The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Prison systems insist on banning books by Black authors. It’s time to end the censorship.

In recent years, prison systems in states across the country have tried to ban books by several Black authors, including “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
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Andy Chan and Michelle Dillon serve on the board of the nonprofit organization Books to Prisoners.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X wrote: “I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. 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.”

These words guide the mission of Books to Prisoners, a Seattle-based nonprofit providing free books to incarcerated individuals throughout the United States since the 1970s. At Books to Prisoners, we understand that books are precious materials within prisons, which are environments of isolation and deprivation. Sources for books inside these facilities are scarce. A library, if it even exists at a carceral facility, is often understocked and inaccessible — a condition exacerbated during the pandemic. Books may also be obtained from preapproved distributors of free books such as Books to Prisoners or be purchased from paid vendors; family members and friends are often not allowed to provide books directly to loved ones.

The need for educational and self-empowering materials in prisons is vast. Despite this need, prisons routinely impede access for arbitrary and biased reasons, a practice long overdue for public examination. A recent rejection from South Central Correctional Facility (SCCF) in Clifton, Tenn., epitomizes this issue. In late December, SCCF returned a package of rejected books to Books to Prisoners. Inside were three books we had sent to an incarcerated reader and a note scrawled by a prison guard reading simply: “Malcolm X not allowed.” The offending book, “Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary,” is a Scholastic biography intended for grades 7-12.

Prison censorship is still shocking to us, even after years of work with Books to Prisoners, but it rarely surprises us now. SCCF’s ban on Malcolm X is part of a widespread pattern of censorship by prisons that selectively and intentionally target books by Black authors and books containing criticism of the treatment of Black people in this country. Recent bans have included Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by prisons in Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, and North Carolina; a ban on Paul Butler’s “Chokehold: Policing Black Men” by the Arizona Department of Corrections; and bans by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety on “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and “I Am Not Your Negro” by James Baldwin. In 2019, a prison in Illinois tried to remove 200 books primarily focused on race and civil rights from its facility. In 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. PEN America surveyed prison censorship in 2019 and 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.”

We are living in a moment of increased attention to injustices within policing and incarceration. Limitations to access to information by the government should be deeply concerning, especially when considered within the known biases of the prison system. Books to Prisoners tracks restrictions both to draw attention to censorship as well as to safeguard that we aren’t using our limited resources to send books that will inevitably be rejected, but it’s a Sisyphean task. A book accepted in one prison may be censored in another. A book accepted one day may be banned the next. Some prisons allow mailroom staff to be the final judge on whether a book should be prohibited. With little transparency, these seemingly arbitrary bans are difficult and expensive to fight.

We encourage everyone to support the ongoing work to keep books flowing. Support your local prison book program. Support efforts such as the book club founded by the rapper Noname, which has sent 5,000 books to incarcerated members since April. Support Freedom Reads, founded by the formerly incarcerated poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts, who is establishing Freedom Libraries for incarcerated readers (the very first, coincidentally, just opened in the former jail cell of Malcolm X).

Everyone deserves access to the books they seek for self-determination and growth. Everyone deserves “new vistas.” It’s time to put an end to racially targeted prison censorship.