Politics & Law

Attica, forty years on

Jonathan Simon

On the editorial pages of the NYTimes, historian Heather Thompson reminds us all of how profoundly the Attica prison uprising and its violent suppression, 40 years ago, shaped our penal imagination and prepared the grounds for what we now call “mass incarceration.”(read it here) The prisoners who took nine correctional officers hostage and gained control over most of the prison had in mind mostly rather basic rights, decent medical care, an end to lingering racial discrimination among them.

For a moment, the sudden media attention on a prison being run by its inmates in a rather democratic and orderly way–including careful protection of the hostages and the absence of violence among inmates which had long been associated with classic prison riots–, seemed like it might deepen the already sympathetic view of prisoners many Americans had in the early 1970s.

Then Governor Rockefeller authorized an army of correctional officers and state police to violently retake the prison (despite five days of progressing negotiations). Thirty-nine men, twenty-nine prisoners and ten hostages, were killed, every one by the incoming bullets of state forces. Eager to cover-up what amounted to a massacre (and one followed by physical torture of the survivors) the state lied outrageously and told the media that the hostages had been killed with their throats slashed and in some cases castrated. The resulting fire storm of media coverage would reset the imagination of a generation. As Professor Thompson puts it:

We have all paid a very high price for the state’s lies and half-truths and its refusal to investigate and prosecute its own. The portrayal of prisoners as incorrigible animals contributed to a distrust of prisoners; the erosion of hard-won prison reforms; and the modern era of mass incarceration. Not coincidentally, it was Rockefeller who, in 1973, signed the law establishing mandatory prison terms for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs, which became a model for similar legislation elsewhere.

Forty years on it feels like America may be ready to abandon the demons of Attica even as we finally come to some historical reckoning with what it meant. Forty years seems to be about the length of time it takes dramatic changes in the social imaginary to run their course. The Israelites left Egypt in one day, but as the Book of Numbers tells us, it took forty years to leave slavery behind.

Today in California, with this summer’s prison hunger strike against our cruel and degrading SHU (supermax) units having achieved totally unexpected media coverage and political response, and the spring’s Brown v. Plata decision by the US Supreme Court calling on the state to recognize the humanity of its prisoners; signs abound that mass incarceration has itself become a scandal. But scandals only change things if people are committed to using them to promote a new way forward.

Forty years ago the events of Attica would be seized upon to promote the war on crime and shift it from a focus on police to one on prisons. Today there is for those ready to seize it, an opportunity to re-imagine both safety and dignity for another generation.

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Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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