After an Arizona prisoner was sent a book addressing the bias in the criminal justice system towards African-American men, the Arizona Department of Corrections moved to ban it. Titled “Chokehold: Policing Black Men” and written by Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, the book examines the racial disparities in the criminal justice system in the U.S. and prescribes solutions to tackle those problems.
The move to ban the book has been condemned by First Amendment advocates with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) writing to the Arizona Department of Corrections on Thursday to reverse the ban as it’s a violation of the First Amendment Rights.
“The ban on Chokehold violates the First Amendment and does nothing to protect the “safe and secure operation” of correctional facilities. Under certain circumstances, it is permissible to prevent incarcerated people from reading materials of their choosing. However, it is unconstitutional to censor a book that educates prisoners on how legal, penal, and other institutions have shaped their own lives and poses no threat to the safety and security of the facility,” a part of the letter read.
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The letter also stressed on how indispensable it is for those who fall victim to the criminal justice bias to educate themselves about it.
“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. Improving understanding of policing, incarceration, and racial bias is especially critical given Arizona’s stark racial disparities in and overall high rates of incarceration.”
Emerson Sykes, an ACLU attorney told the Associated Press the Arizona Department of Corrections had no grounds to ban the book.
“In order for them to ban a book, they have to show the restriction is related to a legitimate prison interest,” Sykes said. “There’s no interest to keep inmates from learning about the criminal justice system and policing.”
Paul Butler, who was also shocked by the ban also told the Associated Press that his publisher was informed by the Arizona Department of Corrections that his 2017 book had “unauthorized content” adding that some part of it was “detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the facility.”
“I disavow violence because first, I think it’s immoral, and second, because it wouldn’t work,” Butler 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.”
“One in 19 black men are in prison in Arizona right now,” Butler stressed. “Rather than acknowledge it’s a good thing that inmates want to read about and debate important public policy, Arizona pushes back against rehabilitation, against literacy, against the Constitution.”
Sykes also made known the ACLU’s intention to sue the Arizona Department of Corrections if their letter isn’t replied.
This is not the first time books have been banned in some prisons in the United States. State prisons in North Carolina and Georgia have banned Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” which talks about discrimination faced by African Americans and mass incarceration.