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Speaker Series: Heather Ann Thompson, University of Michigan

  • When: September 26, 2018, 12 pm
  • Where: ABF Woods Conference Room, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, 4th Floor, Lakeside, Chicago IL 60611

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The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legal Legacy: Prisoner Rights Today  

In 1971 nearly 1300 men at the notorious Attica Correctional Facility in New York took over the facility to demand humane conditions. The legal community, including that in Chicago, played a critical role in making sure that those men were protected and paved the way for their story to be told despite the state’s attempt to silence them. Nearly 47 years later prisons are once again exploding in protest over horrific conditions. Heather Ann Thompson discusses what the Attica uprising suggests for the most recent swell of prisoner rights protests and what it specifically tell us about the role lawyers as well as lay citizens must play in our democracy. 

Courtesy of University of Michigan

Dr Heather Ann Thompson  is a native Detroiter and historian on faculty of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the departments of Afro-American and African Studies, History, and the Residential College.

Her recent book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, has been profiled on television and radio programs across the country, it just won the Pulitzer Prize in History, the Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy, The Ridenhour Book Prize, the J. Willard Hurst Prize, and a book prize from the New York City Bar Association. The book was also named a finalist for the National Book Award, as well as a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize in History, a finalist for the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association (winner announced May, 2017), and it was named on 14 Best Books of 2016 lists including those compiled by The New York Times, Newsweek, Kirkus Review, the Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, Bloomberg, the Marshall Project, the Baltimore City Paper, Book Scroll, and the Christian Science Monitor. Additionally, Blood in the Water was named on the Best Human Rights Books of 2016 list, and received starred reviews from Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. Blood in the Water has also been optioned by TriStar Pictures and will be adapted for film by acclaimed screenwriters Anna Waterhouse and Joe Schrapnel.

Thompson has written extensively on the history of policing, mass incarceration and the current criminal justice system for The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, The Atlantic, Salon, Dissent, NBC, New Labor Forum, The Daily Beast, and The Huffington Post, as well as for the top publications in her field. Her award-winning scholarly articles include: “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline and Transformation in the Postwar United States,” Journal of American History (December 2010) and “Rethinking Working Class Struggle through the Lens of the Carceral State: Toward a Labor History of Inmates and Guards.” Labor: Studies in the Working Class History of the Americas (Fall, 2011). Thompson’s piece in the Atlantic Monthly on how mass incarceration has distorted democracy in America was named a finalist for a best magazine article award in 2014.

Thompson is also the author of Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City (new edition out May, 2017), and is the editor of Speaking Out: Activism and Protest in the 1960s and 1970s.

On the policy front Thompson served on a National Academy of Sciences blue-ribbon panel that studied the causes and consequences of mass incarceration in the U.S. The two-year, $1.5 million project was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Thompson has served as well on the boards of several policy organizations including the Prison Policy Initiative, the Eastern State Penitentiary, a historic site, and on the advisory boards of Life of the Law.  She has also worked in an advisory capacity with the Center for Community Change, the Humanities Action Lab Global Dialogues on Incarceration, and the Open Society Foundation on issues related to work. Thompson has also spent considerable time presenting her work on prisons and justice policy to universities and policy groups nationally and internationally as well as to state legislators in various states.  She has given talks in countries such as France, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, the UK, as well as across the Unites States, including in Hawaii.

In 2016 Thompson became President-elect of the Urban History Association and, in 2012 the Organization of American Historians named her a Distinguished Lecturer by the Organization of American Historians and, along with Rhonda Y. Williams (Case Western Reserve), she currently edits a manuscript series for UNC Press, Justice, Power, and Politics. She is also the sole editor of the series, American Social Movements of the Twentieth Century published by Routledge. Thompson has consulted on several documentary films including Criminal Injustice at Attica and assisted with other documentary films including one on Criminalization in America by filmmakers Annie Stopford and Llewellyn Smith from BlueSpark Collaborative, another produced by Henry Louis Gates entitled, And Still I Rise: Black Power to the White House for PBS, and one soon to be done on the Bard Prison Initiative.

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