Blood in the Water Summary

Heather Ann Thompson

Blood in the Water

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Blood in the Water Summary

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Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy is a work of nonfiction by Heather Ann Thompson. Published in 2016 by Pantheon Books, the narrative centers around both a brutal prison uprising and the legal battles which persisted for years after the event. The book has been widely praised and received both the 2017 Bancroft Prize and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for History. Thompson is a historian who served on a National Academy of Sciences panel which investigated the causes and consequences of mass incarcerations across the United States.

Thompson’s book describes what happened during the Attica uprising, but also how the state responded and the complicated legal issues which arose as a result. The book includes information which has never previously been made public. Thompson’s main thesis is to show that the response to this uprising sparked a change in American incarceration and judiciary policy. It’s important to note that there’s never been a prison uprising of this scale in the US since.

The prison at the center of the book is the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York. At the time, the inmates have grievances about their living conditions and the lack of freedom to exercise political rights. The prisoners make demands for more sanitary and less cramped conditions, but these demands are always ignored. They feel powerless and completely at the mercy of a system which deliberately treats them unfairly.

The rebellion begins in September 1971. Around 1,300 male prisoners riot and take control of a major prison wing on September 9. They take guards and civilian employees hostage with the aim of making the government negotiate with them. The uprising lasts around four days in total, even if the consequences last far longer than that.

There are around 43 hostages in total. The New York Governor at the time is Nelson A. Rockefeller. He’s in charge of ending the uprising. He doesn’t plan on visiting the prison or directly speaking with any inmates. Indeed, Rockefeller doesn’t plan on acceding to any of the demands made by the inmates—however tense the scene is inside the prison. The prisoners form their own pseudo-government with leaders and followers, but everything’s at a breaking point.

Without warning, Rockefeller sends in an assault force to end the uprising. The enforcers can use any means necessary to subdue the assailants and free the hostages. In total, 29 inmates are killed alongside 10 hostages. Many more are seriously wounded. Worse, however, is what happens to the inmates who survive the uprising—and it’s only now we’re learning about it.

The government subjects the rebels to days of grueling and terrifying torture. They’re trying to make them admit who orchestrated the uprising and who the main players are. No one wants to talk because they don’t trust the government, and they see this as betraying their fellow inmates. Many don’t know much about how the movement started, anyway, but the government doesn’t want to hear this.

It’s obvious to Thompson that the uprising is largely unplanned and comes about as the result of converging changes. For example, an African American called George Jackson is shot in an east-coast prison earlier in the year, small strikes break out in workshops across Attica and the inmates gain access to writers such as Marx. On top of this, inmates are chronically starving and denied basic medical care, such as dental treatment.

All the components are there for an uprising to occur. However, the violence erupts because some prisoners are locked away after supposedly hitting guards, and they try to break out. Tensions run high and other prisoners start arming themselves until eventually there’s a full-scale rebellion.

Critics argue that Thompson leaves out key facts such as racial prejudice and how prisons are skewed against non-white prisoners. She also doesn’t consider the realities of an all-white male response against a more diverse prison body. However, it’s still clear from Blood in the Water that the government spent many years covering up the parts they played in the uprising and the crimes they committed inside the prison.

After the uprising ends, the state brings multiple lawsuits against the inmates and none against state officials. They also influence the widows of dead correctional officers to take very small compensation checks instead of suing for damages. Prison guards are not properly trained and overworked, but the state conspires to hide these facts. Much of the testimony from the uprising is still protected and redacted, but the truth is slowly coming to light.

Blood in the Water considers how, while these prisoners couldn’t vote or exercise political rights behind bars, there’s one thing they can do—riot. The modern growth of prisoners’ rights makes rebellions of this scale far less likely, however, prisoners’ rights are still limited and skewed in favor of the state. The book serves as a warning for what could easily happen again.