March 6, 2015

“Attica fueled a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement that supported law and order over everything else.”

After Attica

We’re revisiting the Attica prison revolt in 1971. It began as a civil rights protest and ended in a massacre when Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered his state troopers to teargas the prisoners and open fire. In the story only now coming clear, Attica marks the twilight of the civil rights movement and the dawn of mass incarceration. 1398415831000-attica123-slim Two weeks ago we saw a two-day riot at the Willacy County Correctional Center, a privately-run immigration prison in Texas. And just last Sunday, Tom Robbins and the Marshall Project — the new outlet dedicated to criminal-justice news — surfaced the story of one prisoner’s violent beating at the hands of three guards. After pleading guilty, the guards responsible will lose their jobs, but not their pensions. They themselves avoid prison. Now that may just be taken as a sign of progress — state officials said it was the first time corrections officers had been tried for a nonsexual assault on a prisoner. Or, as Soffiyah Elijah and New York’s Correctional Association has it, it may be just one more reason to close Attica for good. hqdefaultThe prison remains among the worst places nationally in terms of violence, both physical and sexual, perpetrated by guards against inmates and among inmates, too. We don’t want to speak of the place as curse, but the cry of “Attica! Attica!” (beyond being a much-repeated movie quote) remains a bloody reminder of the violent world behind prison walls. So, we’re with Heather Ann Thompson, who’s tracked the ghosts of Attica and asked just how the place haunts us. And it announced, by historical coincidence, a new boom in prison populations:

Mass incarceration is itself a force in communities that is destructive, that impoverishes people, that reduces their civil rights…rather than mass incarceration just being one of the many things that happens to people – because it is so comprehensive, because it is so devastating, when you incarcerate an entire community and take away their rights to vote and make it impossible for them to get jobs and orphan their children, you literally change the course of history.


The Sound of Attica, from Rocky to Richard Pryor

Some of the extended cuts from our show are available here: from Rocky and Nixon chatting amiably after the former gave his Attica report (next to none of it’s true), to Muhammad Ali’s amped-up poetic performance and our own wonderful guest, Azan Reid, talking about his experience of Mattapan in the 1980s and 1990s.

“General Contraband”


Photo: John Shearer

Our new producer Pat Tomaino has posted a short piece on the battle over the artifacts of Attica: hats, bats, helmets, clothes, and a Spanish-language version of the New Testament. Read the whole piece on Medium.

If the last century was a battlefield, which side gets to keep the spent cartridges and the shrouds of the dead? Do they belong to the victims, to the state, or to history? For more than forty years, Attica inmates, corrections officers, and their families have fought New York over those questions. Much of the physical evidence from the brutal raid that ended the Attica uprising is gone forever, allegedly destroyed by troopers sweeping the facility. However, hundreds of articles that were tagged and stored by Troop A of the New York State Police were only temporarily lost. As the Albany Times Union reported, those letters, weapons, badges, photos, and scraps of clothing lay nearly forgotten for 40 years until archivists at the New York State Museum convinced the police to hand them over in 2011. Once headed for the waste pile, suddenly the 2,100 objects were open to any historian willing to drive to Albany. Not anymore.

Guest List
Heather Ann Thompson
professor of history at Temple University and author of the forthcoming book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy.
Bruce Western
professor of sociology and of criminal justice policy at Harvard.
Azan Reid
ex-convict and cook living in Boston.
Reading List
A Brutal Beating Wakes Attica’s Ghosts
Tom Robbins, The Marshall Project / The New York Times
An incendiary story of life inside Attica Correctional Facility, then and now, and the story of the 2011 beating of a prisoner by three guards, all of whom pled guilty this week. The guards will lose their jobs, but not their pensions — they'll serve no time.
2014 Report on Attica Correctional Facility
Correctional Association of New York
The nonprofit Correctional Association (celebrating its 170th anniversary this week) catalogues just what makes Attica an unusually bad prison, with high incidence of violence, abuse, racism and sexual assault.
Inner-City Violence in the Age of Mass Incarceration
Heather Ann Thompson, The Atlantic
Our Attica expert writes about the move to mass incarceration — and how that, at least as much as the persistent facts of poverty and segregation, accounts for renewed crime and violence in the inner city.

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  • Potter

    My blood pressure just went up reading the New York Times article on this from this past Sunday. It’s a long article but it’s riveting and well told. As we gasp at the crimes committed by Isil/Daesh we should look at ourselves, what we look away from in our own midst. Attica should be closed period. I have not listened to the show yet; I need to catch my breath. Thank you for highlighting this story.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The ROS “Attica” discussion has a very fertile “tag line” on the screen:

    Are we living in the world that Attica made?

    Take the outstanding ROS Attica discussion and “stretch the canvas” on which it is placed. It leads to Gitmo,
    Bagram, Camp Bucca, CIA “dark sites,”Abu Ghraib, as well as Gaza as a cage or prison for the Palestinians.

    This will bring you to imperial spillovers of Incarceration Nation:

    The Taguba Report (May 2004) is the common name of an official Army Regulation 15-6 military inquiry conducted in 2004 into the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse by United States military forces in Iraq.

    Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the senior officer in Iraq, appointed Major
    General Antonio Taguba to open an Army Regulation 15-6
    investigation into the conduct of the 800th Military Police Brigade.[1][2]

    According to the report, the inquiry was initiated because:

    “LTG Sanchez requested an investigation of detention
    and internment operations by the Brigade from 1 November 2003 to present. LTG
    Sanchez cited recent reports of detainee abuse, escapes from confinement
    facilities, and accountability lapses, which indicated systemic problems within
    the brigade and suggested a lack of clear standards, proficiency, and leadership.”

    In his Findings of Fact,
    Major General Taguba wrote:

    “That between October and December 2003, at the Abu Ghraib Confinement Facility (BCCF), numerous
    incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on
    several detainees. This systemic and illegal abuse of detainees was
    intentionally perpetrated by several members of the military police guard force
    (372nd Military Police Company, 320th Military Police Battalion, 800th MP
    Brigade), in Tier (section) 1-A of the Abu Ghraib Prison (BCCF). The
    allegations of abuse were substantiated by detailed witness statements (ANNEX
    26) and the discovery of extremely graphic photographic evidence…In addition
    to the aforementioned crimes, there were also abuses committed by members of
    the 325th MI Battalion, 205th MI Brigade, and Joint Interrogation and
    Debriefing Center (JIDC). Specifically, on 24 November 2003, [name redacted] ,
    205th MI Brigade, sought to degrade a detainee by having him strip and returned
    to cell naked. (ANNEXES 26 and 53)”.

    In addition he found:

    “…that the intentional abuse
    of detainees by military police personnel included the following acts:

    a. (S) Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; jumping on their naked feet;

    b. (S) Videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees;

    c. (S) Forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for

    d. (S) Forcing detainees to remove their clothing and keeping them naked for
    several days at a time;

    e. (S) Forcing naked male detainees to wear women’s underwear;

    f. (S) Forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being
    photographed and videotaped;

    g. (S) Arranging naked male detainees in a pile and then jumping on them;

    h. (S) Positioning a naked detainee on a MRE Box, with a sandbag on his head,
    and attaching wires to his fingers, toes, and penis to simulate electric

    i. (S) Writing “I am a Rapest” (sic) on the leg of a detainee alleged to have
    forcibly raped a 15-year old fellow detainee, and then photographing him naked;

    j. (S) Placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee’s neck and having a
    female Soldier pose for a picture;

    k. (S) A male MP guard having sex with a female detainee;

    l. (S) Using military working dogs (without muzzles) to intimidate and frighten
    detainees, and in at least one case biting and severely injuring a detainee;

    m. (S) Taking photographs of dead Iraqi detainees. (ANNEXES
    25 and 26)”

    And that these “…findings are
    amply supported by written confessions provided by several of the suspects,
    written statements provided by detainees, and witness statements.”

    Major General Taguba also determined
    that the testimony of several detainees was “…credible based on the
    clarity of their statements and supporting evidence provided by other witnesses
    (ANNEX 26)”. The detainees described the following acts of abuse:

    “a. (U) Breaking chemical
    lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees;

    b. (U) Threatening detainees with a charged 9mm pistol;

    c. (U) Pouring cold water on naked detainees;

    d. (U) Beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair;

    e. (U) Threatening male detainees with rape;

    f. (U) Allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who
    was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell;

    g. (U) Sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick.

    h. (U) Using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with
    threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee.”


    Taguba Report

    In other words, we have been witnessing the globalization of Attica.

    it is fueled by American hegemonial manias and poisonous neocon wirepulling.

    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    Heather Ann Thompson was excellent, and in fact she is an angel in the disguise of historian. What in the world is wrong with us? Partly it is racism, or mainly or wholly, but a big part of that is the lack of consciousness about it.

    Our prison system is a means of acting out this white supremacy “thing”. I am remembering, Chris, the program you did, Parachute Radio, into Jamaica. You had a guest talking about a pilot program in Kingston of prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation in their system. It was aiming to actually help people regain their lives. Wouldn’t it be better to help people get a leg up in this world and and to make a contribution?… perhaps amazing contributions?

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The neocon-driven American foreign policy can be thought of as the globalization of Attica.
    Two movies capture this:

    1.”Taxi to the Dark Side”

    “Taxi to the Dark Side is a 2007 documentary film directed by American
    filmmaker Alex Gibney, and produced by Eva Orner and Susannah Shipman, which won
    the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.[1]
    It focuses on the killing of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar,[2]
    beaten to death by American soldiers while being held in extrajudicial detention at the Parwan Detention Facility.”

    Taxi to the Dark Side examines the USA’s policy on torture and
    interrogation in general, specifically the CIA’s use of torture and
    their research into sensory deprivation. The film includes
    opposition to the use of torture from its political and military opponents, as
    well as the defense of such methods; attempts by Congress to uphold the
    standards of the Geneva Convention forbidding torture; and
    popularization of the use of torture techniques in shows such as 24.”

    2. “Standard Operating Procedure” (film)

    “Standard Operating Procedure is a 2008 documentary film which explores
    the meaning of the photographs taken by U.S. military
    police at the Abu Ghraib prison in late 2003, the content of
    which revealed the torture and abuse of its
    prisoners by U.S. soldiers and subsequently resulted in a public scandal.
    The film was directed by Errol Morris.”

    The rise of an “Isra-America” conquest-and-torture duopoly reminds one of the 1994 Woody Harelson movie, “Natural Born Killers.”

    The ROS setup question for this program reads:

    “Are we living in the world that Attica made?”

    This question is best answered on this global scale.

    Richard Melson