2017 / Heather Ann Thompson

Heather Ann Thompson, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, is the 2017 recipient of The Ridenhour Book Prize.

On September 9, 1971, nearly 1,300 prisoners took over the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York to protest years of mistreatment. Holding guards and civilian employees hostage, the prisoners negotiated with officials for improved conditions during the four long days and nights that followed.

On September 13, the state abruptly sent hundreds of heavily armed troopers and correction officers to retake the prison by force. Their gunfire killed thirty-nine men — hostages as well as prisoners — and severely wounded more than one hundred others. In the ensuing hours, weeks, and months, troopers and officers brutally retaliated against the prisoners. And, ultimately, New York State authorities prosecuted only the prisoners, never once bringing charges against the officials involved in the retaking and its aftermath and neglecting to provide support to the survivors and the families of the men who had been killed.

Drawing from more than a decade of extensive research, Thompson shed new light on every aspect of the uprising and its legacy, giving voice to all those who took part in this forty-five-year fight for justice: prisoners, former hostages, families of the victims, lawyers and judges, and state officials and members of law enforcement.

“Thompson’s remarkable reporting and riveting story-telling expose how politicians and law enforcement lied to the American public about the Attica uprising, whipping up anti-prisoner sentiment that ensured a deadly outcome. But the damage did not end in 1971: Thompson’s detailed research traces how, for decades, the justice system subsequently conspired to deny justice for those prisoners and hostages who were injured and killed,” said the selection committee. “Thompson’s book reminds us of the abusive and intolerable conditions of our prison system that have been unaddressed for decades. In these cynical political times, her book makes clear the consequences when the lies politicians tell remain unexamined.”

“The Ridenhour Prizes symbolize the power of truth-telling, and they remind us all that we must reckon with every one of the events that have shaped our nation — even if they did so in ways painful or traumatic — so that we might learn from them,” said Heather Ann Thompson.

“For that reason, I am deeply, deeply honored to be a recipient of the 2017 Ridenhour Book Prize. Indeed to receive this award for writing about the Attica prison uprising of 1971 is particularly moving to me. In short, because the truth of what actually happened during this iconic event was denied and distorted for so many decades, hundreds of people — the prisoners and guards who somehow managed to survive the terrible abuses that actually took place there at the hands of law enforcement — were never able to have their trauma recognized and thus were never able to heal. Not only was their painful past denied, but the lies told by state officials about Attica had a devastating impact on the future of the nation as a whole. Americans came away from one of the 20th century’s most remarkable civil rights protests calling not for a more humane treatment of prisoners, but rather for one of the world’s most punitive and inhumane justice systems. Blood in the Water tries to tell the truth of what really happened at Attica so that its victims might finally be heard, and so that we all might now imagine a more humane and just future. To be awarded a Ridenhour Prize for this effort is both humbling and incredible.”

Thompson, a Professor of History in the Department of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan, is also the author of Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City and the editor of Speaking Out: Activism and Protest in the 1960s and 1970s.

2017 Book Prize Speech

Transcript of the Truth-Telling speech:

HEATHER ANN THOMPSON:  Thank you so, so much for that generous, those generous remarks. I really, first, just want to thank the Ridenhour Prize committee and the Nation Institute for honoring this book and really much more importantly for honoring all the work that seeks to tell the stories of those who far too often are prevented from speaking, particularly speaking out publicly, about their own struggles and about the injustices that they face or that they have discovered or stumbled upon.

I also want to, of course, give a profound thank you to my agent, Geri Thoma, who stood by this book for 13 years so that it could see the light of the press, and my editors at Pantheon Books for helping me to make this book as good as I think it could have been after that amount of time.

I also want to thank my family, my children, Dylan and Wilder, Ava, Kim and Shawn, and my niece Isabel and my husband John, who couldn’t be here. And my sister, Saskia, who is here, my parents, Ann and Frank Thompson and, of course, my best friend, Agnes who’s going to watch this soon, I hope.

Mostly, though, I want to thank the scores of men who not only launched one of the most important justice struggles of the 20th century, but also paid such an unimaginably high price for daring to do so. Without them, without their determination to tell their story despite the extraordinary lengths that state officials went to try to silence them, and no matter how long it might take them, without them I could not have written this book that you all are so generously honoring today.

Back in 1971, in the Attica State Correctional Facility in upstate New York nearly 1,300 men came together in the hope that they might secure the most basic human rights. But after four long days and nights of fruitful negotiations with the state of New York, these men, prisoners and corrections officers alike, were literally gunned down when the Governor, Nelson Rockefeller, decided without warning, to retake the prison with hundreds of heavily armed state troopers.

Not only were 128 unarmed men shot that morning, some six, seven times, and not only did 39 of those men die of their gunshot wounds, and not only were the survivors, those who managed to survive this assault then tortured, literally tortured, for days and weeks thereafter, but state officials then spent the next many, many decades protecting those who had committed those brutal acts and outright denying the trauma that the men inside of Attica endured.

So this book is for those men, those prisoners and guards who were killed at Attica back in 1971 and those who managed to survive its brutal end. And it is also for the more than two million men and women who are locked up in prisons across America today. My book hopes to remind us all that those who live behind bars are human beings. And perhaps by shining a bit more light on the horrors that happen behind the high walls of one prison 45 years ago, I hope that this book might also move us all to keep a much closer eye to what happens behind bars today.

As I wrote in the last line of the book, the Attica prison uprising of 1971 shows the nation that even the most marginalized citizens will never stop fighting to be treated as human beings. It testifies to this irrepressible demand for justice, this is Attica’s legacy. Thank you.