The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) was sued by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author for allegedly censoring her nonfiction book, “Blood In The Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.”
Heather Thompson ordered her book from Amazon and had it sent to three inmates. One inmate received the book while the other two inmates received censorship notices without any explanation.
By coincidence, the lawsuit was filed by Sidley Austin LLP and the Uptown People’s Law Center on the anniversary of the massacre at Attica Prison.
It alleges officials in IDOC “adopted and implemented mail policies and practices prohibiting the delivery of written speech from Thompson.” They also failed to provide Thompson an opportunity to challenge the censorship and violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution.
The lawsuit seeks damages and an injunction to end the censorship, and it is the second lawsuit from UPLC to challenge censorship. Another lawsuit filed back in February alleged corrections officials were censoring issues of Prison Legal News.
Alan Mills, executive director of UPLC, said, “We’ve been negotiating with the department to see if whether they would agree to voluntarily reverse their position. A week or so ago, they said they would not.”
Officials are “over-censoring things that aren’t any sensitive security issue at all but are things the department just doesn’t want any prisoners to read about,” Mills added. There also is “no sort of central review here.”
Mills contended, “Each individual publication officer at each individual prison is sort of making these decisions on the fly, as evidenced by this case.”
“In February 2018,” according to the complaint [PDF], “Thompson attempted to send a copy of ‘Blood In The Water’ to Percell Dansberry, a prisoner at the Pontiac Correctional Center. Dansberry did not receive the book because it was improperly censored.”
The same date, Thompson sent a copy of her book to Jami Anderson, who is a prisoner at Logan Correctional Center. Staff improperly censored the book so Anderson never received it.
At Pontiac, Dansberry was given a censorship notice, but it included “no sufficient basis to justify the censorship.”
“The censorship policies, practices, and customs, as well as the regulations giving rise to them, are unconstitutionally overbroad in their construction and arbitrarily applied in practice,” the complaint argues. “In effect, prison officials are permitted to censor any speech with which they disagree or find offensive, and to do in an arbitrary manner.”
“In this case, for example, prison officials allowed Thompson’s book to be delivered to a prisoner incarcerated at Pontiac—even though both facilities are maximum security prisons operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections.”
Mills doesn’t know if Stateville reviewed the book, but officials did allow it to be delivered.
Under the Constitution and IDOC regulations, officials are required to provide an explanation for the censorship to the person who mailed the material as well as the prisoner.
“The First Amendment applies to both those persons speaking to prisoners as well as the prisoners’ rights to hear,” Mills declared.
Thompson stated, “It is unconscionable that prisons forbid human beings on the inside to read any book, and I am determined to speak out on behalf of the First Amendment wherever it is being violated.”
“My book underscores the sanctity of both correctional officer and prisoner lives, and covers an important event in American history that I have the right to share with any American who wants to learn about our country’s past,” she added.
The lawsuit comes right after the conclusion of a national prison strike. Mills mentioned how the demands of Attica prisoners forty-five years ago were very similar to the demands of prisoners who went on strike.