Prisons have always placed incarcerated folks’ rights at the bottom of their priorities. Recently, prison officials have come under fire for banning books centering Black issues from entering the hands of those behind bars. In January, Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy“—his 2015 book about an Alabama lawyer’s crusade against wrongful convictions, the death penalty, and other excesses of the criminal justice system—made headlines because it was added to lists in Kansas and North Carolina. In November 2019, Danville Correctional Center in Illinois banned 200 books, many for “racial stuff.” Those titles included W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folks” and Frederick Douglass’ slave narrative autobiography, among others. In 2017, Muckrock obtained and published Michigan’s 60-page list of banned books; Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks”—a noted 1952 treatise about the psychological impact of racism on Black people—was also included. Works of fiction such as Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” have also been added to some prisons’ banned books lists.
These lists are upheld by state Departments of Corrections and individual facilities, which often offer vague and arbitrary reasons for restriction. However, their choices of which books to ban seem to follow a pattern: They tend to target books that focus on the prison-industrial complex, civil rights, and mass incarceration’s impact on Black people.
According to the 2019 Literature Locked Up report by PEN America, prison officials state that “racial” books will disrupt social order and contribute to an unsafe environment for incarcerated people. A look at what’s allowed in some corrections facilities or systems makes clear that these bans are less about preventing racial violence or animus inside prisons, and more about denying Black incarcerated people access to information. Texas has banned classic books such as “The Color Purple,” but grants access to hateful and discriminatory books like “Mein Kampf” and two books by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. By making white supremacist literature available to the prison population but banning Black history books, prison officials undermine their own explanation that they prohibit such books due to controversial or incendiary racial content. And prison officials are able to legally get away with it. Although the First Amendment protects free speech and press, it doesn’t extend fully to folks in prison.
In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Procunier v. Martinez that prison officials can limit incarcerated people’s access to information particularly through mail—the primary way many receive books from loved ones or supporters—if such intervention fits the state’s interests. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 ruling in Turner v. Safley established further limits by giving prison officials free rein to ban books. Incarcerated folks have the right to challenge a book ban through an administrative appeals process. That requires a reviewer who wasn’t a part of the initial decision to ban. However, many of the book bans that got through the appeals process are reviewed by other internal prison officials, who are very likely to agree with the original ruling on a book.
Even if incarcerated folks wanted to file a complaint with federal courts to challenge a book ban, they can also potentially be stopped by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a law designed to limit the amount of federal complaint claims made by incarcerated people. To file a complaint in state court, an incarcerated person must go through all administrative solutions, first by submitting a complaint to their prison officials and appealing the confirmed decision through the state Department of Corrections. But navigating internal prison policies can be difficult due to last-minute deadline changes, little lenience for paperwork mistakes, or an incarcerated person’s lack of funds to ship the book to corrections officials for consideration. Failure to comply exactly with the rules of appeals can be automatic grounds for dismissing a complaint or deterring the filing of appeals in the first place.
Since incarcerated people have fewer chances to challenge book bans themselves, nonprofit and grassroots organizations have brought their own cases to the courts. The Equal Justice Initiative’s 2011 civil rights lawsuit against an Alabama prison overturned a ban on Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the convict leasing system. In May 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union also threatened to sue in an open letter after the Arizona Department of Corrections banned “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.” Media coverage has also prompted prison officials to lift book bans, such as Colorado’s ban on former President Barack Obama’s memoirs, “Dreams From My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope.”
Backed by legislation, prison officials push an anti-Black agenda by stripping incarcerated people of their rights to books. It’s a modern throwback to denying literacy to enslaved people. Vague review criteria leave room for prisons to interpret the pleasure and right to have access to one’s history and culture as a threat to equally vague ideas of “social order”—as if prisons, one of the most dysfunctional and racist institutions in this country, know anything about creating a healthy, multiracial social order.