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Attica's legacy still looms large today

Attica inmates are pictured on the cover of "Blood in the Water."
Pantheon Books
Heather Ann Thompson's book has earned several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

While the Attica prison uprising began 50 years ago on Sept. 9, 1971, the impact of the event continues today. Historian Heather Ann Thompson has worked to come to grips with that reality. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy is the product of 13 years of research, investigation and tenacity.

“I stumbled upon records the state didn’t even know existed,” Thompson told WBFO during a lengthy interview. New York State, Thompson said, has worked to thwart investigations into the Attica uprising almost since the first day. That obfuscation continues 50 years later.

“Contrary to what state officials later wanted the American public to think, it was not a planned uprising. It was not something that some militants had been masterminding behind the scenes,” Thompson said. “Like so many prisons today, the conditions were abominable. Ones that most of the American public really had no idea bout. That’s because prisons then, like now, are completely sealed off from the public.”

Over 1,000 inmates were able to take control of much of the prison for the next four days. Negotiations over prison conditions were conducted throughout the those days. At one point, state officials had agreed to many of the proposed reforms.

On the morning of Sept. 13, New York State Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ended the discussions and ordered state police to retake the facility. The four-day siege and more falsehoods, Thompson says, combined to build anger among law enforcement personnel.

“The FBI is filling their heads with rumors of prisoner atrocities going on inside. They’re itching to get in and exact some form of revenge on the prisoners for having conducted this uprising in the first place,” Thompson said. “They (State Police) are passing out weapons indiscriminately — some of them state-issued weapons, many personal weapons. No one is writing down serial numbers. Nobody is even trying to pretend this is going be an orderly operation.”

A 15-minute assault brought the uprising to an end, with a high casualty count that included 128 men shot. Of those, 39 were killed. The victims were inmates and corrections officers and state employees who were held hostage. There was more to come.

“The amount of abuse and torture that goes on in that facility, and no one can get in, no one can see what’s going on. It is only later that all these stories get corroborated. It is decades later that these men finally get their day in a civil court,” Thompson said.

Damages were eventually paid by New York State, she said, but the effort was fueled by countless hours and work from attorneys, many of whom worked with no compensation.

The state’s treatment of its employees may have been worse.

“For the guards it is literally the case that the state of New York shows up at their houses of grieving widows and family members and basically says ‘Here’s a little money to tide you over. We understand your pain. We understand your trauma. Here’s a little money. We know that you’re trying to feed a family. Here’s some money for groceries. Here’s a check.’ And these checks were pittances. And, of course, so many of these widows did have families to feed and they cashed these checks,” Thompson said. “They never told them — and we no know deliberately so — that these checks were drawn of funds that were Workman Compensation funds.”

The acceptance of Workman Compensation prevented family members from suing New York for damages.

Thompson said more of the “heroes” of the Attica story emerged among the children and widows of the hostages. The group Forgotten Victims of Attica put together a campaign to shame New York State into reaching a financial settlement — a conclusion that arrived four decades after the Attica uprising.

“But at the end of the day, who are the worst, who are the worst people?" Thompson asked. "Believe it or not, it’s not even necessarily the people who commit the torture or the people who carry the guns. It’s the people behind the desks who time and time again could see this evil happening, who saw the trauma, who saw how much damage was being done, and at any point could have owned it, stopped it, made it go away, made it better.”

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Jay joined Buffalo Toronto Public Media in 2008 and has been local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" ever since. In June, 2022, he was named one of the co-hosts of WBFO's "Buffalo, What's Next."

A graduate of St. Mary's of the Lake School, St. Francis High School and Buffalo State College, Jay has worked most of his professional career in Buffalo. Outside of public media, he continues in longstanding roles as the public address announcer for the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League and as play-by-play voice of Canisius College basketball.