Why Are Prisons Banning Books by Black Authors?

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mural of malcolm x

Photo by Eddie Codel via Flickr

Despite a drastic need for educational and self-empowering materials in prisons, authorities routinely impede incarcerees’ access to works deemed controversial for arbitrary and biased reasons, a practice long overdue for public examination, according to Andy Chan and Michelle Dillon, board members of the nonprofit organization Books to Prisoners, in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

A recent rejection from South Central Correctional Facility (SCCF) in Clifton, Tenn. of the Malcolm X biography by Walter Dean Myers,  “Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary,” a Scholastic biography intended for grades 7-12, highlights a widespread pattern of censorship by prisons that selectively and intentionally targets books by Black authors and books containing criticism of the treatment of Black people in this country, the authors said.

A 2019 survey by PEN America concluded: “prisons systems frequently place bans on literature that discusses civil rights, historical abuses within America’s prisons, or criticisms of the prison system itself, often on the grounds that such titles advocate disruption of the prison’s social order.”

Meanwhile, 2020 researchers found that a Wisconsin committee allowed “Mein Kampf” into prisons after review but banned publications about the Black Panthers because it considered them gang-related material. Chan and Dillon point out that these decisions are arbitrary, with a book accepted one day potentially being banned the next and some prisons allowing mailroom staff to be the final judge on whether a book should be prohibited.

Additional Reading: Report: Prisons Responsible for ‘Largest Book Ban’ in U.S.

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