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Reading While Incarcerated Saved Me. So Why Are Prisons Banning Books?

SHELTON, Wash. — During my first decade in prison, I busied myself with exercising and hanging out in the big yard. I hardly grew as a person, aside from developing muscles that I really used only to intimidate others.

I stopped going to school at around 14. After multiple stints in juvenile detention, I was too far behind all my classmates to catch up. By my mid-20s, I was sentenced to a total of 45 years in prison, first for a robbery and then for taking the life of another person during a drug robbery. Every day I regret what I did. It wasn’t until I began college in prison in my 30s that I started to realize my full potential.

In my classes, I met people who were intelligent, spoke with confidence and understood structural forces I had almost no knowledge of, despite the huge role they played in my life. I realized I didn’t want to feel like the most ignorant person in the room. I, too, wanted to participate in an intellectual conversation and have people think I was smart and well spoken.

Shyly, I asked a classmate and fellow prisoner in my class if he’d be willing to help me. He jumped at the task. Before I knew it, I was absorbed in David Foster Wallace and Michel Foucault and using concepts and terms in conversations that were previously far over my head.

Through my journey in college, I became an avid reader and writer, striving to escape prison life by expanding my mind beyond the toxic environments I’d been confined to. I started studying feminism and restorative justice. One concept that really hit home for me was toxic masculinity. I come from an abusive home and a neighborhood consumed by gangs, drugs and gun violence. I wanted to understand better why I had used violence to solve my problems.

I have found, however, that strangers stand between me and many of the books I want to read.

Books, like everything an incarcerated person receives — personal mail, emails, photos, news and education materials — are evaluated by prison officials and rejected or shared with us. Corrections departments typically claim they ban books that contain sexual content, racial animus or depictions of violence, criminal activity, anti-authority attitudes or escape. In practice, PEN America wrote in a 2019 report on prison book restriction policies, the restrictions “have been wide-ranging, from perverse to absurd to constitutionally troubling, with bans being applied in ways that defy logic.”

In Texas, books by Alice Walker, Pablo Neruda and even the former senator Bob Dole have been banned. Throughout the country, prison officials have rejected or tried to ban books about biology (too much nudity in the anatomical drawings), the Holocaust (some of the victims were pictured nude), sketching, dragons and even the moon (it could “present risks of escape,” according to one New York prison). At one point, Colorado prison officials blocked a prisoner from reading two of President Barack Obama’s memoirs because they were “potentially detrimental to national security,” although they later reversed that decision.

Claiming such bans are necessary for the safety and security of prisons seems ludicrous. If anything, many banned books could contribute to a safer environment in prisons and in the societies incarcerated individuals are released into. Practically every author I have encountered while in prison, from Don Miguel Ruiz to Angela Y. Davis, has played a role in my efforts to grow and become a better person — someone who can live in society by adding to it, as opposed to taking from it.

While working to understand my harmful ways, I corresponded with Michael Kimmel, the author of “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era.” When he sent a copy of his book to me, it was rejected for what the prison claimed were “penological objectives.”

“The content could reasonably be thought to lead or add to tensions between groups specifically in a prison setting,” the prison explained in the rejection notice I was sent.

Successfully challenging book rejections often requires navigating a forbidding bureaucratic maze. But I appealed. I explained that the book is about toxic masculinity and shows men how to be functioning adults without the need for violence and anger — the opposite of what the prison claimed could be the outcome of reading the book.

Four months later, the rejection was overturned, and the book was released. For me, this small win was huge. Reading Dr. Kimmel’s book helped me to understand some of the deeply rooted structures around masculinity. I learned about how entitlement could lead men to hit women they claimed to love because they felt disrespected — something that happened in my family. He helped me to see my own toxic masculinity and to prevent it from consuming me and harming others.

I wish my fellow prisoners across the country could easily have access to books like Dr. Kimmel’s that show how to solve problems without violence. But my successful appeal didn’t automatically make the book available for others. Mailroom staff members can still reject the same book for the next prisoner who wants to read it. And many prisoners don’t have the time or the skill to file an appeal, or they are afraid of retaliation. Denied the chance to learn and grow through reading, incarcerated people are released with fewer skills and less knowledge.

State and federal prisons should not be allowed to censor the reading and educational materials of adult prisoners unless they can point to a legitimate safety threat; I’m not expecting them to allow us to read “The Anarchist Cookbook,” for example.

Prisons across the country will continue arbitrarily rejecting books like “Angry White Men” until state and federal officials create more explicit book restriction policies that clearly define what constitutes a safety threat. Prison officials should also be required to carefully consider the rehabilitative and educational potential of each book. The process for appealing a book rejection should be easier, and successful appeals should make formerly banned books easily accessible to all prisoners who want to read them.

Without college and without access to books and materials that expanded my mind beyond the razor wire and towering concrete walls, I might still be wasting my time on the yard. My worldview would still be dictated by toxic masculinity and the violence and harm that surround it. That’s not who I want to be when I leave this prison. It’s not who I want to see sent back into society.

Christopher Blackwell (@chriswblackwell) is an incarcerated writer and a co-founder of the nonprofit Look 2 Justice. He is a contributing writer at Jewish Currents, and he is working on a book about solitary confinement.

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