Posted September 13, 2011

Temple historian discusses the "lingering injustice" of Attica

September 9th marked the 40th Anniversary of the first day of the Attica uprising, a protest by inmates at western New York's infamous correctional facility, which played out over a five-day period.

Though it is barely mentioned in textbooks, the Attica uprising is one of the most important rebellions in American history, said Temple historian Heather Ann Thompson, who is writing the first comprehensive history of the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971 and its legacy.

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times, she writes, "As America begins to rethink the wisdom of mass imprisonment; Attica reminds us that prisoners are in fact human beings who will struggle mightily when they are too long oppressed. It shows as well that we all suffer when the state overreacts to cries for reform."

According to Thompson, the protest was based in part upon prisoners' demands for decent medical care, humane parole and less discriminatory policies. When it was over, 39 people were dead, including ten correctional officers and civilian employees.

But much of the information about the rebellion remains under the state's lock and key. To recover the story of Attica, Thompson has immersed herself in legal, state, federal, prison and personal records related to the Attica uprising and its aftermath (some never-before-seen) located in archives, governmental institutions and various individual collections around the country and the world.

"America has paid a price for the secrecy surrounding the Attica uprising and the state's refusal to investigate — a pervasive distrust of prisoners, the erosion of hard-won prison reforms and the modern era of mass incarceration," said Thompson.

Thompson holds an appointment in the Department of African American Studies and is also on the faculty of the Department of History in Temple's College of Liberal Arts.