New York officials are cutting and inserting pages in a book about the state’s most notorious prison in an attempt to resolve a festering First Amendment dispute.
The historian Heather Ann Thompson won acclaim for her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Blood in the Water,” a deeply reported investigation into the deadly 1971 Attica uprising and its legacy. But since the book’s publication in 2016, one group had been forbidden from reading it: people incarcerated at the Attica Correctional Facility and other New York state prisons. Ms. Thompson sued in March, seeking to reverse the ban.
Last week, the state attorney general’s office wrote to a federal judge in Manhattan, saying Ms. Thompson’s lawsuit should be dismissed. The office said that corrections officials had decided that New York’s “incarcerated population” could now see the paperback edition of “Blood in the Water” — with one exception.
A two-page map of the Attica Correctional Facility, which appears at the front of the paperback, will be excised for “security reasons,” the state lawyers wrote. 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, the lawyers said.
If a prisoner has ordered a hard copy of “Blood in the Water,” on which the map appears on the back cover, the department will provide a redacted paperback version instead, the lawyers wrote.
The dispute comes as parents, school officials and lawmakers around the country are increasingly demanding that books on topics like sexual and racial identity be removed from libraries and curricula. Officials have tried to justify book bans in prisons by arguing that certain types of information, like instructions on building a weapon or on how to escape, may be legitimately denied.
New York policy is “to encourage inmates to read publications from varied sources if such material does not encourage them to engage in behavior that might be disruptive to orderly facility operations.” Publications should not describe lock-picking techniques, for example, or incite disobedience toward law enforcement personnel.
The Attica uprising a half century ago was a massive occasion of disobedience. An assault by hundreds of heavily armed state troopers ended four days of violence at the maximum-security prison 350 miles from New York City. The uprising left 43 people dead, including 10 guards and civilian employees who had been held hostage by the prisoners.
In researching her book, Ms. Thompson, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Michigan, spent more than a decade digging into court records and cartons of artifacts and other files, and interviewing former corrections officers, relatives and other witnesses .. The book runs 571 pages with more than 100 pages of footnotes.
Ms. Thompson, in an interview, said she had received letters from many readers of “Blood in the Water” who were incarcerated around the United States or who had served sentences, and still others who worked inside prisons.
“There’s been a deep curiosity about what happened in Attica,” Ms. Thompson said, “There’s been a real, honest, genuine desire to know what happened all those years ago.”
“There’s been not a hint from those people that this is in any way inciteful or biased,” she added.
Ms. Thompson’s lawsuit seeks, among other things, an order forbidding the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision from blocking the book’s distribution, and a system by which Ms. Thompson would be notified should the agency censor a copy she sends to a prisoner.
The lawsuit says that in addition to Attica, other prisons where her book has been suppressed are the Bedford Hills, Eastern, Franklin, Great Meadow, Mohawk, Orleans, Otisville, Southport and Ulster correctional facilities.
On Monday, her lawyers wrote to Judge Edgardo Ramos, arguing that the lawsuit should not be dismissed.
Without a judge’s order, there was nothing to assure that the corrections agency, known as the DOCCS, “will not return to their old ways,” wrote her lawyers, Antony PF Gemmell of the New York Civil Liberties Union and Betsy Ginsberg, director of the civil rights clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
Thomas Mailey, a corrections spokesman, declined to comment on the pending litigation but said that since May, paperback copies with the map removed have been allowed.
Ms. Thompson, in her interview, noted that one of the key issues that sparked the Attica uprising was censorship by corrections officials.
“The men inside of Attica were often not allowed to read the letters that were sent to them,” she said. “They were often not allowed to read the books that would come to them in the mail. And one of the things that they just asked for was a basic recognition that they were human beings, and they had a right to read.”
Ms. Thompson’s lawsuit mentions several instances in which she was not notified when a copy of her book was blocked from reaching people at Attica or other state prisons.
In February 2019, she sent a copy to Lenny Emiliano, who at the time was housed at Attica and who was told by a captain there that he would not be getting the book.
“I didn’t like it at all,” Mr. Emiliano said in a statement through Ms. Ginsberg. There had been “so many different stories” told about the Attica uprising, he said, “and if you leave it up to DOCCS to tell you what happened, they’re going to absolve themselves of all responsibilities or actions that led up to it .”
Kevin Mays, who was housed at Otisville when he heard Ms. Thompson speak about her book on the Brian Lehrer radio show, was twice blocked from receiving copies that his wife had sent, the lawsuit says.
The suit describes Mr. Mays, who had been convicted in armed robberies, as a “voracious reader” who for more than 20 years worked in the prison law library. He said in a phone interview that it was important for incarcerated people “to be able to wrap their mind around how one of the most horrific acts of violence in New York State actually occurred” and to “learn from those things so it doesn’t happen again.”
He said he finally got to read the book after leaving prison in 2019.
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