Title: Blood in the Water
Rating: 5 Stars
It’s interesting to read a history covering events that have occurred in my lifetime. I come into the history with some preconception based upon probably faulty memories or impressions that I have picked up. As I read, I realize how completely I misunderstood the event of which I have a vague memory.
The Attica prison uprising is such an event. It happened in 1971, when I was eight. Obviously, I don’t have any distinct memory of it, other than just extreme vagueness. However, the myth that was in my head was that a bunch of hardened imprisoned criminals rose up against some injustice with a planned uprising, things got out of hand, and the government had to step in to take back the prison.
As I was soon to discover, that narrative has only the barest semblance to reality. It’s hard to even know where to start.
Let’s start with the prisoners. Sure, there were some violent criminals incarcerated and there were some political radicals. However, many of the prisoners were there for trivial offenses. In one case, the prisoner was incarcerated for violating his parole by driving his vehicle without a driver’s license. Yes, you could get sent to Attica for that. Not only that, there were even paroled prisoners still incarcerated. Once you received parole, you could not actually leave the prison until you found a job. Keep in mind that a lot of the prisoners were from New York City, which is over 300 miles from Attica. If you didn’t have family working to get you a job, you were given an obsolete phone book and told to find a job. I am not making that up.
The prisoners had very few clothes, weekly showers, and basically no career counseling. It was basically a warehouse for poor minorities.
There was no master plan for the riot. There was confusion regarding prisoners who were supposed to be locked in their cells but instead got out and ate breakfast with their block. The correctional officers (CO) discovered this and while the prisoners were walking back after breakfast, they were locked into a walkway by the COs. The prisoners, trapped, not understanding what was going on, began to fight back against the COs and break down the locked gate. In the ensuing confusion, several guards were injured, including one seriously enough that he ultimately died. By the end, the prisoners had taken over one of the prison yards and had taken several COs as hostages.
This started four days of negotiations. In hindsight, it was pretty clear that the prisoners really weren’t going to accomplish anything. The officials were just biding time. In the meantime, more and more COs, deputies, and state police were gathering outside Attica, desperate to come in and free the hostages.
At the end of the negotiations, the law enforcement officers were given the go ahead to retake the prison. The state police were told to remove all insignia to prevent identification. Random law enforcement were assigned weapons and ammo with no attempt to log who was assigned what.
Tear gas was dropped and law enforcement rushed in, guns blazing. Amazingly, some of the prisoners stood in front of some of the hostages to protect them. In the ensuing chaos, nearly all hostages were wounded by gunfire and some eight or so died. Hundreds of prisoners were shot, some forty or so fatally. There were reports of prisoners desperately hiding in crawl spaces and law enforcement pointing their guns blindly into the space and firing. There were injured prisoners on the ground that were then shot. There were injured prisoners on the ground that were beaten. Prisoners were stabbed with screwdrivers. In the aftermath of the riot, to get back to their cells, prisoners were stripped naked and were forced to crawl through glass while running a gauntlet of COs beating them with clubs and sticks. For days, badly injured prisoners were refused medical treatment and for days, the torture of prisoners continued.
Thus does the forces of civilization save the world from the barbarous anarchy of a prison riot.
In the immediate aftermath of the riot, political, prison, and law enforcement officials all toe the official line that hostages were murdered by the prisoners, including a ghastly tale of a hostage that was castrated and had his genitals shoved into his mouth. Except for I think two prisoners, all deaths that happened during the riot were proven to be gun shot victims. It was known that no prisoners had guns. State police unsuccessfully tried to intimidate coroners conducting autopsies into concluding that the victims died from a cause other than gunfire.
Nearly all subsequent prosecutorial attempts were to convict the prisoners of crimes. No effective attempt was made to try any of the law enforcement officers who blindly ran into the prison wantonly firing, let alone the many acts of torture that took place in its aftermath.
The prisoners never gave up. They found some lawyers and fought for over thirty years to get the state to admit their wrongdoing. Ultimately, they did prevail and the surviving members did get some sum of money. It was not at all commiserate with the brutality that they experienced, but it was at least some acknowledgment of their suffering.
The hostages and their families, if anything, were treated even worse by the state. They were essentially tricked into cashing checks that effectively gave them no recourse to sue the state. Make no mistake about it. The state went about this scheme with aforethought to prevent them from taking action. Some of the widows refused to back down and continued to fight for their justice. In their case, it took closer to forty years, but eventually they reached a settlement with the state as well. As with the prisoners, not commiserate with their suffering, but at least it was something.
Over forty years later, there are still documents that the state of New York refuses to release. In fact, some documents that the author had access to earlier have been pulled back.
This obviously was not happy reading. It’s a grim litany of government callous misdeeds and its craven attempts to cover it up.