Arizona Prisons’ Ban on Book About Racism in Criminal Justice Draws Challenge
A decision by Arizona’s prison system to ban a book about the subjugation of black men in the American criminal justice system has prompted a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union and the author.
The book, “Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” by Paul Butler, says the criminal justice system targets black men by design. It also says prison should be abolished.
In March, officials at the Arizona Department of Corrections decided it was “unauthorized content.” Now, Mr. Butler and the A.C.L.U. are asking the department to reconsider its decision; if it does not, further action, including a lawsuit, is on the table.
Mr. Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University and a former federal prosecutor, once participated in the system he now wants to see upended. In an interview on Tuesday, he said he understood officials’ concerns about keeping people safe in prisons.
“But there’s nothing about ‘Chokehold’ that threatens day-to-day safety of inmates or jailers,” he said. “‘Chokehold’ is all about threatening the institution of prison. My book wants to abolish prison, but it wants to do it in the same nonviolent fashion that Martin Luther King took down Jim Crow.”
“I found the ban somewhat ironic,” he added, “because it’s kind of supporting the thesis.”
The ban on his book is similar to those that had been imposed on another book about racism in criminal justice — “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander — in states including North Carolina and New Jersey. The A.C.L.U. successfully challenged both of those decisions, and last week it wrote a letter to the Arizona Department of Corrections asking officials not to censor Mr. Butler’s book.
“Chokehold” was published by the New Press, a Manhattan-based publisher, in 2017. Its title refers to a maneuver that police officers have used to restrain people — one that became well known when Eric Garner, 43, died after an officer appeared to use the maneuver on him on Staten Island in 2014.
Mr. Butler wrote in the book that black men were disproportionately incarcerated and mistreated because the system was supposed to work that way. “Cops routinely hurt and humiliate black people because that is what they are paid to do,” he wrote. “The police, as policy, treat African-Americans with contempt.” He said the solution is not to reform law enforcement, but to rethink the entire structure of the criminal justice system.
The book does not pose any danger to people in prisons, Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney with the A.C.L.U., said in an interview on Tuesday.
“The book expressly disavows any type of violence toward police officers or anyone else, on moral and strategic grounds,” he said. “The Supreme Court has made it clear that the First Amendment protects prisoners’ rights to access a wide range of reading materials. Where the government restricts access to literature, it has to be related to a legitimate prison interest.”
Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for the Arizona corrections department, said in an email on Tuesday that the department “is reviewing the book and the letter and will be providing a response to the A.C.L.U. letter upon completion of its review.”
He did not respond to a question about why the book was banned. But according to the email that was sent to the New Press two months ago and forwarded to Mr. Butler, the department of corrections said “Chokehold” was unauthorized because of concerns it might be “detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the facility.”
A manual from the department says inmates are not allowed to have sexually explicit material or content that threatens the safety of people inside the facilities. Among the prohibited materials listed are publications that show sexual abuse, describe methods of escape, promote violence or describe how to assemble weapons.
Also prohibited are materials that “incite, aid, or abet riots, work stoppages, means of resistance, or any other behaviors that may be detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the institution.”
Federal courts have allowed prisons to ban books that could pose a danger to the people inside, and that has given states some latitude to decide which publications pose a risk. It is still common practice for states to keep lists of texts that they consider dangerous.
Studies have shown that giving prisoners access to literature or education can reduce rates of recidivism and promote rehabilitation.
“Prisons have often been a site of letters for African-Americans,” Mr. Butler said. “There are a lot of stories of people who did reading in prison and it changed their lives. Malcolm X is a famous example. Banning books from prisons has particular consequences for the African-American community, in part because there are so many young black men in prison.”
The racial disparity among men incarcerated in the United States is stark, with black men serving prison sentences at almost six times the rate of white men.
According to a 2018 report from the Arizona Department of Corrections, about 14 percent of the people incarcerated in the state were black. Census data from last year showed that 5 percent of the state’s total population was black.
Prisoners in the state would notice that disparity, Mr. Butler said, whether or not they had access to his book.
“The thesis in ‘Chokehold,’ that black men are targeted by police and prosecutors, that’s not going to be breaking news to any inmate who’s in prison in Arizona,” he said.