Blood in the Water (2016), by Heather Ann Thompson

A monumental work of reporting, this book is an exhaustive (and exhausting) account of the four-day Attica Prison rebellion that took nearly four decades to resolve*. Indeed, by the time the uprising ends and the prison has been violently retaken, there is still well more than half the book left, given to a mind-numbing parade of lawsuits and legal machinations. That Thompson is able to make this half as dramatic as the first is remarkable.

*If in fact it ever has been resolved. Despite some modest payouts to victims, the state has never admitted any wrongdoing in its calamitous decision to retake the prison with such fatal, arbitrary force, nor was any law enforcement official involved in the retaking ever indicted.


I was born in 1982, so obviously long after this event took place. What I thought of it is what the State of New York would prefer I think of it: a bunch of militant criminals planned an insurrection, taking over the prison by force and torturing hostages for days, leaving the state no choice but to storm in, and in the fog of war some innocent people got killed. Blame solely on the prisoners.

Could I have been more wrong? Every part of this tragic story is another myth shattered, a testament to the power of public relations to spin reality so completely.

How did it happen? A toxic brew of several elements:
-A governor-as-presidential aspirant, looking to burnish his law-and-order bona fides, made a tragic calculation that the statement of retaking the prison so forcefully was worth the inevitable loss of life, even if that included many State employees.
-Hundreds of state troopers and officers from all over the area had been waiting for days outside the facility to storm the prison, seething on full boil after being told (incorrectly) that their colleagues were being tortured, castrated, etc.
-When the order came, the officers, armed to the teeth with a variety of undocumented firearms, were instructed to remove all identifying features on their uniforms. Carte blanche to do whatever to whomever, with no fear of reprisal.
-As Thompson points out, the moment the helicopters dropped the tear gas over the prison yard (so potent that folks far outside the prison facility could feel its effects), the prison was effectively retaken. The unarmed prisoners (and hostages) were incapacitated and thus left wholly unable to defend themselves against a seemingly random fusillade of bullets.

Thompson will no doubt be criticized for being unabashedly “pro-prisoner” in her account, especially since she was stonewalled for so many years by the state in trying to access information. While there is no question where her sympathies lie, I think she does yeoman’s work in laying out the state’s thought process as they must have experienced it. There is one man in here, Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald, who emerges as a truly complex figure, one who for years was receptive to the idea of prison reform but became trapped in a bureaucratic quagmire that forced his hand.

I think most readers will go in feeling like the daughter of a corrections officer who was killed early in the uprising when she heard in 2000 that the surviving prisoners would receive a settlement from the state of New York: give me a break. Stop rewarding the prisoners who started this! But as they read, I think those readers will undergo the change of heart this woman did, seeing the uprising as less a militant revolution led by Black Panthers and Maoists, and more a worldwide display of human rights, one that should have been resolved peacefully.

Ultimately, Blood In the Water deserves its place alongside other modern social justice classics such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. It is a painstakingly researched addition to the historical record, a necessary correction to the many myths surrounding the Attica riots, and a relevant contribution to the national conversation we are having about police brutality and the prison industrial complex.

It is also a tribute to the people who tenaciously kept the story alive despite all efforts to bury it, the inmates and the lawyers and the advocates who kept fighting, one legal brief at a time. As the book points out, they haven’t fully received justice, but maybe finally they’ve received recognition and vindication. The state’s 45-year silence speaks for itself.

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