Blood in the Water; Heather Ann Thompson; 2017; Pantheon Books; 571 pgs, a lot of notes, index
I recently read Prisoner's of Isolation which focused on solitary confinement in the Canadian penal system. Canada's practices were, as I described, barbaric. There is some light at the end of the tunnel for Canada.
This book is a much broader indictment of the US penal system, and specifically Attica. Canada was bad. The US was and is far, far worse.
Attica is a name familiar to anyone of my generation. I was a teen when it happened, and I must admit I did not pay much attention. Attica is a town and a prison in upstate New Your. On Sept 9, 1971, after months of simmering issues, the shit hit the fan. The prisoners took over, controlled the yard, and had many CO (correction officers) hostages. In the process, a CO was killed. After that, the cons took responsibility for the hostages and protected them. Rumors fostered by the state spread: castrations, torture, slit throats and such. The COs and the SPs (State Police) smelled blood. A few days later, the state (lead by the warden and the state head of corrections) let to dogs loose. What followed was chaos, torture and barbarity. Many cons and several hostage COs were killed, all by other COs. No attempts were made to match bullets to guns, guns to COs, or do any of that police professionalism stuff.
Bigotry was a major issue. Most of the prison population was non-white. Guard training was an issue: they had none. General cowboy attitudes, tough on crime types, and the general view that COs walked on water and cons were animals did the rest. These were jail towns and they hired any moron who could tote a gun from the local populace to do a "professional" job.
The top names in law were embroiled in a 40 year long cover up of crimes. The state was utterly heartless to everyone involved, including the families of injured or killed COs. The state refused to pay the salaries of the hostage COs because they were "off the clock". The state lost evidence, or denied it existed, or claimed privilege, or said it existed but it was unimportant throughout it all. The state even sent "support cheques" to widows, knowing that if they were cashed, they would, under NY state law, constitute an acceptance of compensation… i.e.: take this pittance which you desperately need, but if you do, you can never, ever sue. IOW: the state conned its own citizens.
You would think things would have gotten better, but not in the US of A. Some precedents were set, some rules changed, and some people made whole (ish). But mostly, the US doubled down, prison populations soared, , conditions got worse, for profit prisons made it worse still, and it is worse than ever now.
This is a long but gripping read. There are real heroes, real bad guys (most of whom died before the law could ever catch up to them), and lots of victims. The worst thing about it, though, is just how trivial it is for politicians to completely derail the justice system whenever they want and use it as a cudgel.
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Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.