Heather Ann Thompson: A Scribe of Jails and Justice

It took this U-M history professor more than a decade to research, write, and publish the story of the Attica prison uprising. She was already an advocate; now she is a best-selling author.
By Michael Luongo


Read time: 3 minutes

Heather Ann Thompson, ’87, MA’87, just can’t stay out of jail. That’s because her life’s work has focused on issues of race and mass incarceration. During her 20-year teaching career (currently as a professor of history at U-M), Thompson’s scholarly articles about social injustice have appeared in a variety of publications. Yet it is her most recent book, “Blood in the Water” (Pantheon Books, 2016)—a painstakingly researched narrative about the Attica prison rebellion of 1971—that has made her a best-selling author. Her portrayal has not only put her book on The New York Times best-seller list, but also won her a place on the shortlist for the National Book Awards.

Michigan Alumnus gleaned the following in a recent conversation with her on campus.

To accurately tell the Attica story, Thompson spent 13 years poring over trial transcripts; issuing countless requests for hidden government documents; and interviewing prisoners, state officials, lawyers, state justices, and survivors. “Everybody knows Attica because this is a remarkable moment when there is a civil rights protest and a human rights protest behind bars, she explained. (By the time law enforcement wrested control of the prison, 43 people had been killed, including 10 guards and civilian employees and 33 inmates.)

Thompson’s most touching discovery helped verify a prisoner’s killing. One slain guard’s family member told Thompson that Attica prisoner Elliott “L.D.” Barkley, who negotiated for the prisoners, was murdered by another guard after they had taken back control of Attica. Through tears, the relative admitted knowing the guard who killed Barkley, adding that “(Barkley’s) glasses were on the guard’s mantle as a trophy.”

Growing up white in Detroit gave Thompson a deep understanding of social issues and “the realities other people live.” As she said about white privilege, “in a one-to-one conversation, no white person will ever deny they witness racism all of the time.”

Thompson watches “Orange Is The New Black” (a show about women in prison) and likes that it humanizes people. “It’s a challenge, though, because it also regularizes an experience that is completely inhumane: the caging of human beings.”

One of her first memories of being a student at U-M was seeing “some guy way ahead of me who was wearing a Redford High School jacket. I booked across the Diag because I wanted to meet him. That’s how unusual it was to see fellow Detroiters here.”

On the conditions at Attica today, “It’s much more brutal: the lockdowns and the number of people doing time in solitary,” Thompson said. “The institution itself looks exactly as it did in 1932 when it opened.”

Thompson thought people were going to focus on the more salacious parts of her book. To her surprise, readers have cared more about “the human beings in that institution. That’s what people are moved by. I’m deeply grateful for that.”

What’s interesting to Thompson about mass incarceration “is not that we’ve just gone back to slavery, but that we are duplicating something that happened at the end of the 19th century, which is the last time we had a major black freedom struggle, the Civil War.”

Thompson has presented on the issue of incarceration at congressional staff briefings for the judiciary committees of both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. She has also given talks all over the world on prison and justice policy.

Michael Luongo is an award-winning freelance journalist and lecturer in the U-M English department. He was a 2015-16 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow.

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