Arizona Faces Calls to Reverse Ban on Criminal Justice Book in Prisons

The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) is under fire after prison officials banned prisoners from reading a book that delves into the criminal justice system’s impact on Black men. The book, Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Georgetown University Professor Paul Butler, advocates for the abolition of the prison system.

In March, officials at the ADC declared Chokehold was “unauthorized content.” The ADC claimed the book was potentially “detrimental to the safe, secure and orderly operation” of prison facilities in a letter to Butler’s publisher, The New Press, according to NPR. Butler and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are now requesting the department reconsider the ban and warn that if it does not, a lawsuit may follow. “The ban is an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of inmates,” Butler said in an email to The North Star. “The Supreme Court has stated that the protection of the Constitution doesn’t end at the prison door. There is nothing in Chokehold that would jeopardize the safety of inmates or jailers.”

The former federal prosecutor said he disavows violence as a form of resistance. Butler acknowledged that his book does, however, advocate for the abolition of prisons and seeks to “put jailers out of the work of holding human beings in cages.” On May 16, the ACLU sent a letter to ADC Director Charles Ryan asking for the ban to be rescinded.

“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,” the letter stated.

It continued: “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.” “The ban is particularly troubling in Arizona, a state where 1 in 19 Black men are locked up — one of the highest racial disparities in the country. The thesis of Chokehold — that police and prosecutors target Black men — would not come as a breaking news to anyone who is locked up in Arizona,” Butler told The North Star.

Butler said that prisons are important locations of learning for African Americans because so many high school and college-aged Black people are imprisoned. “Jailers ought to celebrate the fact that inmates want to read important books about public policy,” he said. “The book ban pushes back against literacy, against democracy, and against the Constitution.”

The ADC did not immediately respond to The North Star’s request for comment. However, in a statement to The New York Times, spokesman Andrew Wilder said that the department “is reviewing the book and the letter and will be providing a response to the ACLU letter upon completion of its review.” Wilder did not explain why the book was banned in the first place.

A department order manual stated that books may be rejected due to sexually explicit material or content that threatens the safety of people at the correctional facility. However, the manual also stated: “No publication shall be excluded solely on the basis of its appeal to a particular ethnic, racial or religious group.” A similar ban was imposed on The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander in states such as North Carolina and New Jersey, The New York Times reported. The ACLU successfully challenged those two decisions.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.