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Arizona DOC Bans Book Critical of Justice System, Reverses Decision Following Criticism

by Anthony W. Accurso

According to news reports, earlier this year the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) banned prisoners from receiving Chokehold: Policing Black Men, a 2017 book critical of the criminal justice system. 

The author, former federal prosecutor and Georgetown University professor Paul Butler, explored the history and implications of mass incarceration’s links to racism in Chokehold; he advocated for prison abolition while providing practical advice for black men “caught in [the] maws” of the justice system.

It was unclear how prison officials had justified the ban, but the ADC claimed that “allowing prisoners to read the book would be detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of its prisons,” according to an article published by the ACLU on May 16, 2019. The ACLU noted that nothing in the book could remotely be considered dangerous, and Butler specifically advocated against the use of violence.

“I disavow violence because first, I think it’s immoral, and second, because it wouldn’t work,” he said. “I’ve received letters from several inmates who have read Chokehold while they are serving time. No one has indicated that reading Chokehold has caused any problems in prison.”

 “In order for [the ADC] to ban a book, they have to show the restriction is related to a legitimate prison interest,” noted ACLU attorney Emerson Sykes. “There’s no interest to keep inmates from learning about the criminal justice system and policing.”

An article from TheRoot.com, also published on May 16, pointed to the ADC’s ban on Chokehold as the latest example of a trend where corrections officials seek to prevent prisoners from understanding their place in the context of mass incarceration. Yet courts and prisoners’ rights advocates are pushing back. 

In March 2019, in a lawsuit filed by Prison Legal News, a federal district court overturned the ADC’s ban on articles about sexual assaults that took place in prison, usually involving staff members, even when the articles were based on published court rulings. See: Prison Legal News v. Ryan, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:15-cv-02245-ROS.

“The apparent basis for [the censorship] has been our reporting of sexual assaults and rapes that occur in the prison environment,” said PLN editor Paul Wright, “oftentimes literally quoting federal and state court opinions on those assaults.”

The censorship of books by prison officials deprives prisoners of reading materials they can use to educate themselves about criminal justice topics and other social issues. This is of particular importance given the paucity of meaningful prison education programs. 

“I am concerned that many people in custody are subject to other illegal and unfair acts by jailers that most people on the outside never hear about,” Butler stated. “Providing books to inmates promotes literacy, rehabilitation and civic engagement.”

Indeed, it was access to books that helped transform civil rights leader Malcolm X during his incarceration in the 1940s and 50s.

“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,” he wrote in 1965.

Following extensive criticism of its ban on Butler’s book, and facing potential litigation, the ADC reversed course in June 2019 and allowed Chokehold into state prisons. 

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Sources: aclu.org, theroot.com, npr.org, newsday.com