Almost a dozen New York State prisons have banned a history book that chronicles the 1971 Attica uprising, according to a new federal lawsuit filed Thursday — including Attica itself.
Heather Ann Thompson, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, filed a lawsuit Thursday against the acting commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections Anthony Annucci in federal court in Manhattan, alleging the censorship violates her constitutional rights to free speech and due process.
“It is perhaps ironic that folks inside of Attica should not be able to read about events that took place in that place,” Thompson, a University of Michigan professor, said in an interview with Gothamist. “But other than that, it is a shame that we live in a nation where we censor people full stop.”
Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson for the state corrections department, cited the department's media review guidelines that lay out prohibitions on content about violence or rebellion.
"Any publication which advocates and presents a clear and immediate risk of lawlessness, violence, anarchy, or rebellion against Governmental authority is unacceptable," the guidelines read.
But Thompson argues, her book is a thoroughly researched historical chronicle — not a call for violence. It details the 1971 uprising at Attica Correctional Facility, where hundreds of incarcerated men revolted against inhumane conditions at the prison, taking guards hostage for five days and laying out a series of 27 demands.
Eventually, state police stormed the prison in a blaze of gunfire, killing 39 people — including 10 guards and 29 incarcerated people. All told, 43 people were killed in what was the deadliest prison riot in United States history. Thompson’s book examines the history leading up to the historic uprising, the deteriorating conditions inside the prison preceding it, and the historical impact it’s had in the decades since.
But since its publication in 2016, Thompson’s book has been blocked from entering New York state prisons including Attica, Bedford Hills, Eastern, Franklin, Great Meadow, Mohawk, Orleans, Otisville, Southport, and Ulster Correctional Facilities, according to the lawsuit filed by the Cardozo Civil Rights Clinic and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
When incarcerated people attempted to appeal the decision, the corrections department maintained it violated department policies by advocating “expressly or by clear implication, acts of disobedience” against law enforcement or prison guards, the lawsuit claims.
When Thompson tried to send the book herself to two men who had requested it from her directly in 2019 and 2020, it never made it to either one. One incarcerated person who failed to get his copy was John Lennon, a man incarcerated at Sullivan County Correctional facility, who’s reported on conditions in New York State prisons while behind bars for outlets like the The Marshall Project, the Atlantic and the New York Times.
Thompson said she received no notice her book had been censored, in violation of the state’s own policies, that say when any item is censored, the sender and the recipient will receive a written explanation as to why it was withheld.
“It is a book,” Thompson said. “We as U.S. citizens have rights to have our books read and we have rights as citizens to read. That's just the bottom line.”
Another man, Kevin Mays, who was released from Woodbourne Correctional Facility in 2019 after serving 28 years in prison, tried repeatedly to get his wife to send him a copy of the book during his final years of incarceration, to no avail. He’s since become the leader of a campaign to end solitary confinement in New York prisons and jails with the campaign #HALTSolitary.
“To deny a book on the basis of the fact that it's a threat to the safety and security of the facility without any type of evidence … it’s insane,” Mays told Gothamist. “It’s hypocrisy at its worst.”
Mays was able to finally read Thompson’s book following his release.
“I've read it twice, actually,” he said, adding he’d spent time in Attica and had seen walls that still had bullet pockmarks. He'd also met prisoners over the years who’d survived the riot and described getting shot by state troopers and being forced to march naked through the facility while guards pummeled them with batons. “It definitely helped me be able to wrap my mind around a lot of what I heard and experienced and shaped what I know to be true.”
Meanwhile, prisons in North Carolina and California have allowed incarcerated people to receive Thomspon’s book and many other states do not include it on their list of banned media, the lawsuit alleges. While the lawsuit specifically addresses censorship of Blood in the Water, attorney Betsy Ginsberg, who teaches at Cardozo School of Law, said she hopes it will have broader implications in New York and beyond.
“They don’t have free rein to violate the constitution, and that they cannot censor a text simply because they don’t like the subject or the content,” Ginsberg said.
Prisons across the country, including in New York, have long blocked incarcerated people from receiving all sorts of books. A 2019 report from PEN America cited an example where a New York prison had blocked inmates from receiving any type of map — including maps of the moon — warning they could “present risks of escape.”
In 2017, New York tried to further restrict the types of books incarcerated people could receive with a pilot program in three prisons that only allowed them to get books from a handful of state-approved vendors. Books Through Bars, a group that’s been sending free books to incarcerated people for more than two decades, found the pre-approved vendors offered just 77 different books that included five romance novels, 14 religious texts, 24 coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, one dictionary and one thesaurus. Public outcry forced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo to rescind the pilot the following year.
Mays, who spent 15 years of his nearly three decades in prison in solitary confinement, said being able to read while in the box was one of the only things that kept him sane.
“The beautiful thing about a book is it’s just you and the book and it could take you outside wherever you’re at,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Betsy Ginsberg. It has also been updated to include a comment from the corrections department.