51Ok705RhtL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Heather Ann Thompson’s much anticipated book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, has finally been released by Pantheon. What makes this particular account of the much-chronicled riot unique is the discovery of a treasure trove of transcripts and other court documents that were never meant to see the light of day. As Thompson writes in her Introduction,

One might well wonder why it has taken forty-five years for a comprehensive history of the Attica prison uprising of 1971 to be written. The answer is simple: the most important details of this story have been deliberately kept from the public. Literally thousands of boxes of documents relating to these events are sealed or next to impossible to access.

Given the compulsive, almost paranoid, control over information that the New York DOCCS continues to exert today, this is hardly surprising. Thanks to years of research and reporting, though, Thompson was rewarded with a couple of phone calls alerting her to thousands of documents and artifacts that were deposited at the Erie County courthouse and the New York State Museum. Most people who have done a lot of research can well imagine Thompson’s feelings on first encountering musty documents and blood-soaked artifacts, stacked up in darkened rooms. It must have been like Howard Carter entering King Tut’s tomb.

Nearly all of the items have since sunk back into the earth, somehow, and vanished from the public eye. “I can only hope,” Thompson writes in an end note, “that these vital materials that were in Buffalo and Albany have not been destroyed…”

51IoDOIXubL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_A couple of words about the book’s rhetoric, before I get into the content.

First, the title. The use of “Uprising” is clearly deliberate, and, I think, a good choice. Not that “riot” would be wrong; according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word comes from the Medieval Latin riota, meaning “quarrel, dispute, uproar.” But the connotation of mindless, directionless violence is unavoidable, and it does not accurately reflect the deliberate nature of most of the uprising. Chapter 11 of Blood, for example, is called, “Order Out of Chaos.” The hook part of the title—”Blood in the Water”—is unfortunate. It’s certainly catchy, but feels unoriginal, and unnecessarily lurid. In fact, there is already a series of historical novels called Blood in the Water, based on ocean combat.

This overwrought quality sometimes creeps over into the prose, as well. For example, Part 1 opens with a profile of one of the principles in the story:

Frank “Big Black” Smith wondered if he would ever get used to being locked up. His cell felt like a casket with the lid left off just far enough for noise, bugs, and weather to get in, and conditions outside of that cage were also grim.

This is not a direct quote from Smith, nor is it cited. Thompson probably didn’t know exactly what Smith was wondering, and there’s no way to tell if the casket metaphor was his, or hers. The Attica uprising is sufficiently compelling in its own right; this particular lily does not need to be gilded.

But such concerns are pedantic. They are also insignificant in the face of the sheer magnitude of Thompson’s undertaking. Almost anyone who has composed a paper knows how hard it is to structure the thing, even if it’s only five pages long. Thompson created an extensive narrative from a mass of flotsam and jetsam—brief notes, personal letters, interviews, artifacts, court reports, unpublished dissertations, previous articles, and newspaper accounts—most of it piled in jumbles on shelves, or packed indiscriminately into boxes. Her citation is at once immense and extraordinarily detailed. Some of it appears to be necessarily ad hoc, due to the unique nature of her sources. Here’s one specimen:

Russell G. Oswald, Commissioner, Department of Correctional Services, Memorandum to Nelson A. Rockefeller, Governor, Subject: “Activities Report—February 8, 1973–March 7, 1973,” March 7, 1973, Nelson A. Rockefeller gubernatorial records, Departmental Reports, Series 28, New York (State), Governor (1959–1973: Rockefeller), Record Group 15, Box 2, Folder 32, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

This is definitely one to share with my students when they’re having trouble citing a web page.

Next Up: The Causes.

Inmates at Attica State Prison in Attica, N.Y., raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity, Sept. 1971, during the Attica uprising, which took the lives of 43 people. (AP Photo)


“Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows—only hard with luminous edges—and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.” -Edward Abbey, Flatland (1884)

In July of 2013, Dustin Cable, from the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia, gave the world an invaluable document: The Racial Dot Map.

The map displays 308,745,538 dots, one for each person residing in the United States at the location they were counted during the 2010 Census. Each dot is color-coded by the individual’s race and ethnicity…Whites are coded as blue; African-Americans, green; Asians, red; Hispanics, orange; and all other racial categories are coded as brown.

One could spend all day reading Cable’s map. I zoomed straight in on Rochester, NY, where I live. The map reveals the racial topography; natural and man made boundaries carve up the surface like an X-Acto knife:1

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 9.10.50 PM

The purplish semicircle to the southwest, pushing out into the Genesee River, is the University of Rochester. Across the river to the west is the 19th Ward, almost solid green. The green and orange dots continue in a clockwise arc toward the northeast, in an area known as The Crescent. In a 2003 article in the New York Times, Michelle York reported that “[t]he crescent is home to 27 percent of the city’s residents and 80 percent of the city’s homicides.” According to the article,

The reasons behind the burst of violence…include the lagging upstate economy, a steady migration of residents to the suburbs and a growing number of abandoned houses prone to become centers of drug sales and use. Rochester also has a school system that performs poorly. Only a quarter of high school freshmen last four years and graduate. Some 93 percent of school-age children live in poverty…

Just south of The Crescent, past the sharp boundary of East Main St., is a wedge of deep blue—the upscale East End. According to its web site, “The East End…is Upstate NY’s premier destination for fine dining, nightlife, entertainment and the arts, doing business and living an urban lifestyle.” Blue dots scatter to the east, south, and west, dissolving into seemingly thin air.

I zoomed out from the Rochester map and started scrolling to the left, to visit Buffalo, when a tiny, dark blip caught my attention. At first, I thought it was another scratch on my antediluvian MacBook, but it was moving. So I zoomed in:
Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 10.39.23 AMThe blue sprinkles at the top represent the village of Attica. The rectangle at the bottom center is Attica Correctional Facility; the smaller one to its right is Wyoming.

At this point, it became like a game, as I zoomed out and scrolled around the map. Whenever I encountered a dark spot, I zoomed back in for a closer look. It was always a densely populated polygon, situated near, or in, a field of scattered blue dots. Here’s Gowanda:

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 10.59.05 AM

And Clinton:

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 10.52.08 AM

And Albion:
Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.02.20 AMAnd Five Points:

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.15.57 AM

And so on. Try it with your own state. For best results, click on “Remove Map Labels” first, to let these color-coded shapes speak their own hard truths.

For example: Things have not improved in The Crescent since Hill wrote her article. If anything, they’re worse. Paul Jargowsky, in a 2015 report for the Century Foundation, titled “Architecture of Segregation: Civil Unrest, the Concentration of Poverty, and Public Policy,” found that Rochester has the 4th highest Black concentration of poverty in the United States, jumping from 34.2% in 2000, to 51.5% in 2009-2013. Buffalo came in at #6. Syracuse was #1.

What this means for the cycle of incarceration is clear. In the words of Tony Gaskew, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the University of Pittsburgh,

The road to redemption for an incarcerated Black male returning to his community is paved with temptations, disappointments, and failures. When he goes home, unemployment will still be high. Our educational system will still be broken. He will still have the greatest opportunity to be victimized by a person within his own community of similar race or ethnic background. There will still be more liquor stores than schools in his neighborhood.2

James Baldwin captured this process in his short story, “Sonny’s Blues“—which is itself almost 60 years old—during a cab ride shared between the narrator and his brother, who had just been released from prison: “So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed…”

And we wonder why recidivism rates are so high.

“These neighborhoods,” says Jargowsky, “are not the value-free outcome of the impartial workings of the housing market. Rather, in large measure, they are the inevitable and predictable consequences of deliberate policy choices.” The Racial Dot Map reveals the consequences of those choices. The problem is clear, hard with luminous edges. Can the same be said of our national resolve to fix it?

1 Images Copyright, 2013, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Dustin A. Cable, creator)

2 NEW DIRECTIONS FOR COMMUNITY COLLEGES, no. 170, Summer 2015 © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) • DOI: 10.1002/cc.20145

“Never forget where you are.”

That’s one of the first things I was told when I started teaching classes in the prison. Initially, the warning seemed absurd; if you’ve ever been in one of these places, you know that  you can no more forget where you are than you could if you were to suddenly materialize at the bottom of the ocean. It was also vaguely threatening, redolent of sudden attacks, and covert manipulations by desperate, irredeemable men. For the record, I have never experienced any of those things. But there is wisdom in the warning, nonetheless, and I often receive stunning reminders of “where I am” just as I begin to feel comfortable.

For instance, last week we were talking about deductive reasoning, and what can happen when you try to make a deduction based on imperfect evidence, or no evidence at all. I admitted that the very first time I entered the prison I had thought to myself, Here there be monsters, but where? That got a laugh, plus several nods of the head. Then, I asked if they had had any deductions about college before actually starting the program. (For many of the students, “college” might as well have been “Timbuktu” for all they knew about it.) I was expecting answers that touched on anxiety, course load, fear of the unknown, etc.

Instead, one student said, “I remember wondering whether or not the teachers would treat us the same as their other students.”

“Do you mean if we would ‘dumb down’ the classes?”

“No, I meant if you would treat us like everyone else does.”

“Treat you like inmates.”


This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced something like this. A few years ago, right in the middle of a presentation on APA style, one of the students raised his hand and announced, quite calmly, “Mister G., I have question about ethos.”

Now, a question about ethos should not be surprising in a composition class. But this was Science Writing. Ethos had not been mentioned once since the start of the previous semester, when I’d casually mentioned it as one of the elements of persuasive rhetoric. To have it come popping out of the underbrush at that point was a shock.

I lowered the strip of toilet paper I’d been using to clean the White Board, and waited.

“You said that ethos means ‘good character.’”

“Yes. Partially.”

“Well, given who we are,” he continued, gesturing vaguely to the rest of the class, “why would anyone ever read anything we write?”

Experienced teachers know the occasional need for an extemporaneous “Plan B,” that sudden, vertiginous swerve down a road you never saw on the map, but which you must navigate at high speed with only slight pressure on the brakes. In the prison classroom, it’s always Plan B. Every text hits bone. Words have consequences. Rhetorical concepts, long ago discarded as boilerplate, are discussed endlessly, dissected and rebuilt, not just in terms of essay writing, but of freedom, justice, identity.

Your lecture notes are worthless, then. So are the skills of which you were once so proud. Even if you used to thrive on spontaneity, challenge, and surprise, your intellectual agility means nothing when you have been stunned into silence by a grown man who has been made to feel worthless. At that moment, you will remember where you are.

And why you’re there.


Fortress New York

18 Oct 2011

Other than a few communities in upstate New York that are worried about free labor for their winter carnivals,  it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking the recent study by the Poughkeepsie Journal, also published in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, which shows a 22% drop in the number of state prisoners over the past 11 years. Here are some numbers:

  • A 62% decline in the number of people serving time for drug crimes today compared with 2000.
  • Nearly 7,700 fewer black people incarcerated in state prison in 2011 compared with 2000.
  • Among the 50 states, New York charted the biggest drop in its prison rolls from 2000 to 2010.
  • In 2000, the most common top crime for which inmates were incarcerated was third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance—with almost 10,000 people sentenced. That’s now down to about 3,000.

At first blush, this seems to be a positive step in the drawdown of the “PIC,” or Prison Industrial Complex, and it has a lot of experts very happy, as well.

“The drop itself is really quite extraordinary,” said Michael Jacobson, director of the Manhattan-based Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit center for justice policy research. “This is very intriguing stuff and encouraging,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has criticized sentencing policies as racially biased and counterproductive.

What’s causing it? According to the Journal, the trend is the result of, among other things, better drug treatment programs and the ongoing challenges to the Rockefeller Drug Laws. So far, so good. The report then goes on to cite lower crime rates, especially in New York City:

There, aggressive “stop-and-frisk,” zero-tolerance and computer-driven anti-crime programs have been employed, some say, with remarkable results.

Granted, “stop-and-frisk” is highly controversial, with “600,000 people…frisked in 2010,” and “90 percent of them minority,” but, says the article, “there’s little doubt of the city’s mighty contribution to the state’s prison reversal.” A lot of studies have been done of this particular “mighty contribution,” and they all find pretty much the same thing, which can be seen here and here.

One thing the Journal article does not mention, though, is the increasing use of the city’s SkyWatch platforms, 2-story mobile towers that allow police to watch an entire area of the city from one spot. The towers are made by FLIR Systems, Inc. According to the company’s web site,

SkyWatch™ mobile observation towers provide a high level platform for an array of surveillance options. Every portable tower includes the basics for the comfort and safety of the officer inside through adjustable heat and air conditioning, tinted sliding glass windows and comfortable seating. And no matter the application, only one person is required to set up and deploy a unit.

There are 2 models of tower: the Frontier, which is designed for military deployment, and the more basic Sentinel.

The SkyWatch Sentinel facilitates a completely customized surveillance platform. This unit provides the additional line of sight and command and control capabilities necessary to high-level, impermanent security ventures. Compared to a mobile force, the SkyWatch Sentinel provides constant deterrence with nearly unlimited location flexibility. The SkyWatch Sentinel is ideal for commercial and civilian security operations.

Jeremy Bentham, who first created the idea of the Panopticon in the 1700’s, would undoubtedly be very proud.

So here’s another “mighty contribution” that the Journal article failed to point out. What with all the corrections officers on the streets, who have the power to stop anyone at will, and the strategic placement of guard towers on various corners of the city, New York may have simply realized that, instead of sending people to prison, it’s a lot cheaper to bring the prison to them.