CRF Blog

The Story of the Legendary Prison Uprising

by Bill Hayes

In The Story of the Legendary Prison Uprising for the New York Times Book Review, James Forman Jr. reviews Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson.

Isolated in the far western corner of New York State (Attica is closer to Detroit than to New York City, where almost half of its prisoners come from), the prison in 1971 housed nearly 2,300 men who were permitted only one shower a week and provided a single roll of toilet paper each month (“one sheet per day,” went the saying). Men regularly went to bed hungry, as the state spent just 63 cents per prisoner per day for food. Puerto Rican prisoners suffered special discrimination; prisoner mail was censored, and since corrections officers couldn’t read Spanish, they simply tossed those letters in the trash. Black prisoners had it worst of all, as they were relegated to the lowest-paid jobs and racially harassed by the prison’s almost all-white staff.

Drawing strength from the civil rights activism of the era, Attica’s prisoners lobbied to improve their living conditions. But all they got were vague, unfulfilled promises. After months of mounting tensions, on Sept. 9, 1971, a group of prisoners saw a chance to overpower an officer. The Attica riot was underway. [more]