Book Prize Recipient, 2017

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.

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