Incarceration Nation

Banning Literature in Prisons

Lawsuit among latest reminders that reading, education can help ensure that prisoners who gain freedom, keep it

By Myesha Braden, Michael Huggins and Courtney Alexander

Last month, the publisher of Prison Legal News became one of the latest organizations to take action against the nation’s prison systems for censorship.

The Human Rights Defense Center lawsuit targets the Illinois Department of Corrections and alleges that it keeps HRDC literature out of the hands of prisoners, including the monthly Prison Legal News magazine—which covers court rulings and other aspects of the criminal justice system. 

In January, after protests and a letter calling out the unconstitutionality of book bans from the ACLU, New Jersey dropped a ban at two of its prisons of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. North Carolina also dropped a ban on the book.

That same month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo reversed a policy that limited access to self-improvement books and literary works by authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Maya Angelou. 

But bans remain in other states including Mississippi, Texas and Florida and reinforce a prison environment that devalues humanity and protects a troubling status quo—a lack of knowledge and education for inmates struggling to remain out of the system. 

Supreme Court, reading and humanity

We read to understand and express ourselves, to connect with our humanity, and to understand our rights and learn better ways of protecting our constitutional freedoms. Those issues are especially important to prisoners, who are isolated from society and frequently from one another. 

The actions of the ACLU and the HRDC and the tireless efforts of prison rights advocates highlight the significance of late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s words in response to a 1974 case that dealt with issues of prison mail censorship and intellectual freedom.

In his Procunier v. Martinez opinion, Marshall wrote of the importance of remembering the humanity of inmates, stating that “when the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions.”

In 2010, the American Library Association adopted Marshall’s opinion.  

The Supreme Court has long recognized that people in prison maintain their First Amendment rights. In its 1989 decision in Thornburgh v. Abbott, the Supreme Court prohibited blanket bans on books and required individual analysis for each work of literature to ensure no further restriction than that reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. 

What possible interest is being served when Texas prohibits access to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, but allows access to Hitler’s Mein Kampf? That state has banned about 10,000 books including titles as benign as pop-up version of A Charlie Brown Christmas and popular mainstream fiction such as John Grisham’s A Time to Kill.

A practice rooted in the
antebellum South 

Banning books and restricting literacy in America is nothing new. 

At various times during slavery, teaching slaves to read was either completely outlawed or severely limited. 

After Nat Turner, a literate slave, led a Virginia uprising in 1831, the state made educating slaves even more difficult than it already was. Slave owners feared that Turner’s education had enabled him to lead others to take up arms. 

In the minds of slave owners, prohibiting the enslaved from reading about freedom would prevent them from wanting it. 

After the Civil War, Black codes and other vagrancy laws were used to replace slavery with incarceration and convict leasing—a system that kept Blacks working on farms for essentially nothing. And while there are significant differences between slavery and incarceration, both systems demand the suppression of thought, activity and expression.

Blacks were, and still are, left disproportionately vulnerable to incarceration’s negative educational practices. 

In 2010, Alabama prison officials labeled as a security threat Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize winning account of the systemic re-enslavement of Blacks following the Civil War through incarceration and debt.

Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was labeled a security threat in Florida and banned for containing “racial overtones.” The book argues that the “war on drugs” and resulting mass incarceration are extensions of social constructs rooted in slavery and white supremacy.

Michigan has banned dozens of books, including Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, which critiques the effects of racism.  

Ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said that, “knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.” Knowledge also makes individuals less likely to become or remain incarcerated. 

Increasing literacy among inmates increases their ability to participate in the educational, vocational and work-readiness programs that further decrease recidivism.

Allowing inmates access to books could assist some with successful reentry and ensure those who earn their freedom are able to maintain it. 

Just as pre-Civil War literacy bans perpetuated the institution of slavery, restrictions like those in Illinois, Texas, Michigan, Mississippi and Florida perpetuate mass incarceration and ensure that prisons, jails and the industries that serve them continue to flourish.

Myesha Braden is the director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Michael Huggins is the George N. Lindsay Fellow for the Criminal Justice Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Courtney Alexander is a counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

USA Today, March 9, 2018