Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy

Thompson, Heather Ann

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard
  • Date of entry: Nov-09-2021


1971 seems like a very long time ago. Richard Nixon was President, the Vietnam War was still raging, and China and Russia were the sworn enemies of the United States. Fifty years have passed, and at first blush, the world seems like a different place. Unfortunately, the more things change, the more they can stay the same.

One of the most horrifying events of that year was the prisoner revolt at the Attica State Prison in upstate New York in early September. I did not live in New York at the time and have only a vague recollection of reading the newspaper reports of what happened. But ask anyone living in New York who was at least 15 years old at the time and they will tell you that they have vivid memories of what transpired over the five days from September 9-13. In this extraordinary book, Heather Ann Thompson recounts in all its gory detail the prisoner uprising, the bloody retaking of the prison by state troopers, and the nearly thirty years of investigation and legal wrangling that occurred in its wake.

By the late summer of 1971, there had been prisoner rebellions in state penitentiaries across the country including a nearby high security facility in Auburn NY. There was increasing tension and escalating prisoner protests against the inhumane conditions in all prisons including overcrowded cells, limited access to food and fresh air, and routine brutal treatment at the hands of the correction officers. Finally, Attica prison erupted on September 9 after a minor skirmish between guards and prisoners. The prisoners took 38 hostages and over a thousand prisoners escaped their cells and crowded into the prison yard. They created a communal space to take care of each other that was equipped with meager resources. There was a central meeting area for the leaders of the uprising. They created a human shield around the hostages to protect them from harm.

Over the next four days, there were intense negotiations between prison officials and the prisoners. A team of observers including Tom Wicker was  bought in at the request of the  prisoners to serve as witnesses and act as potential mediators. Finally, after negotiations fell apart over the prisoner demand for amnesty, without warning, the troopers dropped tear gas cannisters from helicopters and stormed the yard. Tragically, when the  dust had settled, 32 prisoners and 11 hostages had been killed by bullets fired by the troopers. This terrifying sequence of events is described in the first third of the book. The remaining part details how prison wardens destroyed critical forensic evidence and collaborated with state politicians  up the chain to Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s office to portray the events as a successful suppression of a radical-supported attack against the state. They solicited false testimony and pursued a one-sided prosecution of the prisoners for the murder of one guard and several prisoners. There are too many villains in the story but also some true heroes – a coroner who refused to back down from his post-mortem examination showing that all the victims were killed by gunfire, knowing that only the state troopers had firearms. The prisoners who confronted the legal system, defense lawyers willing to take up the cause of the prisoners, a brave state lawyer who was an essential whistleblower, all were vital in the pursuit of truth. At the end, the justice system failed nearly everyone involved, and Attica Prison remained an important part of the New York State correction system. The only monument is a stone at the entrance to the prison memorializing the hostages who died.


This book is over 500 pages long. Along with another thick book titled, A bright shining lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, it sat on a shelf in our apartment forever. For some reason that I cannot explain, I picked the book up about a month ago and could not pull myself away from this intense and horrifying story. For more than a decade, Heather Thompson  immersed herself in the archives and interviews with key actors in the Attica uprising story. She unearthed the bloody shirt that had been removed from two victims of the siege. Her research is evident on every page.

There are two deeply disturbing underlying themes in the book. The impact of politics and the sheer desire to retain power had a distorting influence of how the uprising was handled and how it was investigated. After watching Nixon get elected as the law-and-order candidate, Rockefeller felt compelled to take the same stance. Consequently, he refused to get involved in the negotiations or visit the prison, something that may have lowered the temperature and enabled a peaceful resolution of the siege. It is disquieting to read how many politicians and officials put self-interest and survival ahead of the pursuit of truth. 

In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, systemic changes were made to improve the well-being of the prisoners such as limits on the amount of time they could be put in solitary confinement, more time outside each day, better food, and access to legal resources. But over time, things slowly began to revert and look more like 1971 than 2021. There has been a continued growth in the number of prisons and a prison population that is larger than in any other Western country. There is disproportionate incarceration of Black and Hispanic men, often for mild offenses that would not warrant detention in a high security prison. Mistreatment of  prisoners, unfortunately, is more the rule than the exception. Many explanations are offered – political positions, self-interest, and institutional inertia. But it does underscore how hard it is to make change real.

This book is five years old, and it described an event that happened 50 years ago. One would have hoped it would be of historical interest only. But the events of the past two  years prove otherwise. As the country as whole country and the medical profession in particular undergo scrutiny about racist attitudes practices, this book is a reminder that it will take an extended and concerted effort to achieve equal treatment for citizens in the penal system and in the health system. It is easy to justify harsh treatment of criminals in prison or poor people living in squalid conditions. But we need to remind ourselves that a society can only be judged based on how it treats the most unfortunate among us. This applies across the board,  housing, education, and healthcare.


Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in History


Pantheon Books

Place Published

New York



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