I have never understood why we Americans, in the “land of the free,” have the highest proportion of our population behind bars of any country in the world. And the rest of the top 10 are all developing nations — none of the other “developed countries” come anywhere close to our rate of incarceration. I’ve heard some apologists say it is because we are such a manifestly diverse country that violence and conflict is a necessary result, and so a strong prison system is required to maintain “law and order.” There is a problem with that argument: Based on a robust measure of ethnic and racial diversity, the top 10 countries in diversity across the globe are all located in Africa — and none of them have anywhere near the incarceration rate that we do.
So, diversity can’t possibly be the explanation, at least not by itself. But there is another factor in play in American society, related to diversity. While Americans profess to believe in the value of cultural diversity, it isn’t clear that they profoundly believe it, deep in their hearts. Why, for example, do Black Americans make up only 13 percent of the US population, but are incarcerated at triple that rate? Poverty has something to do with it — but even when you control for socioeconomic status, whites get less severe criminal penalties for the exact same crimes, and it largely doesn’t matter what part of the country you are in. We’ll get back to this.
The Attica prison riot occurred in September of 1971, and it still ranks as the deadliest prison riot in US history with 29 prisoners and 10 hostages killed. Before Attica there were only a few, mostly minor, incidents. But after Attica, there were riots resulting in maybe one or two inmates and/or guards killed in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Georgia, Ohio, California, Mississippi, Delaware, South Carolina, and Colorado. But none of them were on the scale of Attica with the single exception of the 1980 Santa Fe, New Mexico riot in 1980. During that exceedingly violent incident, 33 inmates were killed. Significantly, all deaths were caused by other inmates. A dozen officers were taken hostage and while some were injured or raped, none of them were killed. Attica stands unique in American history as the prison riot where the most people died.
With all this information, you should now watch this amazing documentary. The film itself is standard documentary fare. It is largely the work of Stanley Nelson, an experienced Black American producing television and movie documentary films. What he has accomplished with Attica is probably the final and most definitive statement of what happened there. Yes, it is a talking-heads documentary. Nelson located and interviewed more than a dozen inmates, officers, medics, and members of the “observers committee”. They tell their stories with honesty and emotion — you can tell that this was not an experience they will “ever, ever…. Forget.” Nelson also gathered remarkable archival video and photographs. The footage, especially in the last half hour will shock you and if you are averse to vivid violence or full-frontal male nudity, then you might want to shield your eyes for the final 20 minutes.
I’ll leave you with just a single fact: only one guard/hostage/officer was killed by an inmate at Attica and he died from injuries three days after a beating he suffered in a fight with inmates, just before the riot began. The circumstances surrounding that fight aren’t really clear, but it was his death that changed everything, resulting in law enforcement, not the inmates, killing more than 33 inmates and 10 more of their own in a brutal assault that, if you watch the film, you will remember for a long time.
So, back to the original question – why are so many Americans, and especially Black Americans, imprisoned? Fundamentally, the film teaches us that the US prison system is a way that the white power structure maintains fear and loathing in a Black community that whites fundamentally want to exclude from the American dream. That might be a tough conclusion, but how else can anyone account for the facts surrounding black imprisonment, and the resulting Attica? (4*)
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