Free Speech

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Book on Prison Uprisings Banned in New York Prisons

Heather Ann Thompson's Blood in the Water might lead to "disobedience," prison officials say.


Heather Ann Thompson's 2016 history of the Attica Prison takeover, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, won a Pulitzer Prize in history for its deeply researched account of the deadliest prison incident in U.S. history. But there's one place you can't read it: inside New York prisons.

The 1971 takeover of Attica ended after four days when roughly 550 law enforcement officers retook the prison by force, dumping tear gas on the prison yard and then firing buckshot indiscriminately into the fog. They killed 39 people, including nine hostages. Afterward, the state of New York engaged in a decadeslong cover-up to hide the truth about the carnage. As the book ban shows, it's still at it.

For Thompson, there is a rich irony in her book being banned inside the very walls of Attica. "One of the key demands at Attica was an end to censorship," she tells Reason. Inmates' books, newspapers, and letters from loved ones were often tossed in the trash, especially if they were in Spanish. Inmates won the right to read more freely after Attica, but Thompson says there's been an overall backsliding in prison conditions over the past 40 years, of which the ban on her book is only a part.

In March, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Civil Rights Clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law filed a federal lawsuit on Thompson's behalf challenging the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision's ban on Blood in the Water. The lawsuit alleges that this censorship violates the First and 14th Amendments.

"The people inside just want to be able to read their own history, what happened in the state that they grew up in, what happened in the places where they reside day in and day out," Thompson says. "They, constitutionally and as human beings, have the right to read, and I, as a U.S. citizen, have the right to have what I have written read."

Why the ban? Prison officials say it's because they want to keep out materials that advocate "acts of disobedience" toward "law enforcement officers or prison personnel." That's doubly infuriating for Thompson because she spent much of the book discussing how violence could have been avoided.

"If anything, it is a primer on what to do to keep things humane and peaceful," she says.