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Scholar Says Prison Uprisings Usually Come After Basic Needs Aren't Met


We're going to spend a few minutes talking about this country's prisons. Most people probably don't spend a lot of time thinking about this until events force them to. Last week's uprising at the largest state prison for men in Delaware, the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna is that kind of event. A group of inmates took over a building and held four staff hostage. Two were released. One was rescued, and one corrections officer Sergeant Steven R. Floyd died at some point over the course of the 20-hour standoff. It's not clear - or has not been made public exactly how.

At some point, though, the inmates managed to call a local newspaper to demand education, rehabilitation programs and more transparency about the state's prison budget. In a few minutes, we'll hear about a new documentary that takes a deep look at the practice of solitary confinement which we understand was in practice at this prison.

But, first, we wanted to hear one scholar's take on why prison uprisings happen, so we called Heather Ann Thompson. She's an historian at the University of Michigan. She's author of "Blood In The Water: The Story Of A 1971 Attica Uprising" which was one of the largest prison revolts in American history. We reached Professor Thompson via Skype in Detroit. Professor, thanks so much for joining us.

HEATHER ANN THOMPSON: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So it seems that the inmates at Vaughn Correctional Institution made pretty basic demands like they wanted better education and rehabilitation programs. Why would demands like that result in something that seems pretty drastic on the outside?

THOMPSON: Well, that's indeed the question. Throughout American history, prisoners have always demanded the most basic human rights. They're not asking to get out. They're not asking for anything particularly outrageous, things like decent food or - for institutions to stop using solitary confinement in such a punitive fashion and an ability to re-enter society with some degree of education.

In each and every case, correctional authorities seem surprised or seem, indeed, outraged that prisoners would eventually explode in frustration that their needs aren't being met. And so it is really time that we learn the lesson of Vaughn, but also Attica in '71 and many prisons before that.

MARTIN: It seems as though these are actually relatively rare. Is that true or is it that we just don't find out about them?

THOMPSON: It's so hard to know. One of the most remarkable things is that prisons are public institutions, and yet the public is given very, very little information about what goes on inside of them. For example, a few weeks ago, there was a lockdown at the Attica prison. And the public was just told that there had been some inmate fights, but we know enough about Attica to know that conditions there (unintelligible) been terrible and to know that the prisoners very likely were engaging in some sort of protest there as well. So we don't really know because every time the state officials get to tell us what happened, and there's no means to corroborate it.

MARTIN: And when you say that conditions are terrible, could you give us a sense of what it is that you're talking about?

THOMPSON: So even more so than when there was a rash of uprisings in the '60s, prisons now are even more overcrowded, prisoners serve much more solitary confinement. This particular facility in Delaware, incidentally, is notorious for that. They are punished through food, kept locked up for 23 hours a day. A jury says if you've committed a crime, you might serve time. But this is beyond the being removed from society.

MARTIN: Do you know anything more about the prison that you could tell us that might have led to this particular incident?

THOMPSON: I do know that it's a facility that was actually built in '71, but was expanded pretty dramatically in 1996, not coincidentally with funding from this very notorious now violent crime bill that was passed with the Clinton administration. And so it was a facility like many around the country that just grew and grew and grew and, indeed, began eventually to hold way too many people in too small of a space and, indeed, you know, creating a situation that was very, very dangerous for corrections officers and prisoners alike.

MARTIN: That's Heather Ann Thompson. She's a professor of history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She's author of the book "Blood In The Water: The Attica Prison Uprising Of 1971 And Its Legacy." We reached her via Skype from Detroit. Professor Thompson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

THOMPSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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