation of Islam, the Weather Underground, and the Young Lords Party assumed leadership roles in the Attica population. Attempts to obtain reforms by drafting manifestos and communicating with state officials led nowhere.

Concern over the safety of two men who had been taken to punishment cells was the immediate precipitating factor for the rebellion. Prisoners believed the men had been beaten and attacked the guard they believed was responsible. Events rapidly spiraled out of control. Prisoners seized keys from guards, broke down a gate that separated two parts of the prison, obtained more keys and eventually gained access to all the cell blocks. In the process, guard William Quinn was knocked unconscious and trampled. He would later die in the hospital, creating the likelihood that some prisoners would be prosecuted for murder. This dramatically compromised the possibility of negotiating an amnesty once discussions between the prisoners and officials began.

Guards and state troopers succeeded in taking back most of the other cell blocks later in the day, and eventually the rebelling prisoners congregated in D Yard, with guards and civilians as hostages. The stand-off lasted five days. Thompson provides a fascinating account of how the prisoners governed themselves during this period. After an initial period of dangerous anarchy, they established a security detail to keep order. Eventually, officials allowed several outside observers, including Tom Wicker from the New York Times and Attorney Bill Kunstler, into D Yard. The observers attempted to broker a settlement. The prisoners could not give in without an assurance of amnesty. There was no possibility the State would agree to it. Thompson’s description of the daily back and forth between the prisoners inside and the politicians outside is suspenseful, creating an increasing sense of foreboding, although the reader knows that failure was inevitable.

Governor Nelson Rockefeller made the decision to attack. On September 13, helicopters dropped CS gas into the yard. State police, corrections officers, sheriff’s deputies, and park police, armed with carbines, shotguns, and all manner of personal weapons, stormed the prison. They came in literally with guns blazing. The prisoners had no rearms. It was a massacre. Among those massacred were several guards who had been taken hostage, shot to death by law enforcement officers. Sustained beating and torture of prisoners followed the armed assault. Racism ran rampant.

One of the most painful accounts Thompson presents is taken from the testimony in a later trial of Frank Smith, known as “Big Black.” Thompson writes:

Black’s testimony transported the jury back to the hazy, gas-choked prison yard where he and hundreds of other men had been forced to strip naked and crawl or stumble across the muddy rutted yard while suffering repeated blows from troopers and COs.

Officers made Black lie naked on a table with a football under his chin for six hours. A photograph documents this horror. Guards threatened to shoot him if he allowed the ball to fall, repeatedly struck him on his testicles, dropped burning cigarettes on his body, and subjected him to racial insults. After they let him up, they forced Black to run a gauntlet of officers across a glass littered floor while they beat him with ax handles and batons. They beat him further in a dark room until he passed out, and then required him to lie naked, spread-eagled, on a cold cement door. Officers continued to hit his genitals and forced him to submit to Russian roulette.

The catastrophic results of the senseless means used to retake the prison triggered an avalanche of investigations, commissions, reports, and litigation. Thompson spent ten years researching this material. The State of New York contrived to hide, destroy, or otherwise deny access to much of the relevant documentation. Nonetheless, Thompson’s unrelenting determination succeeded in gaining her sufficient access to primary materials to compile a detailed and truthful record of the uprising and its legacy.

The story of the defense of criminal charges brought against the prisoners and the prosecution of civil claims brought against state officials is a tribute to the members of the NLG and the National Jury Project who participated. Lawyers, law students, and legal workers came from across the country to represent the prisoners and their families. Although there were some guilty pleas and a few convictions of prisoners after trial, there were significant exonerations. In 1976, the remaining prosecutions were dismissed and Governor Hugh Carey granted clemency to all the convicted defendants. Thompson’s detailed account of the trials, and the courtroom and political strategies employed, demonstrates how essential the sustained commitment of the NLG was to the result. The civil class action on behalf of the prisoners and their families was not settled until January 2000. Although many people participated in that litigation, the settlement was due in great part to the extraordinary commitment of the late Liz Fink, the New York NLG lawyer who had been involved from the beginning of the Attica saga.

Thompson’s account is a powerful indictment of New York state officials for their heartless indifference to justice over a thirty-four-year period. The final chapters describe the settlement of claims on behalf of deceased and injured guards and their families in 2005. Ironically, this was the last group of claimants to receive compensation. The author provides a shocking account of how the State attempted to defraud these people. Officials repeatedly promised to “take care of” the families of the guards who had been killed and injured. When recipients cashed small checks from the State, purportedly for food or necessary expenses, the government took the position that by doing so they had elected to receive paltry Workers’ Compensation remedies, precluding them from suing for fair damages for the negligence and intentional acts of the state actors who caused the injuries and deaths. It took years to overturn this maneuver.

Heather Ann Thompson made an outstanding commitment to compile this encyclopedic account of the Attica saga. To be honest, it requires a significant commitment on the part of the reader to consume the entire story. The reader who makes that commitment, however, will be well rewarded. Thompson is a powerful writer. She tells this story in rich detail, with a com- passionate understanding for all the victims. When it comes to the culpable officials, she names, and provides detailed evidence, from Governor Rockefeller to Attica Superintendent Vincent Mancusi and the sadistic officers who beat and tortured defenseless prisoners, as well as the bevy of lawyers, bureaucrats, and elected of officials who attempted to cover up the truth. One cannot read this book without developing a strong sense of shame for how our society treated the men at Attica, and continues to treat the vast numbers of our people whom we incarcerate.