Lawsuit: Book on Attica riot banned in Attica and other NY prisons

Nearly a dozen New York state prisons have banned a history book chronicling the 1971 Attica riot, 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 against Acting Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections Anthony Annucci in federal court in Manhattan on Thursday, alleging the censorship violates her constitutional rights to free speech and due process.

“It’s perhaps ironic that people in Attica shouldn’t be able to read about events that took place at that location,” Thompson, a professor at the University of Michigan, said in an interview with Gothamist. “But other than that, it’s a shame that we live in a nation where we censor people, period.”

Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, cited the department’s media scrutiny guidelines, which include bans on content about violence or rebellion.

“Any publication that advocates and presents a clear and imminent risk of lawlessness, violence, anarchy or rebellion against the government agency is unacceptable,” the guidelines state.

But Thompson argues her book is a well-researched historical chronicle — not an incitement to violence. It details the 1971 riot at Attica Correctional Facility, where hundreds of incarcerated men rebelled against the inhumane conditions at the prison, held guards hostage for five days and made a series of 27 demands.

Eventually, state police stormed the jail in a firestorm, killing 39 people — including 10 guards and 29 inmates. A total of 43 people were killed in the deadliest prison riot in United States history. Thompson’s book examines the history leading up to the historic uprising, the deteriorating prison conditions before it, and the historical impact it has had in the decades since.

But since its publication in 2016, Thompson’s book has been denied entry into 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 inmates attempted to appeal the decision, the Correctional Services Department alleged that it violated department policies by “expressly or implicitly endorsing acts of disobedience” against law enforcement officials or prison guards, according to the lawsuit.

When Thompson tried to mail the book himself to two men who had requested it directly from her in 2019 and 2020, it never reached either of them. One incarcerated person who did not get his copy was John Lennon, a man who was incarcerated in the Sullivan County Correctional Facility and spoke to media outlets such as The Marshall Project, Atlantic and the New York Times about conditions in New York state prisons reported while he was behind bars.

Thompson said she received no notification that her book was censored, which violates state guidelines that say if an article is censored, the sender and recipient receive a written explanation as to why it was withheld.

“It’s a book,” Thompson said. “We as US citizens have the right to have our books read and we have the right to read as citizens. That’s just the bottom line.”

Another man, Kevin Mays, who was released from Woodbourne Correctional Facility in 2019 after 28 years in prison, repeatedly tried to get his wife to send him a copy of the book during his final years in prison, to no avail. He has since been the leader of a campaign to end solitary confinement in New York City jails and jails with the #HALTSolitary campaign.

“To reject a book based on the fact that it poses a threat to the safety and security of the facility without any evidence… it’s insane,” Mays told Gothamist. “It’s hypocrisy at its worst.”

Mays was finally able to read Thompson’s book after his release.

“I actually read it twice,” he said, adding that he spent some time in Attica and saw walls that still had bullet holes. He had also met prisoners who had survived the riot over the years and described how they were shot by state police officers and forced to march naked through the facility while guards beat them with batons. “It has definitely helped me process a lot of what I’ve heard and experienced and shape what I know to be true.”

Meanwhile, prisons in North Carolina and California have allowed inmates to obtain Thomspon’s book, and many other states don’t include it on their lists of prohibited media, the lawsuit alleges. While the lawsuit specifically addresses the censorship of blood in the water, Attorney Betsy Ginsberg, who teaches at the Cardozo School of Law, said she hopes this will have wider implications in New York and beyond.

“They don’t have a free hand to violate the Constitution and they can’t censor a text just because they don’t like the subject matter or the content,” Ginsberg said.

Prisons across the country, including New York, have long prevented incarcerated people from obtaining all types of books. A 2019 report by PEN America cited an example where a New York jail had prevented inmates from receiving maps of any kind – including maps of the moon – with warning that they “could pose escape risks”.

In 2017, New York sought to further limit the types of books inmates could obtain with a pilot program in three prisons that only allowed them to obtain books from a handful of state-approved vendors. Books Through Bars, a group that has been sending free books to inmates for more than two decades, found that the pre-approved vendors only offered 77 different books, including five romance novels, 14 religious texts, 24 coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, a dictionary and a thesaurus. The public outcry forced former Governor Andrew Cuomo to fire 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 beauty of a book is that it’s just you and the book, and it can take you anywhere,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name Betsy Ginsberg. It has also been updated to include a comment from the corrections department. Lawsuit: Book on Attica riot banned in Attica and other NY prisons

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