In one of the most memorable passages of his seminal autobiography, civil rights leader Malcolm X made explicit the impact his in-prison education had on him. Arrested on charges of larceny and sentenced to 10 years in prison, Malcolm read voraciously.
“I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive,” X wrote in 1965.
More than a half-century later, America is taking more and more books out of its prisons—and, in a turn particularly troubling for civil rights advocates—banning books critical of the country’s current state of mass incarceration.
The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter Thursday morning formally requesting the Arizona Department of Corrections overturn a ban on the book Chokehold, a nonfiction work that interrogates and challenges America’s current criminal justice system, calling its prohibition from the state’s prisons a violation of First Amendment Rights.
“The very people who experience extreme racial disparity in incarceration cannot be prohibited from reading a book whose purpose is to examine and educate about that disparity,” the letter, shared exclusively with The Root, reads. “Improving understanding of policing, incarceration, and racial bias is especially critical given Arizona’s stark racial disparities and overall high rates of incarceration.”
Written by former prosecutor Paul Butler, Chokehold explores the history and practical implications of how race operates within the criminal justice system, ultimately taking an abolitionist view of prisons. Using the metaphor of the deadly police tactic used to force people into submission, Butler examines how the justice system exacerbates racial oppression while giving out practical advice for the black men disproportionately caught in its maws, detailing what rights people have during searches, for instance.
The letter also points out that Chokehold explicitly disavows violence, nullifying any argument the Arizona Department of Corrections [ADC] has that the book constitutes a danger to its jails and prisons.
“ADC cannot show that banning Chokehold is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests and should immediately correct its decision and restore access to Paul Butler’s important book,” the letter states.
Emerson Sykes, an ACLU staff attorney working with the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project and one of the letter’s co-authors, told The Root the ban flies in the face of Supreme Court precedent.
“The Supreme Court has established that people who are detained have First Amendment rights to read a wide range of books and literature, and that any restriction on that right has to be closely related to those prisons’ legitimate interests,” he said.
Material that could be banned under current First Amendment protections would need to pose a more explicit danger to the safety and security of the prison—literature that details how to make weapons or explosives, for instance.
“The government can’t block a book just because prison officials reject the radical policy proposals that it contains,” Sykes said.
The Arizona Department of Corrections ban of Chokehold is just the latest in a series of recent book bans that have raised concerns from civil rights and inmate advocacy groups, who say these bans serve no other purpose than to punish and restrict the incarcerated from educating themselves.
In one Georgia jail, a sheriff recently imposed a ban on all reading materials except religious texts like the Bible and the Quran. In North Carolina and Florida, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, another book that comprehensively exposes the racist roots of mass incarceration, has also been prohibited from state prisons. And earlier this year, the state of Washington forbade outsiders from sending free books to people locked in its prisons—a policy they were forced to rescind after a backlash.
The trend speaks to a widely held belief that America’s prisons ought to be solely punitive—a philosophy that presumes a loss of some freedoms ought to mean a loss of all freedoms.
Sykes said this belief ignores the rehabilitative mandate prisons have, and in doing so, passes over one important reality: most people currently incarcerated will eventually leave prison, and it is in our collective best interest that they reenter society as mentally and emotionally sound as possible.
“If rehabilitation is taken seriously and preparation for a life after prison is taken seriously, then prison officials have every interest in promoting education among those who are trying to understand how they got to where they are, and how to make sure they don’t come back,” Sykes said.
He also pointed out that unlike in-prison education programs or educational grants, many of which have dwindled in prisons across the country, there is no budgetary component to letting inmates read books sent to them, as was the case with an Arizona inmate who was sent a copy of Chokehold by an outside contact.
It’s telling, then, that educating the incarcerated—at no cost to the state—on the history and conditions of their imprisonment could be viewed as fundamentally dangerous, a view that is symptomatic of a much larger and deeper problem.
“As a society, the way we treat our most vulnerable members speaks to who we are and what we value,” Sykes said. “It’s important to protect what the Constitution does protect in terms of their access to the information, and to maintain their humanity.”