By: Andrea Jamison
The New Jersey prison system recently came under scrutiny as a result of its ban on a popular book about mass incarceration.
The book, written by civil rights attorney and legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, raises the prospect that prisons reconstitute a type of “racial caste system” in America. Alexander argues that incarceration makes it legal to discriminate against inmates in much the same way that slavery made it legal to discriminate against African Americans. Although many critics herald the book as being an outstanding contribution to criminal justice reform, New Jersey’s Department of Corrections determined that the book “posed a material danger to the safety of inmates and employees.” However, prison officials lifted their ban after receiving a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, condemning the state’s actions as being misguided, harmful, and unconstitutional.
Prison policies that lead to censorship are becoming more prevalent and problematic across the nation. In Texas, currently 150,000 inmates are subjected to a ban that prohibits access to approximately 10,000 book titles. Last year, it was reported that “inmates at two Mississippi prisons are no longer allowed to receive soft-cover books.” In 2013, prisons in Connecticut banned magazines for “safety and security” concerns. Included in the ban were nine issues of The Coalition for Prisoners Rights and an issue of Slam Magazine, which featured LeBron James on the cover. In 2011, a prisoner at the Kilby Correctional Facility near Montgomery, Alabama was denied access to a book that was sent to him by his attorney. The book, Slavery By Another Name, was deemed a security threat. Therefore, prison officials returned the book to its original sender.
Prison systems often cite safety as the primary reason for censoring reading materials. As in the aforementioned case at Kilby Correctional Facility, the refusal to deny an inmate access to Slavery By Another Name was substantiated by prison regulations. Regulations allow for the banning of written materials that could potentially “incite violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.” The irony here is that the language used in this “modern day” prison regulation is reminiscent of the following 19-century slaves code:
“Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion, to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State … ”
The problem with slave codes is that they did much more than just prohibit slaves from learning to read. On a much deeper level, these codes established a system of control that extended well beyond physical slavery. Slaves codes created conditions whereby psychological control became possible. The problem with prison regulations that prohibit inmates from reading certain books is that it also creates conditions of control that extend well beyond physical confinement. According to Michelle Alexander, prison systems not only strip inmates of their rights, these systems also strips them of their humanity. Perhaps this is the real cause for concern.
“The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world their own shame.”
Andrea Q. Jamison is a professional librarian, writer, and current Ph.D. student whose research involves examining the pervasive lack of diversity in literature. She has over 17 years of experience working in schools and libraries, and she is the author of two books: Against the Waterfalls and Super Sonja. In addition to her full-time duties in librarianship, she is a mom, Board Member for ALA’s Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Roundtable, Chair for the EMIERT Multicultural Awards, reviewer for the School Library Journal, reviewer for Indieview, freelance writer, avid blogger, and social justice advocate. She also works with the Illinois School Library Media Association as a member of their advocacy and conference planning committees. Andrea thoroughly enjoys working with children and speaks nationally on issues related to creating diverse and inclusive learning spaces for youth. Find her on Twitter @achitownj.