Attica’s Lessons Went Unlearned: Our Prisons Are Still a Disgrace
Forty-five years after the protests at Attica, there is overwhelming evidence that the U.S. has learned little about prison reform and done even less to make things better.
Forty-five years ago today, on Sept. 13, 1971, nearly 1,300 men were waking up in the yard of the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, eager to begin another long day of negotiations with state officials. After first failing to get help by writing to their state senators and pleading with the commissioner of corrections, these men had begun a protest against inhumane treatment four days earlier. On this rainy, damp morning, they were now hoping that they could finalize the list of improvements to the prison they had been negotiating, as well as secure a promise of no retaliation, so that they could bring their protest to a peaceful end.
Suddenly, however, the men looked up in horror to see a helicopter rising over the walls of the prison. Within minutes, it began blanketing the yard with a thick cloud of toxic tear gas. Then, as men began choking, gagging, and falling to the ground blinded by this noxious powder that now covered their skin and filled their lungs, a phalanx of nearly 600 heavily armed and gas-masked state police rushed into the prison and began shooting these men down. Then, over the next weeks and months, behind the closed doors of Attica, these men were brutally tortured.
Today, Sept. 13, 2016, hundreds of people who live behind bars are once again in jeopardy because, on this 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising of 1971, they too just launched a series of human-rights protests as well as work stoppages. Like those prisoners in upstate New York more than four decades ago, prisoners from Florida to Michigan have erupted because they too endure terrible overcrowding, insufficient food, too much time locked in solitary confinement, terrible medical care, and even bruises, broken bones, and, yes, death at the hands of abusive guards.
Their mistreatment is well documented. White guards in one Florida prison, for example, recently forced a black prisoner into a chair, and while choking, kicking and punching him, they screamed “Let’s beat this n——- and teach him a lesson.” What had he done? He had dropped a cookie on the floor. In another Florida correctional facility just a few years earlier, prisoner Darren Rainey died after officers punished him by forcing him to stand in a scalding 180-degree shower for two hours. In Michigan’s prisons, juveniles and women prisoners have been raped by correctional staff, suffered medical abuse and neglect, and have been forced to eat rotten and rat-ridden food.
And yet, just as it was overlooked in 1971, this inhumane treatment has been utterly ignored by prison authorities as well as by the politicians who have the power to do something to stop it. And so prisoners are once again protesting.
But because prisoners have exploded in frustration this week—from the 400 men at Florida’s Holmes Correctional Institution that erupted on September 8 this week, to the 400 men who exploded at Michigan’s Kinross Correctional Facility, to the hundreds more who have called for strikes within prisons in Alabama, Texas, Virginia, and the Carolinas—they, like the prisoners at Attica 45 years ago, are likely now facing brutal retaliation for having dared to act up and to speak out.
It is past time for politicians to address the abominable conditions that exist in our nation’s thousands of prisons and jails. This country now has more than 7 million Americans under some form of correctional supervision, and nearly 2 million citizens locked up in these overcrowded, abusive, and inhumane facilities. These people may be serving a sentence, but they are still human beings, and they are crying out for help.
Back in 1971 when the prisoners at Attica protested—when they were begging for help from state officials—they ended up being shot, tortured, and traumatized. And because the nation ignored the problem then, and indeed made it much, much worse, prisons are once again erupting. This time we can’t respond with even more abuse. This time we must all listen, and act.
Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan who writes about prisons and prison policy. Her most recent book is Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (Pantheon, 2016).