Author Heather Ann Thompson filed a lawsuit this spring after her 2016 book Blood in the Water: The 1971 Uprising at Attica Prison and Its Legacy was banned in New York state prisons. Now, state officials have issued a decision: Only the book’s map of the Attica Correctional Facility will be censored. The map constitutes two pages that will be removed from the paperback edition, and a list of people who died in the uprising, printed on the back of one of those pages, will be photocopied and added back into the book.
A spokesperson from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) told Hyperallergic that since May, “paper bound copies of the book have been allowed in with the redaction of the two pages showing the map layout of the facility.”
Thompson’s March 31 lawsuit, filed with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Civil Rights Clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, stated that incarcerated New Yorkers “stand to benefit the most” from the insights of her book. She also argued that the constitution protects her right to share the book and that she was not properly notified of its censorship.
Citing the DOCCS’s decision to censor the map instead of the entire book, the state attorney general’s office urged a Manhattan federal judge to dismiss Thompson’s lawsuit on July 27. The office stated that the ban would be lifted, only the map would be removed, and that Thompson must be notified if a correctional facility refused a request for the book. Thompson’s lawyers responded in a letter on August 1, reviewed by Hyperallergic, in which they argued that the lawsuit should not be dismissed because there is nothing preventing DOCCS’s “return to [their] old ways,” also saying that the department does not make an “absolutely clear” commitment not to censor the book again in the future.
Blood in the Water won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize in History. Thompson spent over a decade researching the book, which recounts the 1971 uprising at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility, when over 1,200 of the institution’s 2,000 incarcerated people gained control of the prison, took 42 hostages, and made 33 demands that included basic tenets for quality of life. After four days, the governor called in state police. A National Guard helicopter sprayed teargas into the crowd assembled in the prison yard, then 550 state troopers (along with over 200 sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers) opened fire from above and shot over 2,500 rounds of ammunition. They killed 39 people (including 10 hostages). Some were shot at close range. The state did not prosecute anyone for these deaths and attempted to cover up the state-sanctioned massacre.
“There’s been a deep curiosity about what happened in Attica. There’s been a real, honest, genuine desire to know what happened all those years ago,” Thompson told the New York Times.
The DOCCS bans a variety of books — from works depicting gang graffiti to books describing alcohol brewing techniques. The department also has a detailed list of criteria that could qualify a book for censorship based on its ability to aid incarcerated people in escape. Some of those criteria include descriptions of lock picking, survival techniques, and “detailed maps or topographic maps which could aid an incarcerated person in escape.”
In April, Hyperallergic spoke with James Tager, a research director at PEN America, who explained that book bans in prisons are often at the discretion of individual officers at correctional facilities. Tager added: “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.”