A lawsuit against Heather Ann Thompson blood in the water and New York State prisons are just the latest example of the states’ absurd approach to prison literature, a phenomenon that PEN America has called “the biggest policy of book ban in the United States”.
Blood in the Water: The 1971 Attica Prison Uprising and Its Legacy was published by Vintage in 2016. It tells the story of the uprising at Attica Correctional Center in Attica, New York; Thompson, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Michigan, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for History for the book.
Those incarcerated in New York state have not been allowed access to the book since its publication, and Thompson filed a lawsuit in March to try to change that policy. Now, state attorneys argue the suit should be dismissed, on the grounds that those in jail will be to 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 deleted pages, which contains a list of those who died in the uprising, will be included as an inserted photocopy,” reported Benjamin Weiser for The New York Times. (Yes, I’m totally sure the prison officials will take the time to make those photocopies and put them by hand.)
Thompson’s attorneys have pointed out that there is no guarantee that the prison “won’t revert to its old ways” if the suit is dismissed.
Official New York policy is to ban books in prison that might encourage “disruptive” behavior – language that, like many state policies regarding books in prison, is written broadly enough to permit censorship. extent. Meanwhile, Thompson noted in an interview with the Time that she heard from a number of incarcerated readers who were simply curious to know more about the history of Attica. “There was a real, honest, genuine desire to know what happened all those years ago,” she said. “There has been no hint from these people that this is in any way inciting or biased.”
State policies around books are inhumane by definition, and have long been unclear to the point of nonsense; although there are many examples, it appears that New York once banned a book containing moon maps saying it “would present escape hazards”. PEN America noted in a 2019 report that “even the most dedicated advocates of book access in American prisons have limited visibility into which books are blocked and which are allowed.” With little oversight in this category, prisons and state attorneys are able to ban books without seeing them and more or less according to their own logic – a pattern that a number of groups across the country attempt to thwart this by providing books to incarcerated people.
If you’re justifiably bored with what’s going on in New York prisons (and, for that matter, in all prisons around the world), you can check out these programs and find out if they accept donations – there are. has a great list here.