Prisons Are Erupting and Why It Matters

On the 45th anniversary of the Attica debacle, U.S. inmates staged a coordinated protest over work and living conditions, but they were ignored or silenced.


Gov. Snyder’s office called in special services/police and people were ordered into the yard to stand in the rain for hours with improperly fixed extremely tight handcuffs and guns pointed; rooms were searched, property thrown everywhere and ultimately many things were lost/broken. This began on Saturday, moved into Sunday, and by Monday approximately 350 people had been transferred out.

—Account from Michigan’s Kinross Correctional Facility

Toward the end of August, reports began swirling in the media that on the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising of 1971—Sept. 9—one of the largest prisoner strikes in American history was about to occur. Most journalists ignored this as the fantasy of activists. But some in the media did take the reports seriously, even though they found it extremely difficult to get any information out of state officials that would indicate whether prisons were indeed erupting.

Anyone who knows anything about the history of prison rebellions knows that these public institutions are fully closed to the public and, therefore, to learn anything about what is happening behind the walls or in the cages inside of those walls is almost impossible.

In 1971, when nearly 1300 men erupted in one of the most famous of all American prison protests—that which took place at the Attica State Correctional Facility when those men came together to protest their inhumane living conditions and forced labor—the public was also in the dark until those men insisted on bringing the media in. And then, in the wake of the state’s bloody retaking of that prison, the nation only came to know of the horrors happening inside because citizens kept demanding access and prisoners kept trying to get their stories told. And the stories they told were horrific indeed—massive reprisals, wounded men with no medical care, and outright torture. It would take almost four decades for the survivors of this terrible retaking to force the state to release the documents that fully corroborated prisoner claims of abusive retribution and hostage claims that the state had mistreated them as well.

Public prisons in the U.S. are even more closed to the public today than they were back in 1971. And they are even more inhumane. Today prisoners are again forced to labor for no, or very little, pay, even though they must have money to acquire their basic needs in prison. Today prisoners are placed in solitary confinement more frequently and for longer time than they ever have been, even though medical professionals the world over are in complete accord that this is a form of torture. Today prisons are much more overcrowded than they were as well, even though this makes things less safe for corrections officers and prisoners alike. Today prisoners are still being fed spoiled and maggot-ridden food, even though they are human beings.

And so, prisoners today are indeed erupting in prisons across the nation and many did begin their protests on the anniversary of the Attica uprising of 1971. Prisoners in scores of prisons in the U.S.—from Alabama to Florida to California to Ohio to Michigan—have initiated protests. And while state officials have tried to deny that these uprisings have happened, prisoners and corrections officers alike have made clear that the officials haven’t been telling the truth.

Stories coming from prisoners and corrections officers in Michigan’s Kinross Correctional Facility, for example, make clear not only that this nation is experiencing prison protests, but more important, that we should all be paying close attention to what exactly is happening right now behind bars.

Kinross, like countless other penal facilities across the country, is overcrowded and the men held inside have been trying to bring attention to the inhumane conditions they live under for a long time now. But this facility, again like so many others, is far, far away from where most of the prisoner families live as well as far from the media’s gaze. People on the outside can’t see the “spoiled food, severe overcrowding, indifference to inmate grievances” that the men inside have been enduring. They don’t know the extent of the gang problem plaguing the prison, and how desperately prisoners have been asking for help, because prison management manipulates its own data—for example at Kinross, assaults on prisoners are written up as “mutual fights” in order to make things seem better, less predatory, to legislators in the state capitol.

Seeing that just asking for more humane treatment got them nowhere, the men in Kinross planned a work stoppage for Friday, Sept. 9—according to someone on the inside, “a peaceful demonstration” was planned (“wherein no prisoner would work for two days”) to bring attention to the conditions inside. This was the 45th anniversary of the historic Attica prison uprising and this mattered. As another put it, “this place went off on Friday (Sept. 9) it started with a complete work-stoppage. Pretty much everyone agreed to not work.” As another prisoner there explained further, “Friday starts off with no one going to work, no kitchen, yard crew, recreation, school, nothing.”

And this protest was still going the next morning. On Saturday about 50 men entered the yard and refused to go to their jobs. By mid-day they had been joined by nearly 500 other men. State officials, according to a Kinross prisoner were “yelling over the PA that the yard is closed and to return to your unit, blah, blah, blah. [But] more people just kept coming out of their units and walk[ed] in in circles on the inside track.”

Some lower level wardens came out to try to talk the men down. As one prisoner described this exchange, however, “the 2 top issues are the prisoner pay and the chow hall. Neither one of which any administrators are at all willing to change for the better for any of us. We have quite clearly been told, ‘Go fuck yourself’ when it comes to getting a living wage.”

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Meanwhile, just as had happened at Attica four decades earlier, while appearing to negotiate in good faith, prison administrators were calling up law enforcement from across the state to retake this prison by force.

Sensing that negotiations were being thwarted, by 3:30 p.m., Kinross was in chaos. According to one prisoner inside, “the looks on [the COs] faces said it all. I saw true fear for the first time from all of them... Everyone was just coming-and-going into whatever unit they wanted to.” The prisoners were also terrified—especially when the COs left their posts en masse. And, just as it happened at Attica 45 years earlier, that fear led prisoners to add one more critically important demand: that the state agree not to retaliate against them physically or administratively.

Ultimately, though, that demand was ignored at Kinross just as it had been at Attica. After prison officials insisted that negotiations would only continue if the prisoners went back to their housing units, the inmates complied. But this was but a manipulation. As one prisoner has reported, “So, we all go back inside and just wait for 4 hours… What was going on was the greatest deception ever (as usual). The whole time that the Warden was [seeming to agree] to the demands… the rest of the Administration was calling up the [Emergency Response] Teams from around the state and planning a retribution.”

Soon waiting turned to fear-fueled frustration in the housing blocks. As a prisoner witness describes it, “These guys went full on Hurricane Katrina and Ferguson. They smashed the officers’ computer and desk, started breaking all the windows in the lobby and dayrooms.”

At first management sent corrections officers into the housing units to try to restore some order. But this was a stalling tactic, a prelude for a much more aggressive response by police then on their way to Kinross. When these law enforcement officials arrived, the COs were ordered to leave the housing units and the prisoners in Kinross were then in serious jeopardy. Within minutes more than 100 men from a heavily armed SWAT-like emergency response team surged into each of the housing units and proceeded to beat, pepper spray, and shackle the men inside. As one prisoner recently wrote in a letter to the outside, “The team starts running onto the compound fully armed. I knew that I wasn’t seeing things then I seen mini-14s and shotguns.” According to other reports, the police then “fired pepper guns during the disturbance… some inmates tried to block the doors to their units with large objects. But… the fact those doors all opened outward made those efforts ineffective.”

What then happened was terrifying. As one man has explained it, “At 9:30 p.m. SWAT entered my housing facility took control, ordered everyone on our bunks. Every single person complied. At 10:00 p.m., after a half hour of compliance and silence, they deployed pepper spray and tear gas in that unit without provocation. I don’t understand why they’d use it a half hour after they had full compliance and control.”

And this from another prisoner: “They come full blast and start the machine gun pepper balls flying everywhere. Good lord, it’s Wednesday and I am still crying and coughing… the flash-bang gas canister went into the back bathroom and then they took their stand with the shields and all. You can’t fight Goliath with a fucking lollypop, right? Yeah, we all get flex cuffed and sent to the gym with d-unit. The rest of the units are scattered on the basketball courts and grass throughout the facility. After about one hour in those damn flex cuffs your hand and arms go completely numb… when we were flex cuffed and in the gym, the rest of the compound was in the pouring rain outside on the ground for 10 hours.”

And that is the last word I received out of Kinross. Almost a month ago now. We know that hundreds of prisoners were taken out of Kinross, but it isn’t clear where they were taken. We know that the remaining men were placed on lockdown, but we have little information on how they were then treated. We should be concerned. Consider that in Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility the corrections officers launched their own protest—they refused to come to work—because post-protest conditions are so volatile and dangerous. And then there are today’s news stories. The first tells us that an Ohio prisoner, Siddique Hasan, who dared to speak on NPR’s radio show On Point about the men’s protest there on Sept. 9, has just been placed in solitary confinement. The second is that one of Kinross’s prisoners, the third one in the last month, just died in custody.

We have the right to know what is happening inside of Kinross. Indeed, it is our civic duty to demand access to America’s prisons—those erupting and every other one as well. These are our institutions, and the people working in them as well as caged in them are human beings—they are our brothers, sisters, parents, and children—and we should demand full transparency in the criminal justice system on their behalf. Why? Because history shows us that unless we have open access to our nation’s penal institutions, unimaginable horrors can take place in them.

Just ask the men—prisoners and hostages alike—who somehow managed to survive the retaking of the Attica State Correctional Facility back in 1971. The police who came in to retake that facility shot 39 men to death, and they shot a total of 128 men so severely that they were forever maimed. And then they tortured the prisoner survivors of this retaking for days, weeks, and months. As Attica’s history makes clear, we must not only sit up and take notice when America’s prisoners stand together as one to protest their conditions of confinement—to be treated as human beings—but we must also shine the brightest light possible on prisons where they protested the instant state officials bring them back under their control. Our prisons are public, and we, the public, not only have a right to know what happens in them, it is our responsibility to find out.

Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan who writes on prisons and prison conditions and she is the author of the first comprehensive history of the Attica prison protest, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (Pantheon, 2016).