6 Nov 2018
Attica Prison Uprising: Thompson’s Decade Long Research
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, by Heather Ann Thompson, provides a thoroughly researched account of the events surrounding the Attica prison uprising that left 39 prisoners and hostages dead. Thompson’s thirteen-year research into the events of the Attica Prison uprising is exemplified through her easily readable 724 pages of text, which includes an exhaustive 105 pages of notes. Thompson’s book has been met with heavy criticism for being too “soft” on the prisoners and their intentions, as well as her decision to print the names of the guards accused of killing the inmates. However, it is the firm opinion of this reader that Thompson accomplishes her main goal that she states within the introduction of her text—which is to restore the events of the Attica prison uprising and the prisoners’ struggle back into the collective memory of the public. What truly makes Thompson’s narrative so compelling is the types of evidence she utilizes within her book. Her use of interviews, archives, and previously undiscovered primary sources put her scholarship a cut above the rest in terms of methodology.
One of the most important pieces of evidence that Thompson utilizes in her book was found completely by accident in a western New York county courthouse. It was in a small backroom that Thompson stumbled upon thousands of documents detailing aspects of the Attica uprising that were not known to the public. It was among these files that Thompson discovered the confidential memo that disclosed the order from then Governor Nelson Rockefeller to retake the prison—which ultimately resulted in the deaths of 43 individuals. Not only that, the memo also revealed Rockefeller had secretly worked with police and Attica prison personnel to come up with one official story to give to the public as a cover-up.
It would be a lie to say that this book is an easy read. Despite its textual readability, Thompson’s narrative relays the emotional and frustrating experience of the victims’ families to achieve justice and ultimately closure from this tragic event. It is difficult to read this book and not think about how regressive the current political justice system truly is, with cover-ups like the ones concerning Attica ever the more common. Thompson reminds readers at the end of her text that the abuses prisoners suffer under the corrupt correctional systems are still ongoing, but so is their fight to be treated as human beings.
Associated Press. “New Book on Attica Riot Names Shooters.” Recordonline.com. August 14, 2016. Accessed November 06, 2018. https://www.recordonline.com/article/20160813/NEWS/160819726.
Thompson, Heather Ann. Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. New York: Pantheon, 2016.