U.S. Prisoner Protest: Why Listening to the Voices of the Incarcerated Matters

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A protest march to shut down Rikers Island prison in Queens, New York, September 26, 2016. Bria Webb/Reuters

An estimated 24,000 American men and women behind bars have been trying to call our attention to the terrible state of prisoner conditions since September 9.

Prisoners across the country have come together to tell us that they are being fed maggot-infested food, locked up for hours, days, and months at a time in small cages, and contained for months in severely crowded dormitories. They say that their muscles are withering and their minds are deteriorating. They report such poor medical care that they die from treatable conditions. They suggest that there is so little regard for the safety of prisoners and guards that both live in constant fear. They call attention to the fact that they are forced to perform labor as “slaves of the state”—making goods and providing services for public institutions and private citizens alike—even as people trying to make a living on the outside are losing their jobs.

Even though prison protests have been erupting since September, from Michigan to Alabama, the public who pays for these institutions and trusts them to contain more than two million American citizens within their walls, knows precious little about what has been going on. To the extent that news outlets have been covering the current protest, their reports rely almost exclusively on officials from various Departments of Corrections around the country to tell them what happened. 

As history shows us, this is a terrible mistake.

The last time America’s prisoners waged a determined effort to call attention to these inhumane conditions was at the infamous Attica Correctional Facility in New York in 1971. Knowing that state officials would try to dismiss their protest as the ravings of militant troublemakers, these nearly 1300 men invited the media in. Reporters were appalled by what they learned and saw with their own eyes. They, in turn, tried to educate the public about the fact that these men had been suffering way beyond any punishment to which that any court had sentenced them. Ultimately, and despite four days of fruitful negotiations, state officials decided to retake the prison with unimaginably horrific force.

On the protest’s fifth day and without warning, heavily armed troopers and guards stormed Attica. They shot 39 men to death and a total of 128 men were severely wounded from bullets and shotgun pellets. It mattered that the media wasn't allowed to see this and that reporters weren’t allowed back in after this. The public had to rely on the state’s official version of what had happened at Attica and the consequences of this were dire.

Members of law enforcement hadn't committed the carnage at Attica, reporters from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press were told. This was down to the prisoners, and they had slaughtered hostages, officials claimed. The prisoners had even castrated and tortured their hostages. The prisoners weren't protesters. 

They were animals. They were thugs. The beatings and abuses of prisoners in the wake of their “riot” was just and necessary, they said.

The reporters assembled outside of Attica took the state’s version of events as gospel, printing it on the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast. Their reporting did immeasurable damage to the public's understanding that while prisoners may be paying penance, they are still human beings deserving of basic rights. In the wake of the Attica prison uprising, Americans began voting for ever-more punitive laws, incarceration rates skyrocketed, and the public felt little empathy for anyone who ended up in jail or prison.

Today's prisoners paid a high price indeed for the utterly false information the media provided citizens about why Attica erupted back in 1971, and why it had ended so violently. So they too now protest. And, notably, they didn’t pick just any day to begin speaking out. They chose September 9, 2016, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising.

These men and women behind bars today will pay an additionally terrible price if we don't pay close attention to what the Attica rebellion tells us about the perils of relying on state officials to tell us what happens in their own penal institutions. Phone calls and letters from the prisoners have managed to get out in recent weeks have made crystal clear not only that they were indeed protesting inhumane conditions and treatment but also, as alarmingly, that the repression they have suffered for daring to protest has been severe.

State officials are trying to spin a completely different story. According to Florida prison officials, the more than 400 men who erupted there "around Sept. 9, the day of the strike, were actually gang-related and not tied to any specific demands.” Their statement flies in the face of reports offered by Florida’s prisoners and correctional officers alike.

It matters who the press believes and what it reports. State officials understand the stakes of how this latest unrest is characterized. According to reports out of Michigan in the wake of a dramatic upheaval at a major penal facility there, just how to spin the crisis was heavily debated. As one internal email put it: “I think we need to be clear that these are not sympathetic characters and their actions are not something that should be viewed as anything other than destructive and dangerous for staff and other prisoners.”

If we choose to interpret the most recent prison protests as a destructive effort, we will again ignore the thousands of men and women who deserve the right to live with basic dignity. No matter the reason why any incarcerated individual is serving a sentence, those locked behind bars are our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. They are people deserving of humane treatment so that they can, upon release, return home whole.

To ignore their cries is immoral—especially if we ever truly hope to have a criminal justice system in this country that is humane and... well… just.  

Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan who writes about prisons and prison policy. Her most recent book is Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (Pantheon, 2016).