The Attica Uprising of 1971 (via American Friends Service Committee (AFSC))

The author of Blood in the Water: The 1971 Uprising at Attica Prison and Its Legacy (2017) is suing the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervisions (DOCCS) for banning her book from the Attica prison and others in the state. Author Heather Ann Thompson won a Pulitzer Prize in History for Blood in the Water.

The lawsuit was filed a week ago in conjunction with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Civil Rights Clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. 

“Professor Thompson seeks to share Blood in the Water with the incarcerated New Yorkers who stand to benefit most from that insight. The Constitution gives her that right,” the lawsuit reads, also alleging that Thompson was not notified of the book’s censorship.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a spokesperson for DOCCS said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Blood in the Water is a comprehensive historical text and one that recounts the history of Attica, a defining moment in our state and our country’s history,” Betsy Ginsberg, director of the Civil Rights Clinic, told Hyperallergic in an email. “The idea that our government would deny incarcerated people to read about this history is entirely counter to our constitution and the basic principle of free expression that this country was founded upon.”

In 1971, more than 1,200 incarcerated people at the Attica Correctional Facility, a high-security prison near the city of Buffalo, made a list of 33 demands, took 42 staff hostage, and entered negotiations with prison authorities. 

Living standards in the Attica prison, which held over 2,000 incarcerated people at the time of the uprising, were dismal. Infamously, those imprisoned received one roll of toilet paper a month and were allowed to shower only once a week

Included in the demands were basic quality of life necessities (such as toothbrushes, a healthy diet, and adequate medical care), minimum wage pay for all work done by incarcerated individuals, the resignation of the prison’s superintendent, and freedom of religion.

After a four-day standoff, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller called in state troopers, who sprayed tear gas and then shot into the crowd. When it was over, 43 people had been killed, including 10 hostages shot by police. Last month, Hyperallergic spoke with the directors of a new documentary on the uprising.

A poster for a 1972 demonstration by the Attica Brigade (image courtesy Municipal Archives, City of New York)

DOCCS regulations on books inside prisons target a wide range of publications, from instructive books on martial arts to maps that could aid in escape.

Notably, the guidelines also state: “Any publication which advocates and presents a clear and immediate risk of lawlessness, violence, anarchy, or rebellion against Governmental authority is unacceptable.”

“One of the most troubling rationales invoked for censorship is that it encourages an anti-authority animus,” James Tager, research director at PEN America, told Hyperallergic. The human rights and literature nonprofit published a comprehensive report on prison book bans in 2019. 

“That inherently is a really dangerous rationale for blocking something, because it can be used essentially to shield the institution from any criticism making its way into the hands of incarcerated people,” Tager continued.

Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was also banned in prisons across the country. In a 2018 interview with the New York Times, Alexander said, “Some prison officials are determined to keep the people they lock in cages as ignorant as possible about the racial, social and political forces that have made the United States the most punitive nation on earth. Perhaps they worry the truth might actually set the captives free.”

The decision to ban a book in a prison most often lies with individual institutions rather than federal or state officials — although there are federal, state, and county systems in place.

“The prison book banning system is an incredibly opaque system,” said Tager. “The people who know it best are either incarcerated or work in the individual institutions, and then to the rest of the world it’s either completely invisible or smothered under a layer of bureaucratese — bureaucratic language that makes it not intuitive.”

“It is the case that to this day, the first instance of censorship in the prison is in the mailroom,” said Tager. “When you see everything through the lens of security, you see everything as a potential security threat.”

In order to challenge a prison book ban, the plaintiff must have standing: A community member could not bring a lawsuit, but an author, publisher, or incarcerated person could.

“Regardless of how this litigation turns out, it’s important that prison officials understand that there are people who reject the idea that their books are being censored, that there are authors who will fight for their rights and that there will be consequences for censorships,” Tager said.

The Blood in the Water prison ban coincides with an unprecedented rise in book bans in schools and libraries nationwide in 2021. The American Library Association (ALA) reported 729 challenges to books in school, universities, and public libraries last year. This was a massive jump from 2019’s 377 challenges and 2020’s 156 (though this number was likely lower due to pandemic closures).

PEN America also released a report today detailing 1,586 book bans and restrictions in 86 school districts across 26 states in the last nine months. Most of the targeted books deal with race, racism and LGBTQ+ identities.

“Just the sending of the message that people are watching this, that prison censorship doesn’t happen in a vacuum and there are people outside of the prisons who are willing to advocate for their rights to send their books to people and other people’s rights to read them — that’s a really powerful thing,” Tager told Hyperallergic.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.