Banning books in prison cut inmates’ lifeline to the outside world

Books about the black, indigenous, Latino, and LGBTQ community are often banned in prisons, but the titles banned vary widely from state to state, Studies showcut off the prisoners’ lifeline from the outside world and the blade is an important tool for Regression reduction.

The situation has so frustrated one prisoner in Pennsylvania that he filed more than 300 complaints about it last year. Another inmate, recently released from a Washington state prison, said the ban is arbitrary and hurts inmates’ chances of a successful future outside of prison.

“Books felt like a tool to change your circumstances…the ability to get out of prison,” said Arthur Longworth, a writer and activist who spent 38 years in Washington for murder when he was 20.

“In prison, most of the people who come in for very long periods are young people,” he continued. “So who do we want them to be? I think books provide a major means of educating those who are self-motivated.

Prisons have long banned books that officials consider dangerous or inappropriate, but they govern what books are Cannot be sent to prisoners It can be inconsistent. for example, “I’m not your niggerBy James Baldwin Banned In kansas Prisons for “racism/incitement” but allowed to enter California. a Children’s drawing book Photography of Aboriginal art is on the prohibited list in Florida But it’s okay in Oregon.

Arthur Longworth.
Arthur Longworth.NBC News

Books for prisonersPresident Andy Chan, a Seattle-based nonprofit that sends books to inmates across the country, said it has faced inconsistencies with this ban throughout its 50 years.

“Alice Walker”Violet“He was denied entry to several prisons,” Chan said. But they did allow a variety of books by right-wing authors, including Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. So, if the concern is about good prison system, where is the consistency? “

A few months ago, Chan now posted viral tweet About Malcolm X’s teen autobiography that was turned down by a Tennessee prison last year. The text of the disapproval note was simply: “Malcolm X not allowed.”

Andy Chan.
Andy Chan.Courtesy Andy Chan

“The mentality we have is that anything to do with black studies, or indigenous studies, or a number of different things, is going to be detrimental to the organized prison system,” Chan said.

An inmate at the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary, Stevie, whose last name has been withheld due to the prison’s policy, said he saw the inconsistencies firsthand.

“I was in one prison, and they said to me, ‘You can have it.’ Stevie said you go to another prison, and they say, ‘No, you can’t have it.’


Stevie is an inmate at the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary.
Stevie is an inmate at the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary.NBC News

During his more than 10 years in various Pennsylvania prisons, Stevie said he has been frustrated, leading him to file hundreds of complaints about the issue in the past year.

“I am so angry. I feel cut off from the world,” he said. “I feel like someone doesn’t want me to know something.”

Stevie said the parole board is set to review his sentence in November, and access to the books is critical to his future abroad.

“What can I do to make myself a better and more productive member of my family and community? These things are in the written material.” “You cannot transform, you cannot grow without knowledge.”

In some states, including Pennsylvania, A committee It decides which books to enter and which ones to keep.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said that most of the books and leaflets that were turned down by a three-member panel representing the security, education and mailroom departments of each prison, were rejected because they contained explicit nudity.

But Stevie said he believes race and culture play a big role in decisions.

A book being prepared for shipment to the inmate from the bookstore to the prisoners.
A book being prepared for shipment to the inmate from the bookstore to the prisoners.NBC News

“A lot of times these prisons are actually located in rural areas,” Stevie said. “And the people who make the decisions are not people who are familiar with a particular history, and they dictate what people of color from an urban area can and can’t read.”

The state says it does not track the race or ethnicity of individual committee members, and while inmates are allowed to file complaints about banned books, the final decision is made by the committee.

“There should actually be some rules in place that are not ambiguous, and we should also have people who are culturally competent,” Stevie said.

For formerly incarcerated people like Longworth, the ability to access books in prison, although limited, has changed their lives.

“Who knows who I would be if I couldn’t educate myself in prison?” He said. “I don’t think we live up to our values ​​as Americans by allowing that.”