America's War against Freedom: Prison Slavery & the Attica Rebellion
September 12, 2017 David A Love and Vijay Das / Al Jazeera & Shaun Gude / Jacobin Magazine
The US has the world's highest incarceration -- 760 people per 100,000. Between 1999-2010 the use of private prisons increased by 40% at the state level and by 784% at the federal prison level. This rapid expansion is the subject of much debate and has been termed the "Prison-Industrial Complex." Prisoner abuse runs rampant and constitutes a modern-day version of slavery. The 1,300 Attica Prison inmates who rebelled on September 9, 1971 remain a symbol of resistance in the face of institutional injustice.
There are more prisoners in the US than any other nation in the world. The US has 5% of the world's population, but accounts for 25% of its prison population. Over the last three decades the number held in US federal prisons has jumped by nearly 80%.
Slavery in the US Prison System If you want to find an example of modern day slavery,
look no further than US prisons David A Love and Vijay Das / Al Jazeera
(September 9, 2017) -- Today marks one year since the largest prison labour strike in US history. More than 24,000 prisoners across 29 prisons in 12 states protested against inhumane conditions, timing it around the anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising, a prisoner strike now 46 years old.
That violent uprising originated from prisoners rebelling against overcrowded cells, unsanitary conditions, medical neglect and abuse. From Attica to the strike led by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee last year, these protests draw attention to an ugly truth: Prisoner abuse runs rampant and it has extended into modern-day versions of slavery. Last year's strike organisers described slavery-like conditions in prisons in the nationwide call to action.
Slavery persists by another name today. Young men and women of colour toil away in 21st-century fields, sow in hand. And Corporate America is cracking the whip.
Influenced by enormous corporate lobbying, the United States Congress enacted the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program in 1979 which permitted US companies to use prison labour. Coupled with the drastic increase in the prison population during this period, profits for participating companies and revenue for the government and its private contractors soared.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons now runs a programme called Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) that pays inmates under one dollar an hour. The programme generated $500 million in sales in 2016 with little of that cash being passed down to prison workers. Stateside, where much of the US addiction to mass incarceration lies, is no different. California's prison labour programme is expected to produce some $232 million in sales in 2017.
These exploited labourers are disproportionately African American and Latino -- a demographic status quo resulting from the draconian sentencing and other criminal justice policies ransacking minority communities across the United States. African Americans are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than that of whites. In states like Virginia and Oklahoma, one in every 14 or 15 African American men are put in prison.
We lock people of colour up at alarming rates. We put them to work. Corporations gain. This story is an age-old American tradition. Throughout history, our nation has successfully pulled back corporate greed, but private corporations have always found new ways to reap enormous wealth from cheap labour.
The historical circumstances following the abolition of slavery provide the necessary context to understand how corporations function in a de facto replacement for slavery. Although the US Constitution's Thirteenth Amendment prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude, it made an exception -- a loophole for "punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted", which made prison labour possible.
Following the Civil War, the Southern economy was in shambles and the slaves were emancipated. A cheap labour source was needed, and the convict lease system was invented. States leased out their convicts to industrialists and planters to work in locations such as railroads, coal mines and plantations, and entrepreneurs bought and sold these leases.
With little capital investment required and no need to care for the health of the prisoners, the system of economic exploitation became highly profitable for businesses and states and even cheaper than slavery. For example, in 1883 convict leasing provided Alabama with 10 percent of its revenue, 73 percent in 1898. Leased convicts were treated abysmally, with death rates 10 times higher than prisoners in states that did not employ leased convict labour. Secret graveyards contained the bodies of prisoners who had been tortured and beaten to death.
The viability of the convict lease system required that black people be returned to their former status as a source of labour. Hence, the Black Codes were enacted to suppress the rights of the recently emancipated African Americans, and criminalise them for minor offences such as vagrancy. Under the vagrancy laws, any black person under the protection of a white person could be swept up by the system for simply loitering, as black people were rounded up in this manner to provide a source of nearly free labour.
Fault Lines -- The Prison Factory
Today, prison labour is a billion-dollar industry, and the corporate beneficiaries of this new slavery include some of the largest corporations and most widely known brands. For example, Walmart has purchased produce from farms, where women prisoners face bad working conditions, inadequate medical care and very low pay.
Workers flipping burgers and frying french fries for minimum wage at McDonald's wear uniforms that were manufactured by prison labourers.
Further, UNICOR manages 83 factories and more than 12,000 prison labourers who earn as little as 23 cents an hour working at call centres, manufacturing items such as military body armour, and in past years, defective combat helmets. In 2013, federal inmates made $100m worth of military uniforms.
UNICOR has also provided prison labour in the past to produce Patriot missile partsfor defence contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, and parts for others such as Boeing and General Dynamics.
Corporations such as Starbucks, AT&T, Target, and Nordstrom have also profited from prison labour at some point in the past as well.
Some critics oppose the characterisation of the US prison system as a slave labour camp. For example, James Kilgore argues that prison labour is infrequently used, and identifying multinational corporations that profit from it loses sight of the key issues behind mass incarceration.
Kilgore is correct in his analysis that a lack of economic opportunity coupled with draconian laws results in a perverse private incentive to drive up mass incarceration. We should enhance employment options for former inmates to reduce recidivism and integrate returning citizens back into society. However, this does not mean that corporations do not profit from prisons and prison labour today and it is obscene that this still happens.
The Trump administration reversing the Obama-era order to phase out private prisons and enacting new law-and-order policies to increase arrests and fill these prisons will only increase opportunities for profit for Trump's corporate donors and their many investments in mass incarceration. Exploiting prison labour is consistent with this troubling trend.
Over a century and a half since the abolition of slavery, the dreaded institution still lives on in another, dressed up form. Taking advantage of a constitutional loophole, corporate profiteers continue the modern-day version of the convict lease system. In the land of the free, the dollar still takes precedence over human rights, and that which can be monetised and exploited for profit will be, regardless of ethical or moral considerations.
Once again, race, criminal justice and capitalism have joined forces to deprive captive black and brown bodies of their human rights. In the age of President Donald Trumpand hardliner Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the return to "law and order" and a war on drugs signals a reversal of progress the US was making untethering itself from the expansive grip of a carceral state.
The anniversary of last year's prison strike is a chilling reminder that one need not point to authoritarian regimes in distant countries to find examples of blatant labour rights violations. If you want to find slavery in the US, look no further than its penitentiaries, jails and detention centres where the consequences of being locked-up extend much farther than doing time.
David A Love is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist and commentator.
Vijay Das is a Washington-based essayist and policy advocate who writes on social, economic and criminal justice issues.
The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
On the eve of what would become the US's most famous prison uprising, the inmates of Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York endured deplorable conditions. Their infections went untreated, their teeth fell out due to negligible dental care -- they even lacked adequate access to soap and toilet paper.
On September 9, 1971, these pent-up grievances simmered over when roughly 1,300 inmates took over the prison. For four days they were effectively in charge. They made demands on the state (better medical care, fewer limits on their freedom of expression, immunity from prosecution for rebelling), negotiated with mediators brought in at their behest (including, briefly, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale), and generally asserted their worth as human beings.
But whatever the prisoners gained in those few days was quickly pulverized by the brute force of the state. Seeking dignity, they instead unleashed the wrath of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller.
On the morning of September 13, state law enforcement streamed into the prison by the hundreds, and killed by the dozens. When they were finished, thirty-nine men (twenty-nine prisoners and ten state employees) lay dead. And for the inmates who survived (especially rebellion leaders like Frank "Big Black" Smith), ghastly torture and severe intimidation soon followed.
Top officials never faced legal reprisals for the atrocities at Attica. They shielded themselves from prosecution, and did their best to squirrel away evidence about what happened on that autumn morning.
Yet Attica lives. It's still on the lips of anti-prison activists and striking inmates, still in the panicked nightmares of law-and-order types. The American carceral state, built up feverishly in the rebellion's wake, rests in its shadow.
Few are more qualified to detail what transpired at Attica -- and its lasting effects -- than University of Michigan historian Heather Ann Thompson, the author of an exceptional new book on the rebellion. Earlier this week, Jacobin associate editor Shawn Gude caught up with Thompson to talk about the politics of the Attica rebels, the uprising's highs and lows, and why solidarity outside the prison walls is vital to ending the injustices within them. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
Shawn Gude Even before the uprising, state officials were terrified of radical inmates and what they called "outside agitators," and they ended up blaming a lot of what happened on these figures. How politicized were Attica inmates? What groups had an especially large following? And to what extent did this drive the uprising?
Heather Ann Thompson
I was surprised to discover that while it was true that there were many political guys in Attica, and that there was a real thirst to read everyone from George Jackson to Fanon to Mao, that this was a relatively small percentage of the population -- and quite divided, frankly.
So the Panthers stuck to themselves, and there were the Black Muslims (overwhelmingly members of the Nation of Islam, but there were also Five Percenters, and different offshoots). There were some white radicals there from the Weather Underground, but those groups largely, you know, stayed to themselves. They did try to conduct educational rap sessions in the yard.
But one of the really extraordinary things about Attica, and what is kind of ironic, is that what politicizes the men in Attica, what really makes them go from having basic human right claims and sort of a guttural desire for improved living conditions to being political, and to thinking about this through the lens of politics, is the state's brutality.
Nothing makes these guys more militant than a) the state's refusal to help them when they try to work through the process to get their conditions improved, and b) when they retake the prison with such brutality. That's what makes a prisoner, for example, like "Big Black" very political. It was his experience at the hands of the state, not his reading of Marx or Fanon.
Shawn Gude How did the interaction between the more politicized and the less politicized prisoners shape the uprising?
Heather Ann Thompson
Well there's no question that it is the more politically aware prisoners, and certainly those who had spent a lot of time thinking through questions of struggle and strategy, that were part of the first group that tried to bring conditions to the attention of the state -- the so-called Attica Liberation Faction. And those people will play a very central role in the rebellion because they understand the importance of being organized.
Once this whole thing jumps off, they understand the importance of, first of all, having this democratic process where the guys in the cell block elect leaders to speak for them, and then to really hash out what are the most important demands. And it's in those first three days, where these guys are sorting through what the most important demands are, that you really do see politics and democracy at work in the yard.
Some are much more political and initially called for things like transportation to a non-imperialist country -- imagining going, for example, to places like Algeria or wherever -- but others are focused much more on the ability to have Spanish-speaking guards. And it's in that dialogue that ultimately the final demands are crafted. But there's no question that the political guys are helping to organize this and give it coherence.
Shawn Gude Can you talk about the events immediately leading up to the rebellion? Even though prisoners had long-running grievances about prison conditions, the rebellion itself was quite spontaneous and perhaps even accidental.
Heather Ann Thompson
Yes, indeed, and I would actually take it a step further and say that it was actually management-created. Because the night before what came to be known as the Attica Rebellion, there was a relatively routine altercation between a guard and a prisoner out in the rec yard. The guard was hassling the prisoner to, you know, stop horsing around, and he told him to get back into the cell, into something called keeplock, where you're basically just locked down.
What made that incident unusual was that the frustration had reached such a point that this prisoner struck the guard. And that was new. Because one of the things about all prisons is that peace is maintained through the legitimacy of authority -- or at least that's what they're striving for. And of course when this prisoner hits the guard, everyone just stopped in shock.
The administration decides to retaliate. What it does is not only cell extractions that night, but the next morning, it decides to punish the entire company that that guy was from and to effectively not let them go out to rec by locking them into a tunnel, so that they have to go back to their cells.
The problem was, the prison management never even told their own guards that this was the plan. When it locks everybody in that hallway, utter panic ensues -- on the part of the guards, on the part of the prisoners.
So in fact, it was touched off by this management decision, because of the panic.
It is a riot, I think, in the truest sense of the word, in those first few moments. But again, this is where the political organization comes in, because this is the moment that it does become a rebellion, when some of the most outspoken and really thoughtful of the prisoners (particularly a guy named Roger Champen), decide that it's crucial that we make the most of this and tell the world, shine the light on prison conditions, use this as an opportunity.
Shawn Gude Let's get into the rebellion itself. You have a really great passage in which you describe prisoners feeling the sense of freedom for the first time, really, since their incarceration. One inmate says, laying out in the prison yard the first night, that it's the first time he's seen the stars in twenty-two years. To what extent did this feeling of freedom characterize the uprising, and what were some of the darker moments inside the prison those four days?
Heather Ann Thompson
It's so interesting that struck you, because it did me as well. And what really got to me about so many of those descriptions in the book is that it actually was perhaps less about freedom and more about experiencing what human beings, by their form and their nature, are meant to experience. Such as starlight or sunshine or fresh air.
It's actually, if you think about it, quite interesting that in all the lists of demands, from the most militant to the most basic, nobody said, "Open the walls of Attica." What they said was, we want to be treated like human beings. So the experience of being in that yard and being able to have touch and sunshine and starlight and air and freedom of movement -- all these things that make us humans -- are what characterized those four days for the men.
Of course, there was also terror, and fear. They never knew at what point the state might come in. There were snipers on the roof at all times threatening them and jeering at them, filming them. They were at every moment in a state of panic, and they were exhausted, because people were afraid to sleep for fear of a nightly attack.
Unfortunately, there were really grimmer moments during that rebellion. There was a lot of paranoia on the part of some of the prisoners, and it resulted in three prisoners being accused of treason and taken away and placed in a cell, where later we understand that they were murdered.
But even that is such a difficult story to tell -- and the murder was brutal and needs to be told -- because it was not part of the rebellion in the sense that it was far away from where the rebellion was. It was off in the recesses of a dark cell and down to a very small group of people -- one of whom was probably suffering a psychotic breakdown. I mean, he was so paranoid that some of these guys were out to get him.
Shawn Gude Rumors of prison atrocities were actively spread by state officials and were ubiquitous in the news media and in the town of Attica itself during the uprising. There were reports of hostages getting castrated, race rioting, all these sorts of things. How were hostages actually treated inside the prison, and how did this perception of prisoner barbarity affect the form that the retaking took?
Heather Ann Thompson
The initial hours of what I would call the riot were quite brutal for many of the guards. They were, especially the ones who had been particularly brutal to prisoners, beaten very severely. One of them actually will die of injuries, because he is overrun and beaten so mercilessly -- the guy who holds the keys in the center of the prison in the first minutes of the riot.
But from the moment that the rebellion begins, which is relatively quickly, these hostages are actively protected. The prisoners surround them with two rings of their fellow men to make sure that no one takes revenge on the guards, these guards are given mattresses and blankets and fed, and, even by their own words, treated really really well. And by day four, they too are saying to the governor, "Look, these guys have a bunch of grievances, keep talking, give these guys what they need." They were advocating for negotiations as well. So they're treated well.
But what's so extraordinary is that meanwhile, you've got not just prison officials, but federal law enforcement, spreading vicious rumors about what is happening in the yard, and they're getting police on the outside of the yard more and more and more furious.
It bears mention that this is a state prison, in a tiny town, in upstate New York, and from the instant that it happens, the FBI is not only interested, but teletypes on all of this are going up the chain of command to literally every branch of the US government and military -- the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the CIA, the president, the vice president, the attorney general. And that says a great deal about what the state, both local and federal, thinks of the risks that they faced with this prison rebellion.
Shawn Gude The retaking ended up being quite brutal, and also just entirely avoidable. How did things go so wrong?
Heather Ann Thompson
Well, first of all, it was completely avoidable. There's no question in my mind that there were myriad ways that this assault could have been avoided. But even if the decision had ultimately been made to retake the prison, every other example of retaking a prison was quite different than this one. Guards would go in, nobody would ever have firearms because everybody understood that the prisoners did not have firearms, and it would be more like a hand-to-hand combat retaking situation.
In this case, the governor -- and I think this is very significant -- decides to send in not just the New York State Police, but really the lowest level guy, from the nearby town of Batavia, to lead this assault. The very head of the state police is AWOL, so he's not on hand.
The governor does not ask the National Guard, who actually have a plan for retaking a prison. And my understanding of this is that Rockefeller very much knows that it's going to be bloody, and wants to keep as much distance from the responsibility for it as he can -- basically, pinning it on the lowest level of the state prison authority.
So he unleashes nearly six hundred men, troopers and corrections officers who are armed to the teeth with their own personal weapons, and weapons that are being passed out at the supply truck without regard for serial numbers or identification of the specific officers. Then these guys rip off their identification badges, so that they can do whatever they want once they get inside.
And it is one of the most horrific assaults in US history. The doctors that go in later liken it to My Lai, to a Civil War painting, to Vietnam writ large, because it is nothing but carnage. And, by the way, this is after they had already doused the yard in CS gas (which is a powder that clings to your nasal passages). People were sick, they were retching, they were already disabled when the shooting began.
Shawn Gude This might be somewhat speculative, but what do you think went into Rockefeller's decision to retake the prison like this? Was it a combination of his political future and his fierce anticommunism, or what's your read on what was motivating him at that point?
Heather Ann Thompson
I'm not sure that it actually requires much speculation. I think that the evidence is quite clear that it was all of those things plus racial politics.
Firstly, he was a diehard Cold Warrior. He literally saw himself as a defender of this nation against the communist threat, whether that involved operations in Central America, or whether it involved Attica -- he was very consistent on the idea that there's a communist threat everywhere.
He also had long wanted to be the president of the United States. He had watched the party move farther and farther to the right, and wanted to have greater conservative credentials, so in that sense, Attica is his opportunity to make that clear.
Thirdly, we just simply cannot sidestep the deep, deep racial politics of this retaking. When he talks to Nixon, Nixon has one question of significance, which is: "Is this a black thing? Was this started by the blacks?" It is clear when you listen to the conversation, not only does Rockefeller affirm that, but that is enough of an explanation for them both. This is about putting down black civil rights, it is about having no regard whatsoever for black life.
And indeed, the retaking reflects this as well, because the racial epithets that are combined with the physical abuse just cannot be underestimated. The torture that takes place afterwards is nothing short of a modern lynching.
Shawn Gude Some of our readers might be surprised to know that less than half the book is devoted to the uprising itself. Why were the subsequent years and decades so important to this story, and to what extent do you think prisoners ended up getting some semblance of justice?
Heather Ann Thompson
It was clear to me quite early on that the rebellion was a pivotal part of the story, but the more, perhaps, lastingly important part of the story was the way in which two things unfold: one, the state's determination -- really a shocking level of determination -- to make sure that no members of law enforcement or politicians were ever held accountable for the atrocities at Attica.
And then at the same time, the truly remarkable spirit of struggle that lived on well past Attica, on the part of both the hostages and the prisoners -- that no matter how marginalized, no matter how attacked, no matter how dismissed by the public as well as politicians, they never give up. Their struggle takes thirty years for the prisoners, plus, forty years for the guards, plus, to be heard.
Right after the rebellion, of course, it was such a disaster that there had to be some form of an investigation. The initial investigation into Attica is a criminal investigation. That is to say, what crimes were committed, either in the course of the rebellion or during the retaking. And the plan, ostensibly, was that both prisoner and law enforcement crimes were going to be equally investigated and equally prosecuted should they exist.
What happens, of course, is only the prosecution of the prisoners -- fifty-two prisoners get indicted -- so the first big story after the rebellion is the indictment of these prisoners for over 1,400 crimes. It's really an extraordinary state indictment, probably one of the largest series of indictments ever, in American history, or certainly in New York State. So all prisoner energies are taken up defending themselves.
There are ultimately five trials, and in one of the most remarkable defense efforts in American history -- akin only to what happens in the South during Freedom Summer or perhaps surrounding the Scottsboro Boys years earlier -- young law students and lawyers from across the country descend on upstate New York and offer their legal services to these prisoners.
And then, of course, there are the civil cases: both the prisoners and the hostages try to get the state to be accountable via civil rights charges, on the part of the prisoners, and via the workman's compensation system, on the part of the hostages.
Did they get justice? No. They got recompense. They got restitution, finally, in the form of money, for some of the damages of what they suffered. For example, the killing of someone at Attica would net a family $6,500 when all was said and done.
It was pathetic, but it allowed them to get the story told, so in that sense it was incredibly important. That spirit is one of the ultimate legacies of Attica: that as much as this rebellion touches off one of the worst backlashes in American history that results in us being the largest jailer in the world, it was also an enduring story of struggle.
Shawn Gude You mentioned the really remarkable suppression of information by the state. Can you expand on that a little bit? From the hours after the uprising to the present day, the state has worked doggedly to prevent information about the uprising from coming to light.
Heather Ann Thompson
It's funny, because anyone who writes about prisons knows that part of that is just the deal when you're trying to write about prison. If you want to know what happens behind bars, good luck -- because the state is not even required to keep a lot of vitally important information like, for example, how many hours of solitary its prisoners do in a year.
That is compounded in Attica, triply compounded, by the fact that the state committed crimes at Attica. And so therefore, from the minute that the tear gas clears over the yard, the state, particularly and initially the state police, is working overtime to make sure that their own are protected.
They coerce and alter statements, they tamper with photographs and film, they make it possible for some of the worst offending troopers to resign (or at least one of the worst offending troopers to resign rather than be prosecuted), they destroy evidence.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Because the state and politicians, meanwhile, are scrambling as well, to cover their rear ends.
I discovered a series of meetings that took place at Rockefeller's pool house at his mansion in Pocantico Hills, where in attendance within a very short time after the rebellion, you had the architects of the retaking: the state police (the guys who presumably could be prosecuted); the head of the Attica investigation (the state's attorney general, who should be prosecuting these guys); and the governor's men. And they all essentially are there to get their stories straight.
It's a remarkable story of protecting power.
Shawn Gude The nature of prisons obviously makes it enormously difficult to coordinate any sort of organized effort to resist inhumane conditions, but you note at the end of the book that it's gotten even harder for prisoners to do so, both in prisons themselves and through the legal system. Can you talk about some of those hurdles, and how solidarity work outside prisons might mitigate some of those barriers?
Heather Ann Thompson
In the immediate aftermath of Attica, there were in fact very important reforms, but because of the lies told about Attica, the American public had a quickly convenient excuse to become more punitive. That punitive moment truly begins by 1972 and only increases thereafter.
It not only resulted in prisoners doing more time than ever before in American history, more solitary than ever before in American history, but also having more lockdowns -- and, that is to say, less movements in prisons, less freedom of expression in prisons.
All of this has been accompanied by clamping down on prisoners' ability to even use the legal system to improve their conditions -- so not just passage of laws such as "three strikes" or mandatory minimums, but also the passage of something called the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which has effectively barred prisoners from using the courts to speak.
For all of those reasons, not only are conditions worse today than they were during Attica, but it's even more important than it was at Attica that people on the outside speak up and work to shine the light on what goes on behind prison walls. Because, of course, if you're serving solitary, as so many people are now, or you're on constant lockdown, you are physically and illegally prevented from telling the world what really goes on behind those walls.
Shawn Gude Forty-five years after the uprising, how does Attica live in the public imagination, and how does it inform the contemporary struggle against the carceral state?
Heather Ann Thompson
Because of the state's hard work at protecting its own and really distorting what happened at Attica, Attica had become synonymous with the "worst of the worst" -- with prisoners not as people but as animals, and so forth.
But in recent years, the veil is being lifted -- people are speaking out, and it's getting harder and harder for people to justify this prison buildup on the basis of prisoner brutality. Because there's just been so many stories of police brutality in the media again, both in the streets, such as police shootings, but also behind bars, such as at Attica, where this inmate George Williamswas severely beaten recently and almost died.
Attica once again is not synonymous with prisoner brutality, but is synonymous with prisoner resistance. I'm very grateful that that's true, and I'm also hopeful that the book really helps to make that clear -- that Attica touches off the backlash, but what it means is that no matter what someone did that lands them behind bars, they are human beings that will never ever give up that struggle.
Heather Ann Thompson is a historian and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water: the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy and Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City. She is on faculty at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
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