Reading is Fundamental, Unless it is Deemed Dangerous

Here is my Latest.

So what’s the story with Arizona prisons banning a book that criticizes racism in the judicial system?

There is nothing new about prisons controlling and often banning certain books in their respective prison systems. The rationale even seems reasonable. Certain books could lead to unsafe conditions for both guards and inmates alike. Such books may describe how to construct tunnels, make homemade weapons, or directly promote violence.

In some instances, the reasonableness comes through. Good examples include books like Tryptamine Palace which discusses how to make drugs from toad venom, The Field and Stream Hunting Guide which tells readers how to silently stalk prey (victims), or The Elements of Persuasion which, I guess, could be used to influence others to make a jail break.

But what about books like The Color Purple, The Merchant of Venice, A Game of Thrones or any books by John Grisham? All of these are banned in many prison systems, and these bans are kind of head-scratchers.

The subject of banning books in prisons is one that periodically leads to public and legal challenges in the courts by organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union. These challenges usually center around books that do not detail any instructions for digging tunnels or making weapons but instead contain challenging ideas that prison systems object to, as they may potentially cause unrest or violence.

The latest such book ban is from the Arizona prison system. They have banned Chokehold: Policing Black Men, an acclaimed award-winning book by former prosecutor Professor Paul Butler of Georgetown University Law Center. The book details how racism permeates throughout the justice system, including policing, prosecutions, and imprisonment. Therein lies the rub. Due to its criticisms of prison systems, the Arizona Department of Corrections felt that enabling prisoners to read the book may be “detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation” of the state prisons.

It is true that ideas and words can incite violence. Why then is Hitler’s Mein Kampf allowed reading in many prison systems? There are logical arguments to be had on both sides. Proponents of allowing prisoners to read the book argue that it is a censorship issue, a first amendment issue, and they even take it further, arguing that it should be required reading for those running the prisons.

The counter argument is that reading about racism in the justice system could lead to unrest and violence. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that banning any books should only be done when it is in the interest of safety. This ruling is vague, so the battle over books will be a continued give and take in the courts and in the court of public opinion.

How about this for an idea? Create a balanced reading/educational program from the book with the goal of reducing racism and violence both within and outside the judicial system that is jointly required for prisoners and guards/administration alike. This way, they may come to a better understanding of each other. After all, reading is fundamental for everyone.