45 years after Attica massacre tensions in U.S. prisons still high

It's been 45 years since Attica became a byword for excessive police force. The prisoner uprising and bloody crackdown were products of their time that still resonate today. The Current looks into how Attica's legacy lives on in America's crowded jails.
Inmates of Attica State Prison raise their hands in clenched fist salutes to voice their demands during a negotiating session with New York's prison Commissioner Russell Oswald, Sept. 10, 1971. (The Associated Press)
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It was 45 years ago this month — Sept. 13, 1971 — that hundreds of New York State troopers, under clouds of gas, ended a four-day prisoner uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility.

More than 33 prisoners and nine hostages were killed that day.

Heather Ann Thompson's new bookBlood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy shares the story of the New York state prison revolt and the massacre that followed. She tells The Current's Friday host Laura Lynch the grim conditions the inmates experienced in the Attica prison and how that led to the uprising.

"You had prisoners who were relegated to one square of toilet paper a day, very little food, 63 cents a day to feed them, very poor medical care, prisoners were losing all their teeth."

In this Sept. 13, 1971, file photo, inmates of the Attica State Prison lie on the ground or are walked with their hands above their heads as authorities retake control of the facility after a riot and four-day siege by inmates at the prison in Attica, N.Y. (New York State Special Commission on Attica via AP, File)

"Much like today prisoners are not just being contained in prisons, they are also being deprived of basic human rights," says Thompson.

Thompson believes that what happened at Attica was " one of the most important human rights protests in American history. "

Since the political revolt in 1971, Thompson acknowledges that the New York prison system has made reforms to meet more human conditions but says the improvements are "rendered meaningless by this incredibly punitive turn that this nation takes in the wake of Attica."

"Attica becomes this kind of emotional fuel for this punitive punitive spirit that's going to lead us to mandatory minimums and ultimately to mass incarceration."

Prison guards and New York State troopers gather outside Attica State Prison as they prepare to enter the prison and retake it after inmates rioted and held the prison for four days, in Attica, N.Y. (The Associated Press)

The Attica prison still stands and looks exactly as it did back when it first opened in 1932. Thompson calls the building "an archaic site of trauma" and says it's more brutal now in the prison than in 1971.

"The Justice Department is constantly being asked to investigate guard brutality there and and now there's a real push to shut Attica on behalf of former prisoners and legal advocates."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.