Slaves of the State: Prison Uprisings and the Legacy of Attica
Nov 11, 2016
18 Min read time
A historian uncovered an archive of massacre at Attica—only to have the records disappear.
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy
Heather Ann Thompson
Pantheon, $35 (cloth)
In September a national network of incarcerated Americans conducted the first-ever coordinated prison strike against U.S. prison labor. The strike’s manifesto, “Call to Action Against Slavery in America,” declares, “We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves.” During the three-week strike, an estimated 24,000 prisoners in over 29 prisons across at least 23 states refused to work. Facing the threat of administrative lockdowns and individual punishments, the strike ended within a month with its demands unmet. Some individual prisoners are continuing the protest through hunger strikes and disturbances while others are making coordinated plans for future protests that will include activists outside prison. The strikers’ demands varied from state to state and included unionization, fair wages, better medical treatment, access to legal aid, and an end to degrading conditions, including corporal punishment and prolonged stays in solitary confinement. But the shared goal among all was to draw attention to the continued use in U.S. prisons of slave labor.
A total laboring prison population of nearly 900,000 people is coerced to work for a $2 billion-a-year prison industry. The average daily wage is 93 cents. Yet up to 80 percent of these meager wages can be withheld for reasons such as “room and board.” Four states, all in the South, pay no wages at all: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas. Indeed, while Texas prisoners work without any pay whatsoever, Texas Correctional Industries, a for-profit corporation operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, posted nearly $89 million in profits during 2014.
Striking prisoners point to the history of U.S. prison labor as analogous to slavery. Many Americans are shocked to learn that slave labor did not end in 1865 but continues to this day, with prisoners laboring without pay as legally sanctioned “slaves of the state.” Ironically, this tradition of legal enslavement has its origins in emancipation. In the same stroke that the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the private ownership of human beings, it also expanded states’ control over the lives and work of convicted criminals. By establishing that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States,” the amendment allowed slave labor to persist within prisons. The slave status of prisoners was confirmed by the 1871 Virginia decision Ruffin v. Commonwealth, which ruled that convicted criminals are “for the time being a slave of the State. . . . He is civiliter mortuus; and his estate, if he has any, is administered like that of a dead man.” During the nineteenth century, this loophole led to the legal re-enslavement of thousands of black men, especially in the South, incarcerated often for trivial Jim Crow offenses and then put to work by the prison system. Southern states even permitted the leasing of prisoners to private businesses, and this business of leasing slaves generated tremendous profit for both states and private businesses.
Slave labor continues to this day, with prisoners laboring without pay as legally sanctioned “slaves of the state.”
Seeking to end Depression-era wage competition against unpaid/low-paid prison labor, New Deal–era legislation prohibited prison labor for private profit by restricting prison labor to state-made goods. In 1979, however, Congress began with the passage of the Prison Industries Enhancement (PIE) Certification Program to chip away at this prohibition by allowing certain exceptions. Then, in 1993, Ray Allen, Texas State representative and key member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), expanded the PIE program by leading the passage of the Texas Prison Industries Act. ALEC has subsequently lobbied other states to pass their own version of the Prison Industries Act. This legislation further diluted the New Deal–era block on selling items made from prison labor across state lines by allowing third-party vendors to establish local businesses in states and then sell prison-made goods across state lines to national corporations. Since then, both individual states and private companies have greatly profited from unpaid and low-paid prison labor due to the explosive prison population associated with mass incarceration. Major U.S. companies with household names that benefit from prison labor include McDonald’s (prisoners produce frozen foods and process beef, chicken, milk, and bread), Starbucks (Washington prisoners package holiday coffee), Victoria’s Secret (female prisoners sew lingerie in South Carolina), Walmart (Wisconsin prisoners built a Walmart distribution center) and Whole Foods (purchased food from Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy and Quixotic Farming, which uses low-paid prison labor to raise fish and milk and herd goats).
By beginning their strike on September 9, the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, the prisoners aligned themselves with the arc of the Prisoners’ Rights Movement. At the same time, they also pointedly recalled the precedent of American authorities using violence to suppress efforts by prisoners to affirm their constitutional rights. This history is presented in rich detail in Heather Ann Thompson’s new book Blood in The Water, a nominee for this year’s National Book Award. Thompson’s monumental history of the Attica prison uprising and its aftermath exposes the elaborate state cover-up of the true agents of the Attica massacre—state authorities—in the hopes that this revelation might galvanize the American public to finally demand justice and an end to mass incarceration.
• • •
On September 9, 1971, 1,281 prisoners at Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, took control of the prison’s D-yard, where they held thirty-nine prison guards and employees hostage during a tense standoff with authorities that lasted nearly a week. Many of the Attica prisoners’ demands were the same as those of the prisoners striking this fall: an end to unpaid or underpaid forced labor and respect for prisoners’ basic legal and human rights.
After four days of negotiations, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who had risen to fame with tough-on-crime policies, ordered state police and national guardsmen to retake the prison. The bloody assault ended with forty-three people dead—thirty-three prisoners and ten correctional employees who’d been held as hostages—and eighty-nine wounded. Afterward, the state succeeded in preventing the public from learning that nearly all casualties were caused by state forces storming the prison, not by the prisoners. Indeed, the state would undertake a conspiracy to blame the deaths on the prisoners to paint them as butchers and discredit their political demands.
In Attica at the time of the uprising, most prisoners earned only 6–29 cents a day for their labor, while the prison made $1.2 million in sales a year from the prisoners’ work. Moreover, labor was not distributed fairly among the inmates. Whites were only 37 percent of the prisoner population but held more than two-thirds of the highest-paid jobs, while prisoners of color held 76 percent of positions in the low-paid metal shop. A host of New Deal legislation forbade prisoners from making goods for private profit, but goods for state use continued to dominate prison labor until the late 1970s. Prisoners working in state prison industries made such items as desks and chairs for state universities, assembled mops and brooms, and made license plates. In many southern prisons, hard agricultural labor and roadwork frequently ran into ten-hour workdays, six days a week.
Most Attica prisoners earned 6–29 cents a day for their labor, while the prison made $1.2 million a year from their work.
Spending only 63 cents a day on each prisoner’s meals, Attica literally starved prisoners. Just as racial hierarchies stratified labor, so too did race structure such day-to-day prison routines as mail censorship and family visitations. Puerto Rican and black prisoners in common-law relationships were often denied what married (and most often white) prisoners were routinely allowed. Attica prisoners suffered from prolonged solitary confinement, inadequate healthcare, extreme overcrowding, and corporal punishment.
It is in the face of these abuses and deprivations that Thompson elects to call what occurred at Attica an uprising rather than a riot, highlighting both the organization of the prisoners and the fundamentally political nature of their actions. Although the spark that lit the Attica uprising was a struggle between a corrections officer and a prisoner, the ability of the prisoners to quickly organize into a collective democratic expression was what made it possible for them to take and hold the prison. This immediacy was possible because the prison already had a number of grassroots organizations, whose leaders represented a wide spectrum of organizations, including the prominent speaker and Black Panther L. D. Barkley, the head of prisoner security Frank “Big Black” Smith, self-taught legal expert (a.k.a. prison house lawyer) Roger Champen, Black Muslim Richard X. Clark, Black Panther Tommy Hicks, activist Herbert X. Blyden, Young Lords leader Mariano “Dalou” Gonzalez, and Weatherman Sam Melville. They collectively organized fellow prisoners, protected the hostages, issued a list of grievances, and called for thirty-three external observers to visit the prison, including the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, Clarence Jones of the Amsterdam News, state senator John Dunne, state assemblyman Arthur Eve, and the radical attorney William Kunstler. The prisoners’ demands included amnesty for actions during the takeover, but also a demand to “stop slave labor” by applying the minimum wage law to prisoners; the allowance of prisoners to remain politically active, without intimidation or reprisals; religious freedom; the end of media censorship; better education; a healthier diet; more effective medical care; and an institutional process to air prisoner grievances.
The standoff at Attica reaching a tipping point when prison guard William Quinn died from injuries he sustained at the hands of prisoners during the takeover. During the initial intensity of seizing the prison, Quinn had been severely beaten and thrown from a window (the prisoners had only makeshift weapons). Although prisoners released him to state authorities for medical care, he succumbed to the injuries after the state delayed the urgent medical treatment that he needed.
After four days of tense negotiations, Rockefeller ordered state troopers to retake the prison. Helicopters above the prison unleashed a thick fog of gas that caused “tearing, nausea, and retching” and rendered the rebelling prisoners easy captives. But instead of rounding up the retching inmates, police and guardsmen—who after days of anxious waiting were now “buzzing from a toxic cocktail of hatred, fear, and aggression”—unleashed a barrage of fire from hundreds of guns. “The bullets were coming like rain,” one prisoner said. Neither rebelling prisoners nor hostages were spared. In one chilling example, Thompson describes how four bullets ripped through guard and hostage Mike Smith’s “stomach, dead center right between his navel and genitals, exploded upon impact, which sent shrapnel downward to his spine.” Joined by state police, correctional officers, local sheriffs, and park police, the assembled siege “removed their identification badges” and forcibly stormed the prison with batons swinging.
Prisoners were tortured for hours, sodomized with foreign objects, and forced to play shotgun roulette, then executed point-blank.
Once the prison was retaken, prisoners were stripped naked, made to crawl through the mud, and then proceed through a police line where they were beaten with clubs. Perceived leaders of the uprising fared far worse, however. Thompson recounts how some of them were tortured for hours, sodomized with foreign objects, and forced to play shotgun roulette. Sam Melville, whom witnesses claim survived the initial assault, was then executed point-blank. Much of this torture was racially motivated. One state trooper, for example, bragged of shooting a black prisoner and then giving a White Power salute.
Afterward the Rockefeller administration undertook an elaborate—and tragically quite effective—effort to cover up what happened at Attica. At every turn of the investigation, the state—from prison administrators, to state police, to the governor himself—colluded to disguise the fact that state forces had butchered those inside of the prison, blaming the carnage on the prisoners. State officials convinced the press, including The New York Times, to report that the throats of hostages had been slashed by inmates, even though this was patently false. Through her assiduous research, Thompson uncovered a confidential memo summarizing a secret meeting at Rockefeller’s mansion between state police, the state attorney general, and many of Rockefeller’s highest officials, during which they agreed upon the lie they would tell the world. Because Rockefeller had presidential ambitions, he needed to convince the public that he was “tough on crime” and the state assault at Attica served as an important proving ground for his law-and-order bona fides. On that score, Blood in the Water even reveals President Richard Nixon’s private reaction that “Rockefeller handled [Attica] well” because “you see it’s the black business. . . . he had to do it.”
By dedicating more than half of her book to the three-decade official effort to hide what happened at Attica—from the initial investigation to the decades-long prisoner lawsuit against the state that eventually yielded $12 million in damages to surviving Attica prisoners—Thompson compels readers to reckon with the fact that a central feature of hyperincarceration is the ability of the state to tell virtually any lie it wishes about the imprisoned, so profound is their loss of rights and legal standing.
Importantly, Blood in the Water makes clear that Attica represents the denial of justice within a criminal justice system. Thompson is the first to publicly name the fourteen troopers and six correction officers who were identified by investigators as the shooters. Murder in the state of New York has no statute of limitations and so the publication of these names could potentially have great consequence, as well as open the door to additional civil suits. Yet after Thompson uncovered these names in the archives of the Erie County courthouse, the material on which she based her revelations was disappeared from public view. While it is unlikely that the state will ever prosecute the crimes at Attica some forty-five years later, Thompson’s publication of these names provides the public with the historical truth, which might offer at least some comfort to the families of those who died.
• • •
Thompson characterizes the Attica legacy as Janus-faced. The book ends with a 2015 indictment of three correctional officers at Attica charged with minor misconduct after severely beating an inmate. As the first indictment of correctional officers in Attica’s history, Thompson concludes that this is “Attica’s most powerful legacy—prisoners’ determined resistance of oppression.” While Thompson acknowledges that concerns over the prison conditions that sparked the Attica uprising brought some immediate prison reforms, the book offers the disquieting conclusion that Attica’s political legacy is “a historically unprecedented backlash against all efforts to humanize prison conditions in America.” In fact, Attica convinced the American electorate “that police [should] be given even more support and even more punitive law to enforce.” Thompson concludes that the state’s ability to effectively refute its brutality initiated a pattern of prevarication and duplicity on the part of the criminal justice system, stretching from Attica to Ferguson—from the late-sixties’ rhetoric of law and order to the legislation of the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton eras that built mass incarceration. In Thompson’s final estimation, violence at Attica brutally silenced public debate over mass incarceration.
Donald Trump is poised to make good on his Nixonian “law and order” campaign pledge by denying criminal justice reform at the national level.
I would contend, though, that the political legacy of Attica remains contested. Following Attica, some outspoken black politicians, influential federal judges, and prisoner activists hailing from many different regions of the nation looked to the New York uprising as both inspiration and as a lesson learned. Although the state’s cover-up convinced the general public, eyewitness testimony from surviving prisoners was embraced by many left and black activists. Black politicians that came to the political fore with a post–civil rights electorate during the 1970s, such as New York’s Arthur Eve and Texas’s Mickey Leland and Eddie Bernice Johnson, remained criminal justice reformers throughout their political careers in part because they never forgot Attica’s hard lessons. Decades later, the civil lawsuit brought by Attica survivors, which stretched through the 1990s and which Thompson thoroughly recounts, logged hours of testimony about the brutality of the state’s assault, offering further evidence for those who had long held that the state had led a massacre.
Attica’s tragedy also inspired two decades of struggle by prisoners across the nation, who relied on work strikes, civil rights cases, and class-action lawsuits to demand public visibility. Indeed, rather than post-Attica deafness to prisoners’ claims, the number of prisoner civil rights suits increased from 218 in 1966 to almost nearly 26,000 in 1991, which represents a 789 percent increase since Attica’s 1971 uprising. Hoping to avoid “another Attica,” federal courts and judges were sympathetic to some of these prisoner claims, particularly against southern prisons. From 1965 to 1995, federal courts found that eight of the eleven states in the South and four states outside of the South (Alaska, Delaware, New Mexico, and Rhode Island) had such brutal prison conditions as to be unconstitutional, ordering these state prisons into federal receivership.
In 1985 Tennessee prisoners engaged in a system-wide work strike and hostage situation similar to the Attica uprising. Unlike Attica, however, prisoners avoided the bloodbath that Attica prisoners had experienced by returning their hostages peacefully in exchange for the opportunity to have a live television news conference so that prisoners could make the public aware that the state was ignoring federal court orders meant to improve inhumane prison conditions. Connecting their struggle to Attica, Tennessee’s rebelling prisoners unfurled a large hand-painted cloth in dripping red letters that connected past to present with the poignant admonition, “Remember Attica!!”
But with the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) in 1995, seeking remedy from federal courts has been severely curtailed. From the Attica uprising to today’s prison strike, prisoners remain mobilized against a system that denies their humanity and violates the constitutional prohibition of cruel and inhumane punishment. The recent national strike builds on this protest history and connects it to very recent strikes against both prisons and immigrant detention centers, including the “Pecos Insurrection” in Texas’s Reeves County detention complex in 2008; Georgia’s 2010 prison work strikes; California’s Pelican Bay hunger strikes of 2011–13; Alabama’s hunger and work strikes in 2014; and a large work strike in Texas just this past April.
The most recent prison strike was the first national prison work strike in U.S. history, yet the national media hardly covered it. From Texas to Ohio, many states simply denied that it was taking place—even as they dissembled by announcing administrative lockdowns rather than allow prisoners to work for fear that they would strike. Florida’s State Prison Department of Corrections, for instance, claimed that disturbances that occurred September 9, the first day of the strike, were “gang related” and not part of any specific set of demands. Other prisons silenced protests with additional, stricter punishment. In Washington Correctional Center for Women, for instance, three women who refused their work assignments in the library were sentenced to twenty days in solitary and could face reclassification and possibly the loss of their jobs. Ohio prisoner Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan, who has been placed on death row for his alleged leadership of the 1993 Lucasville prison rebellion, has been threatened with disciplinary action for speaking to NPR’s “On Point” about the strike. Azzurra Crispino, IWOC’s co-chair, points out that the media responds only when violence is present: “I’m a pacifist, I would like to see the strikes remain nonviolent. Yet in terms of the mainstream press coverage when there’s blood on the ground the prisons have to fill out reports that guards were hurt so they can’t deny strikes occurred.”
As Blood in the Water’s title suggests, violence within prison protest is a very complicated topic. Prisoners are rarely listened to or believed, and they live in a world where violence is a perpetual and intractable part of their lives. In order to be heard, they have to do something extraordinary in order to gain media attention. Even when they attempt to avoid violence during an organized protest or work strike, they often find that state violence is then visited upon them.
The astonishing takeaway from Thompson’s book is not that there was an incident of violence in the immediate takeover of Attica that took the life of a prison guard and three prisoners (we’ve known that story since it happened), but that the takeover and negotiations remained organized and nonviolent for four days while the state planned for nothing less than a massive show of force that ended in a torturous state massacre.
The truth is that any prison strike or hostage situation, no matter how carefully planned, can easily turn to violence, even if the prisoners want desperately to keep it peaceful. Most prisoners are not politicized. The Attica uprising started as a riot, during which some individual prisoners killed William Quinn and three other fellow prisoners. More remarkable is that this situation was able to be transformed in real time: what made it a political uprising was the way in which politicized prisoners quickly took control of an out-of-control situation, protected the hostages, organized the other prisoners, and asked for civilian observers to witness the negotiations in an effort to maintain peace and bring order. Even in the recent spate of prison uprisings and strikes, which ended nonviolently by design, activists probably avoided what happened at Attica only by a narrow margin.
Donald Trump as president-elect is now poised to make good on his Nixonian “law and order” campaign pledge by denying criminal justice reform at the national level, leaving few options other than local political action and open protest. To make the painful history of Attica meaningful and to chart a path forward for critical resistance, we must continue to bear witness and make spaces for prisoners’ voices to be heard—over and against narratives, such as the one advanced by New York state, which insist that any lapse of violence invalidates prisoners’ standing to demand basic legal rights and humane treatment. Heather Thompson’s Blood in the Water offers Attica as a rallying cry to dismantle the far-reaching power of today’s carceral state. As Nicholas Onwukwe, former prisoner and IWOC co-chair, put it: “Violence is the last gasp of an evil system against people standing up, demanding their dignity. It took mass struggle to end historical slavery and Jim Crow, so will it to end prison slavery today.”
November 11, 2016
18 Min read time