Heather Ann Thompson is a historian and writer whose 2016 book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. In this conversation, she discusses how her upbringing in Detroit shaped her views on American politics and ignited her interest in tracking the history of mass incarceration.
Thompson also talks about the 13-year process behind writing a book like Blood in the Water, a project that included intense research, wrenching oral histories, and a narrative that’s been intentionally distorted and covered up for decades. By putting Attica’s history in context, Thompson’s work considers the larger moral dimensions of America’s obsession with crime and punishment: “We have to explain not just why we get drug laws . . . what we really need to explain is: When did we become a country where it’s okay to have 400 children in Michigan serving life sentences? When did we as a society become okay with people spending 10 years in solitary confinement? And that was where I felt that the memory of Attica was so critically important. Somehow, we had been given this opportunity to do right by the folks that were serving time, and that is exactly what the men in Attica had hoped would happen. And yet, the exact opposite happens and we come out of Attica seeing prisoners like animals.