Prison Book Censorship Bars Liberation

In 2018, the list of banned books in North Carolina prisons included Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. It’s deeply hypocritical for a nation that proclaims itself a bastion of freedom to deny people an opportunity to participate in the marketplace of ideas and read books by these Black women authors. This is the same instinct that led the nation’s founders to declare it the “land of the free” while locking down slavery’s shackles; in the words of Childish Gambino, “This Is America.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Incarcerated people do not abdicate all First Amendment rights upon conviction. The auspicious launch of The North Star gives us cause to recalibrate our compass of concern to confront one of the long term problems that will impact our community for decades: the banning of books in prisons and jails nationwide.

Our incarceration crisis has so thoroughly disenfranchised and dehumanized our community that it may seem like there is little space to spare to stand against book banning in prisons. But ignoring this practice jeopardizes the core of freedom and we must do more to end book banning.

Literacy is often the best path for healing, growth, and learning. It is necessary for our family members to re-enter society and contribute again after mass incarceration ends. It is a silent outrage that this path to healing is being impeded today for so many. Although the United States has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, it holds over 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. Blacks make up 33 percent of the over 2 million people sentenced to prison or jail, although we comprise only 12 percent of the nation’s population.

Unquestionably, book banning practices violate the First Amendment of freedom from arbitrary government censorship. The works of Angelou, Morrison, and Alexander are just a few of the books prohibited in prisons and jails for no discernible safety reason. In some states, prison book banning policies vary from county to county, and from one facility to the next. In others, prison officials rarely update banned book lists or fail to competently explain book banning decisions.

Book banning also violates clearly established human rights of access to education and cultural freedom. We know this in part because, when challenged by the ACLU of North Carolina, the Department of Corrections immediately dropped its ban on The New Jim Crow. Less known is that banned books often include how-to manuals on plumbing or electrical work. This practice thus imperils the future of incarcerated individuals by preventing them from learning a trade that could help them thrive upon release.

Book banning has always been a tool of oppression. Today’s overly punitive prison book banning policies connect to this country’s long history of restricting literacy for Black people. In her book, Women, Race & Class, scholar and activist Angela Davis described how, under the threat of violence, almost every southern state banned enslaved people from reading or writing after Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831.

But if book banning has always been a tool of slavery, reading and writing have always been acts of abolition. Despite overt hostility, many of our greatest heroes found freedom through literacy. In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass described the pivotal moment of learning to read and write at age 12 by declaring that “from that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

In the 1940s and ‘50s, while incarcerated in Norfolk Prison, Malcolm Little decided to read book after book about American history and the dictionary cover to cover to heighten his learning. This process transformed him into Malcolm X. After his release, Malcolm used that knowledge to spark pride and dignity in his people across the world. If given a chance, how many of our brothers and sisters reentering society could be the next Malcolm X? Instead, many prisons and jails ban dictionary and encyclopedia access, so we may never know.

Today, we are hopeful that the First Step Act will hasten the release of thousands of people incarcerated inside federal prisons and, in the future, shorten sentences. Though small, it is a meaningful first step. Its bipartisan support suggests that the reeducation and re-entry of our formerly incarcerated community members will in the coming years become a central priority on the Civil Rights agenda.

At the Howard University Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, where I work as executive director, we are actively fighting against prison book censorship. Through the center’s clinic, Howard law students will release a path-breaking report on book banning policies in Departments of Correction in all 50 states that will uncover the extent of the problem.

The report examines the policies of states and the federal bureau of prisons, and makes recommendations for reform that include: 1) removing restrictions on which vendors one must use to access books (often people are forced to read on expensive tablets that they must purchase at a marked up price); 2) clarify policies on censorship that are enforced at the state level rather than from jail to jail; 3) establish publicly accessible and regularly updated banned book lists online that explains why the book is being banned; 4) develop a neutral publication review committee comprised of people trained in the First Amendment who work outside of the prison context; and 5) remove restrictions on publications based on mention of race, religion, philosophy or political views.

Our hope is that when the report is released in April, wardens around the country will address the illegality and immorality of their actions and reverse book banning policies. If states implement our report’s recommendations, combined with the inside out educational efforts led by Dr. Bahiyyah Muhammad and Nick Cannon, Howard University will be at the forefront of assaulting this injustice.

Fighting prison book censorship will extend access to literacy and education in prison, honor the First Amendment, and dignify the humanity of Black people currently trapped in the system. These institutions go to great lengths to change people from human beings into numbers printed on the back of orange prison jumpsuits. Only art, ideas, and community touch will help incarcerated people fully heal. Freedom from mental slavery is the first and most important step to true freedom, and this is how we get it.


About the Author

Justin Hansford is Associate Professor of Law and the Director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University. He is a leading scholar and activist in the areas of critical race theory, human rights, and law and social movements. He is a co-author of the forthcoming Seventh Edition of Race, Racism and American Law, the celebrated legal textbook that was the first casebook published specifically for teaching race related law courses.