On September 9, 1971, 1,281 incarcerated men took control of the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
The takeover of Attica initiated four days of protest and polemics about the politics of mass incarceration in the United States and the basic civil and human rights of people in prison.
On the fourth day, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered a retaking of the facility.
Twenty-nine incarcerated men and nine civilian hostages were gunned down and killed during the ensuing siege.
The Attica uprising and its aftermath sparked a nationwide conversation about what we have come to call “the carceral state.”
Some saw the Attica rebellion as a vindication of the politics of “governing through crime”;
others argued that it was an indictment of the prison system and the anti-Black violence that defines it.
Forty-five years after the Attica uprising, historian Heather Ann Thompson published Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.
The book is considered to provide the most comprehensive history of the events leading up to, during, and after the uprising.
In March 2022, Thompson filed suit against New York State officials, challenging the blanket censorship of Blood in the Water in the New York prison system.
This struggle was foreshadowed by the original Attica uprisers: Abolishing censorship at the prison was one of their core demands.
Settlement proceedings between Thompson and the institutional defendants began in October 2022.
The Attica uprisers’ critique extended beyond their facility. They argued that their circumstances were not unique but archetypal: “Attica Prison is one of the most classic institutions of authoritative inhumanity upon men.”
Prison conditions were a focus, but the men of Attica also were intentional in describing the prison system as “the authoritative fangs of a coward in power.”
The mention of fangs implies the existence of a body. Critical to the uprisers’ argument was the idea that prisons are one component of a larger structure, a framing similar to that of scholars who choose to discuss the “carceral state” rather than the “penal state.”
The “carceral state” encompasses the physical institutions imprisoning people in America as well as the ideologies that fuel investment in those institutions.
It is a larger government apparatus that functions as a means of social ordering against targeted groups and profit maximization for others.
In recounting the uprisers’ critique, Blood in the Water offered a narrative that would have allowed the people incarcerated in Attica today to understand their history and, through that history, the meaning of their experience. This Note stems from a desire to understand the censorship of Thompson’s book from the vantage point of the people deprived of the right to read it.
The carceral state and the carceral system are also a racist state and a racist system. The abolition of slavery brought with it a surge in Black criminalization and incarceration.
In Alabama, for instance, the prison population shifted from ninety-nine percent white to ninety percent Black after the Civil War.
By the 1870s, Black people made up ninety-five percent of the prison population in the South.
In the absence of slavery, incarceration became the container for Black freedom and the vehicle for Black labor exploitation.
In state prisons today, Black people are incarcerated at almost five times the rate of white people.
While Black people make up thirteen percent of the population in America, they represent thirty-eight percent of the incarcerated population.
One in three Black men will be sentenced to time in prison, in contrast with one in seventeen white men.
These disparities make clear that incarceration is simply the latest iteration of racial persecution in America.
Books are central to an analysis of the American prison because of the nexus between race, literacy, and incarceration. Black people are disproportionately imprisoned in America, and rates of illiteracy are disproportionately high among incarcerated people.
Participation in education programs while incarcerated has been shown to reduce recidivism; fewer educated people are reincarcerated upon release.
The interests of proponents and opponents of incarceration would seem to converge on reduced recidivism rates, which would mean that fewer people commit crimes and are reincarcerated after release.
Nevertheless, battles over the censorship of reading and educational materials rage on in America’s prisons.
So how does censorship serve, or disserve, the goal of reducing recidivism? Prison officials rely on safety and security concerns to justify banning certain books.
More specifically, books discussing race or the experience of incarceration might be banned for inciting division or unrest among incarcerated people.
On the other hand, people focused on reducing prison populations point to the positive benefits that reading offers to incarcerated people, one of which is lowering the rate of recidivism and reincarceration.
From this perspective—and factoring in the lack of empirical data showing that books cause disruptions in prisons—maintaining order through censorship makes little sense.
But at present, the evidence of reading’s benefits, and the absence of evidence of harm, receive little (if any) weight in censorship decisions.
The fact that decisionmakers don’t consider the real effects of censorship on incarcerated people raises the question whether reduced recidivism can be honestly touted as a goal of incarceration or if book bans are merely one cog in a purely punitive machine. The history of withholding education to oppress freed Black people in America lends credence to the latter understanding of prison censorship.
This Note uses Thompson’s case to unpack the racialized censorship of reading materials in prisons. Its specific focus is texts about the subjugation of Black people in America, which necessarily discuss the history of prisons and imprisonment. Part I offers a critical assessment of the statutes, administrative regulations, and case law that have shaped the law and policy around prison censorship. Part II revisits the Attica uprising, Thompson’s challenge to the present-day censorship of her book by the Attica Correctional Facility, and the politics of racially motivated book bans in prisons. It also connects Thompson’s prison censorship story to the broader attacks on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the teaching of Black history outside of the prison system. Part III offers a proposal that rebalances the constitutional interests implicated by the current prison censorship regime. It places racial literacy and the knowledge access rights of incarcerated people at the center of the legal analysis and argues that this issue can only be approached through the eyes of the victims of censorship, not those of its perpetrators.