FORTY years ago today, more than 1,000 inmates at Attica Correctional Facility began a major civil and human rights protest — an uprising that is barely mentioned in textbooks but nevertheless was one of the most important rebellions in American history.That's the opening salvo of this article, entitled "The Lingering Injustice of Attica," by Temple University history professor Heather Ann Thompson. She tries to set the record straight on what caused the protest, how it was (violently) resolved, and what it means for America in our current era of mass incarceration. Her conclusions:
The portrayal of [Attica] prisoners as incorrigible animals contributed to a distrust of prisoners; the erosion of hard-won prison reforms; and the modern era of mass incarceration. Not coincidentally, it was [then-Governor Nelson A.] Rockefeller who, in 1973, signed the law establishing mandatory prison terms for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs, which became a model for similar legislation elsewhere.
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.