Monday, August 28, 2017

Attica, at Last

Heather Ann Thompson’s book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy deserves the Pulitzer Prize it won.

I couldn’t help seeing its echoes as I read it in this age of Trump and law and order (emphasis on order): politicians exploiting a situation because of their ambitions, small-town people being manipulated for “jobs jobs jobs,” and just how much of it can be attributed to racism.

Some facts I learned about the situation before the uprising:
  • Many of the men at Attica were not the "hard cases" most of us assume they were. There were guys in there for parole violations, minor damage to vehicles, forging a money order for $124, driving without a license, not to mention drug addiction.
  • They were kept in inhumane conditions (absurdly tight water limits, for instance), usually far from their families who therefore could not visit.
  • Spanish-speaking inmates had access to no reading material at all. Their letters were routinely destroyed because the prison employed no one who could do the censorship reviews done for letters written in English.
  • Medical care was provided by two doctors who spoke no Spanish and generally provided such substandard care that they had been reported by other staff.
  • The prison was increasingly overcrowded and understaffed. There were many other specific problems with how the inmates were treated, both generally and based on race and ethnicity.
Thompson, a University of Michigan historian, provides a detailed narrative of what led to the Attica uprising and how it went down. One guard was killed by prisoners in the initial action, but after that, the 38 hostages (mostly guards plus a few civilian employees) were protected and treated as well as the prisoners could treat them, given their own lack of resources in Yard D.

The key issue was that the governor (Nelson Rockefeller, who had national aspirations) “refused to believe that [the uprising] was born of the genuine grievances of prisoners on the inside” (p. 81). Instead, he thought it was all about black militants and agitators. This paranoia about militants extended to the towns around Attica, where “On every major street corner stood men armed with rifles and, responding to wholly unfounded rumors that black militants were coming to town to kidnap white children, the village of Attica closed its schools” (p. 137).

All of that was operationalized into a huge gathering of state troopers, guards, and county sheriffs outside the prison, waiting for the word to attack.
It was obvious to anyone who was at Attica that members of law enforcement were so riled up that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for them to do their job dispassionately should they be sent in to retake the prison (p. 153).
What’s more,
The bloody outcome was virtually guaranteed by the New York State Police’s choice of weaponry. Two six-man teams of troopers would position themselves on the rooftops of A and C Blocks with rifles at the ready to provide cover for the men launching the assault below. The men leading the assault on D Yard would themselves be armed with .270 caliber rifles, which utilized unjacketed bullets, a kind of ammunition that causes such enormous damage to human flesh that it was banned by the Geneva Conventions. Many of the other troopers and COs preparing to go in were also carrying other weapons that would have a particularly brutal effect, such as shotguns filled with deadly buckshot pellets that sprayed out in a wide arc. As all state officials knew…no prisoner in the yard was carrying a firearm (p. 157).
So basically, the state’s forces could have retaken the yard and freed the hostages without killing anyone, but they chose to use the worst possible methods. Then they used them in the worst possible way, as Thompson recounts, going right for the hostages and shooting them indiscriminately. The National Guard, which was also present at the prison, was not used in the retaking, even though they were the ones with training and rules of engagement that would have been more effective and less deadly. The weapons were handed out with no attempt to trace who had which one, and troopers were encouraged to remove their badges and other identifiers.

In the end, 29 prisoners and nine hostages were killed (all by bullets). A tenth hostage later died at the hospital. Some of the prisoners who were killed are known to have been alive when Yard D had been secured; they were killed afterward in reprisal.

When the assault was barely over, prison officials announced to the press and huge crowd assembled outside that the prisoners had killed the hostages by cutting their throats, including a fabrication that one hostage had been castrated, his genitals stuffed into his mouth. This compounded the racist, dehumanizing narrative that backed up the state’s actions, and led to weeks and months of egregious actions against the surviving prisoners inside Attica, including torture and denial of medical care.

In the weeks that followed, the medical examiner — a registered Republican known to be a conservative — was pressured to say the hostages had died at the hands of the prisoners, but his autopsies and later reviews showed it had been bullets (shot by state actors) that killed them. The M.E. and others were intimidated and hung out to dry in the press over these reports, their lives threatened by anonymous perpetrators for years afterwards.

The creation of fake news and propaganda after the assault resonated strongly with our present predicament. The urban-rural divide is also clearly part of it as well, with a white supremacist underpinning to the COs' worldview:
[Three days after the retaking] When a Department of Corrections official finally released a “full list of inmate casulaties with their backgrounds” to the media outside Attica..., indicating the crime each slain man had been convicted of after reading his name, according to reporters, “Prison guards threw up clenched fists…[and shouted] ‘White Power’” (p. 242).
Finally, the book shows just how far we have to go toward prison reform in this country. A 1972 review of what happened at Attica was critical on this front, finding that New York corrections
needed to invest in far “more training, more education, less profiteering, less warehousing, more attention to civil rights abuses, less censorship, greater mental health resources, adequate legal assistance..., brighter and cheerier prison facilities, better food, better medical and dental care” (p. 275). 
How many of those outcomes have improved in American prisons and jails since the early 1970s? I'm afraid not very many, as highlighted by the work of Joe Arpaio in Phoenix and David Clarke in Milwaukee, let alone the increasing privatization of prisons and the general increase in the number of people incarcerated.

Prisoners are the least among us, and it's easier to pretend they don’t exist or don’t matter than to acknowledge the ways their treatment reflects our own humanity — or lack thereof.

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