A historian reconsiders America’s most notorious prison riot.
In September 1971, after a tense four-day standoff, the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York was finally back under state control, the remaining hostages freed, and officials, particularly those in Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s office, felt relieved. When it soon came apparent, however, that tales of hostage abuse—castrations, slit throats—were false, that the gunfire could have come only from corrections officers and troopers during the assault, the state began almost immediately to cover up what had happened. Thompson (History/Univ. of Michigan; Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City, 2001, etc.) devotes the first half of her narrative to describing in compelling detail the appalling conditions at the prison, the incident that sparked the uprising, the prisoners’ grievances and demands, and the subsequent, tense negotiations overseen by a hastily formed committee of observers, culminating in the facility’s extraordinarily violent retaking. It’s the book’s second half, however, that offers the real eye-opener for readers whose interest in Attica and knowledge of what happened ended when the headlines receded. Thompson carefully tracks the uprising’s dismal aftermath, a bewildering, decadeslong series of commissions, investigations, lawsuits (civil and criminal), and settlement talks. At almost every juncture, she reveals state officials—prison guards, troopers, prosecutors, judges, politicians—acting in bad faith, either criminally or through gross negligence. Her report, not entirely unjustly, will be attacked as too “pro-prisoner,” but her critics will be obliged to account for her sensitive treatment of the state’s callous handling of the surviving hostages and their families and her not infrequent criticisms of the actors who glommed on to the Attica story for their own political purposes. Moreover, detractors will be forced to match the evidence she musters, 10 years’ worth of research—many files remain sealed to this day—her discovery of records long hidden, her numerous firsthand interviews, and her archival deep-dive. Meanwhile, conditions at Attica remain worse than they were in 1971.
Impressively authoritative and thoughtfully composed.