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.