BLOOD IN THE WATER: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (Pantheon, August 23, 2016, $35) by Heather Ann Thompson is the first definitive account of the infamous 1971 Attica prison uprising, the state’s violent response, and the victims’ decades-long quest for justice.
On September 9, 1971, nearly 1,300 prisoners took over the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York to protest years of mistreatment. Holding guards and civilian employees hostage, during the four long days and nights that followed, the inmates negotiated with state officials for improved living conditions. On September 13, the state abruptly ended talks and sent hundreds of heavily armed state troopers and corrections officers to retake the prison by force. In the ensuing gunfire, thirty-nine men were killed—hostages as well as prisoners—and more than one hundred were severely injured. After the prison was secured, troopers and officers brutally retaliated against the prisoners during the weeks that followed.
Thompson offers an overwhelming and damning indictment of how the state of New York—from police on the ground all the way up to Governor Rockefeller’s administration—handled the uprising at Attica. For decades afterward, instead of charging any state employee who had carried out egregious human rights abuses, New York officials prosecuted only the prisoners and failed to provide necessary support to the hostage survivors or to the families of any of the men who’d been killed. Since the day of the retaking of the prison, the state has fought tooth and nail to protect itself and those who committed crimes, ranging from evidence tampering to the outright murder of prisoners. In particular, the state refuses to name the state troopers and correction officers who were known to investigators to have killed prisoners and hostages in the retaking of Attica, and to have tortured and otherwise violently retaliated against those who had managed to survive that assault, and never indicted them.
Despite facing resistance from New York State officials, Thompson spent over ten years researching Attica, working her way through oral histories, letters, newspaper articles, memoirs, and extensive interviews. The most shocking information she uncovered was found in a cache of boxes in a Buffalo, NY courthouse in 2006, which included documents never made public: sealed grand jury transcripts, files from the criminal trials, minutes from secret meetings held by the Governor, and documents from inside the official Attica Investigation. As a result, BLOOD IN THE WATER reveals, for the first time, the crimes committed during the uprising and its aftermath, who committed them, and how they were covered up.
Thompson thus sheds new light on one of the most important civil rights stories of the last century, exploring every aspect of the uprising and its legacy from the perspectives of all of those involved in this long fight for justice: the prisoners, the state officials, the lawyers on both sides, the state troopers and corrections officers, and the families of the slain men.
Published to coincide with the forty-fifth anniversary of the uprising, BLOOD IN THE WATER finally reveals the full story of what really happened at Attica and will completely reshape our understanding of this historic event.
Watch the trailer