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Author challenges New York prisons’ ban of Attica riot history book

More than 50 years after the historic prisoner uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, the state blocked inmates from reading a scholarly history of the Attica riots.

MANHATTAN (CN) — “Attica! Attica!” was once a ubiquitous radical civil rights battle cry invoking state law enforcement’s violent attacks on inmates at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility in 1971. Nearly a dozen New York prisons have banned a history book recounting the prison uprising, per a federal lawsuit filed Thursday by the book’s author.

Heather Ann Thompson brought a 16-page complaint Thursday in Manhattan federal court over New York state’s censorship of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971,” which she says has been repeatedly blocked from being distributed to inmates of New York state prisons.

Filed jointly by the New York Civil Liberties Union Foundation and the Cardozo Civil Rights Clinic, the complaint seeks an injunction forbidding the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision from preventing the distribution of “Blood in the Water” in the state’s prison system.

Bringing her civil rights claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, Thompson — a historian at the University of Michigan — alleges New York state prison system has routinely blocked distribution of her book to prisoners and is attempting to obscure the history of the five-day prison rebellion that transpired in the fall of 1971 at the Attica prison in upstate New York.

In their manifesto, Attica inmates had demanded more adequate conditions, including getting better medical care, more toilet paper and increased visiting hours.

“People incarcerated in multiple other states have had the opportunity to access ‘Blood in the Water,’ benefiting from the historical perspective it offers, as well as the book’s key insights into the importance of recognizing the humanity of incarcerated individuals and the consequences of an inhumane criminal justice system,” the complaint states. “But not in New York, where defendants, state prison officials purporting to act under a media censorship program, have barred incarcerated people from accessing ‘Blood in the Water,’ blocking Professor Thompson herself from sharing the book with people in state prisons and denying her the opportunity to contest this censorship.”

According to the complaint, current inmates at Attica have been blocked from receiving the book, along with inmates at Bedford Hills, Eastern, Franklin, Great Meadow, Mohawk, Orleans, Otisville, Southport and Ulster Correctional Facilities.

The complaint names as co-defendants Anthony J. Annucci, acting commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, and Raymond Grinnell, coordinator of special subjects in the agency’s Department of Education.

Representatives for the agency declined to comment on pending litigation Thursday.

The reputation of prisoners’ uprising became a pollical rallying cry in the 1970s: “Attica State! Attica State!” was included in John Lennon’s 1971 song of the same name, and “Attica! Attica!” was famously chanted by Al Pacino to stir up a crowd of New Yorkers in the 1975 bank heist film “Dog Day Afternoon.”

A 2021 documentary film released on the 50th anniversary of the uprising, “Attica,” was nominated for the 2022 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Avant-garde jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp wrote a politically charged album one year after the riots for Impulse Records titled “Attica Blues,” which includes narration from famed New York civil rights attorney William Kunstler, who had been chosen by inmates to attend negotiations between officials and the Attica prisoners as third-party observer.

“The Attica Rebellion turned 50 last year, amidst a national racial reckoning of racist violence,” New York civil rights attorney Ron Kuby told Courthouse News on Thursday afternoon. “Professor Thompson’s book is the leading scholarship on the rebellion, a subject which has generated a small library of books and the recent Academy Award-nominated documentary.”

“That the people who continue to engage in the dehumanization and brutality that led to the Attica Rebellion want to suppress its history is no surprise in an America where so many people choose to live in a past that never existed,” said Kuby, who was a partner with Kunstler’s law firm from 1983 until Kunstler’s death in 1995.

“Given the importance of the topic though, these attempts are particularly clumsy and the court hearing will certainly be embarrassing to the Department of Corrections, assuming they are capable of embarrassment,” he added.

A state special commission on the Attica riots condemned indiscriminate violence against prisoners by state police in their attempt to quell the uprising.

“With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the s assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War,” the commission declared in its official report.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from the Southern District of New York, has upheld prison bans of sexually explicit material.

This February, three Second Circuit judges ruled that Connecticut prison inmates do not have a right to possess or view pornography in prison.

The ruling upheld a 2012 New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision policy that bans porn from prisons with the stated goal of eliminating a hostile work environment for guards.

It was in June of that year that Connecticut banished porn from its prisons, from depiction of sex acts to images of nudity — no breasts or butts about it.

The state did carve out an exception for scientific or artistic materials, and by 2018, the number of public indecency tickets issued to inmates dropped to 79 from 494 in 2012.

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