A lawsuit over Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water and New York state prisons is just the latest example of states’ absurd approach to literature in prisons, a phenomenon that PEN America has called “the largest book ban policy in the United States.”
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy was published by Vintage in 2016. It chronicles the history of the uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York; Thompson, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Michigan, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in History for the book.
People incarcerated in New York state have not been allowed access to the book since its publication, and Thompson filed a lawsuit in March in an attempt to change that policy. Now, state lawyers are arguing that the suit should be dismissed, on the grounds that people in prison will be able to read the book—a redacted version.
The new version of the book, they say, would omit a map of the Attica facility; additionally, “the reverse side of one of the removed pages, which contains a list of the people who died in the uprising, will be included as an inserted photocopy,” Benjamin Weiser reported for The New York Times. (Yes, I’m totally sure that prison officials will take the time to make those photocopies and put them in by hand.)
Thompson’s lawyers pointed out that nothing guarantees that the prison “will not return to their old ways” if the suit is dismissed.
New York’s official policy is to ban books in prison that could encourage “disruptive” behavior—language that, like many state policies around books in prison, is written broadly enough to allow for wide-ranging censorship. Meanwhile, Thompson noted in an interview with the Times that she’s heard from a number of incarcerated readers who were merely curious to learn more about the history of Attica. “There’s been a real, honest, genuine desire to know what happened all those years ago,” she said. “There’s been not a hint from those people that this is in any way inciteful or biased.”
State policies around books are inhumane by definition, and have long been unclear to the point of being absurd; though there are plenty of examples, it stands out that New York once banned a book that contained lunar maps by saying it would “present risks of escape.” PEN America noted in a 2019 report that “even the most dedicated advocates for book access in American prisons have only limited visibility into which books are blocked and which are allowed.” With little oversight in this category, prisons and state lawyers are able to ban books sight unseen and more or less according to their own logic—a pattern that a number of groups around the country are trying to counteract by providing books to incarcerated people.
If you’re justifiably annoyed by what’s happening in New York prisons (and, for that matter, all prisons everywhere), you can check out those programs and whether they’re accepting donations—there’s a great list of them here.