Is Another Attica on the Horizon?

On the anniversary of the notorious prison uprising, inmates in Alabama and Texas facilities decry living and working conditions in today’s penitentiaries and call on other incarcerated people to do the same.

A black and white photograph depicts hundreds of inmates in the interior yard of Attica prison. Many have their hands raised in the "Black Power" gesture.
On Sept. 10, 1971 inmates of Attica State Prison raise their hands in clenched-fist salutes to voice their demands during a negotiating session with New York's prison commissioner.  (AP)

Friday is the 45th anniversary of the 1971 Attica Prison uprising. Twenty-nine prisoners and ten hostages were killed when police took back control of the facility after inmates rioted, demanding better conditions.

To mark the occasion in 2016, prisoners in Alabama and Texas called on fellow inmates from 24 states to join a general strike to protest living and working conditions. Two days ago, a Florida prison was one of the firsts to have its population join the movement when 400 inmates at Holmes Correctional “caused damage to nearly every dorm during an uprising that lasted into the early morning,” according to the Miami Herald.

Historian Heather Ann Thompson argues that there’s a direct line between the deadly 1971 Attica protests and the current  call for action. For her latest book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, she spent over a decade unlocking the secrets and sifting through the misinformation about the infamous prison revolt that still shapes our society’s perception of and relationship to incarceration. An edited and abridged version of our conversation follows.

Lantigua-Williams: What was the root cause of the Attica uprising in 1971?

Thompson: The root causes of the Attica rebellion were, as they are with the rebellions today, abysmal conditions in our nation’s correctional facilities. In 1971, all the Attica prisoners first tried to remedy those terrible conditions by working through the system, by writing their state senators and petitioning the commissioner of corrections, even by having a work stoppage, sitting down in the metal shop at Attica to ask for a living wage. They actually needed money to survive in Attica since the state provided so little food, so few sanitary supplies, and such poor medical care. The rebellion happened because their needs weren’t addressed and, frankly, it happened for the very simple reason that, even as men and women serve time behind bars, their sentence does not include deprivation—deprivation of food or deprivation of medical care. Yet, that was exactly what those sentences were for the men in Attica.

Lantigua-Williams: Do you see similar circumstances today?

Thompson: Yes, absolutely. One of the tragic outcomes of the Attica uprising was that the state of New York stood in front of the world and told a narrative of that uprising that was rife with lies. As a result of those lies told after Attica, the nation really sours on this idea that prisoners deserve good treatment behind bars. The long-term upshot of that was that this nation, every decade after Attica, becomes more and more punitive. Today, we have a very ironic situation: on the one hand, because of lies told after Attica we have horrendous prison conditions; also because of Attica, we have prisoners who believe that if they stand together and if they speak up they might still find some measure of justice in this system, that they will perhaps humanize the conditions where they’re locked up. In that sense, Attica has everything to do with why we are here again today.

Lantigua-Williams: What do you know of conditions or policies in Alabama and Texas that might make those states ripe for this type of protest coming from within these institutions?

Thompson: Texas is one of the largest and most brutal prison systems in the nation, rivaled by other states such as Louisiana, but not just Southern states. Northern states and Western states have the exact same brutal conditions. What is very notable about the South is that there has been a wholesale abandonment of the idea that prisoners deserve any good treatment behind bars.

In Texas, for example, prisoners are literally locked in cages longer and longer than they ever have been, with no time out of the cell. It’s sweltering, of course, because it’s Texas. It is hundreds of degrees in these cement cages. They’re serving horrendous time in solitary. They’re again being mistreated with lack of food, again suffering lack of sufficient medical care. In those states in particular, it is the physical confinement of these people that is so brutal, but also these states’ utter abandonment of their duty to treat them as people, that has concentrated these protests in these areas.

Lantigua-Williams: In our so-called “post-Ferguson America,” do these protests fit into the sociopolitical landscape of a country that is becoming more aware of the imbalance in the justice system?

Thompson: I certainly hope so. I think that there’s little question that the policymakers today that are talking about some measure of criminal justice reform or police accountability on city streets or improving prison conditions, all of those conversations were sparked from the ground up. It was when young people in Ferguson or in Chicago or in Baltimore refused to let one more killing of an unarmed citizen go without notice.

Similarly, it is the prisoners who are refusing to let these conditions just continue so barbarically without speaking up. In that sense, these protests are very connected, and it’s also true that they’re having an impact, that it is forcing the discussion at the national political level. Even four years ago, you could get no traction talking about improving the lives of prisoners, or dealing with police brutality in urban communities.

The concrete expressions of that change have been attempts to roll back some of the drug laws, attempts to monitor the police via body cameras, attempts to bring citizen review boards into communities to watch the police. So we have seen some concrete responses to these urban rebellions. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have translated into improving prison conditions, and it still has not translated into stopping police shootings of unarmed citizens.

Lantigua-Williams: Do states have a financial incentive to keep big prison systems in operation?

Thompson: It’s a very complicated question. A lot of national attention has been on private prisons. While private prisons are despicable institutions—the very notion that you would have stockholders and profit off of people’s human misery, whether that is because they are victims of crime or serving time for a crime—is not beyond reproach. But the state prison system is more complicated because it costs states tremendous amounts of money to lock up such a large percentage of their populations. So on the one hand, it costs states a lot of money. On the other hand, businesses have become very adept at profiting off of state prisons. So we have to unpack who’s making the money.

After 1979, private industry worked very, very hard to overthrow many of the barriers to their ability to use prison labor that had been in place since the New Deal, since the 1930s. As a result of that there are plenty of companies that use prison labor because they can have what they call “a compliant workforce.” They have to pay no benefits, no workman’s comp insurance; they’re largely left alone by OSHA and other regulatory bodies. They’re often allowed to use the space by leasing the it from the prison for maybe a dollar. This has really been an issue in the South Carolina state prison system.

In terms of state prison industries—every state prison also has state prison industries where they make products for state use, such as school lockers, dorm furniture, baseball hats, eyeglasses, and dentures. On the one hand, those are not huge profit generators in the same way that private industry using prison labor is. On the other hand, consider this, all of those dorm beds or dorm mattresses that are being made for the entire college system of a given state are not being made by workers on the outside who can command at least a minimum wage, if not a living wage.

Lantigua-Williams: They’re all being made by inmates.

Thompson: Exactly. The majority of those state prisoners are not being paid a minimum wage. Some of Nevada’s prison farm workers are making 25 cents an hour. And of course they can’t say no. If they’re sick they have to come to work. Whatever the case, they have to come to work.

Lantigua-Williams: What do you think is a realistic set of outcomes for those protesting? Do you anticipate that there might be some serious retaliation? How do you think it might be handled?

Thompson: I am deeply fearful of what the outcome of this is going to be. There is no question that it’s profoundly important to hear from people behind bars, what they need, and to see people speaking out. I am fearful because the retribution is sure to be brutal. Right now as we speak, knowing that 400 prisoners in Florida engaged in a major protest last night, I worry very, very much at this moment about what is happening in that prison. Prisons are state institutions that we pay for. The fact that I can’t tell you what is happening right now in that correctional facility to those men is horrifying.

Lantigua-Williams: If you were on a presidential advisory panel, what would you advise the next president to do first to address the prison system?

Thompson: We must begin with a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system—from root to branch. Beginning with excessive policing of social ills. Dealing with social ills, such as drug addiction or poverty, through the criminal justice system or through policing rather than the welfare or education systems needs reforms. Those reforms need to be at every one of the next levels. We need to have better public defenders. We need to have an overhaul of our laws that hold Americans behind bars longer than any other country.

In the institutions, we need to make sure that they are run humanely if they’re going to exist because every one of those people is a returning citizen. When a nation treats its most vulnerable citizens—those over whom it holds the most power—so abusively and like animals, it cannot expect whole people to come out of the other end. Society needs whole people if it does indeed care about public safety.