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. 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. The 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.
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.