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Another Assault on Free Speech: Banning Books on Injustice in Prisons

May 22, 2019

AP writer Terry Tang recently reported that the ACLU is appealing a decision by the AZ Department of Corrections to ban the book “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.” Written by Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, Ms. Tang describes the book as one that “…examines law enforcement and mass incarceration through its treatment of African American men.” And she indicates that the author is at a loss to understand why his book is being banned:

Butler, a criminal law professor at Georgetown University, said his publisher was notified by email in March that his book had “unauthorized content.” The notice did not specify what led to the decision but warned that some aspect of the 2017 book was “detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the facility.”

Butler said he is mystified as to what raised alarm bells. He uses the title, which is a maneuver police have used to restrain a suspect by the neck, throughout the book as a metaphor for how society and law subjugate black men. Nowhere does Butler advocate violent or retaliatory behavior.

“I disavow violence because first, I think it’s immoral, and second, because it wouldn’t work,” Butler said. “I’ve received letters from several inmates who have read ‘Chokehold’ while they are serving time. No one has indicated that reading ‘Chokehold’ has caused any problems in prison.”

I find it hard to believe that a book that the author states does not advocate “violent or retaliatory behavior” could be “detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the facility.” But I DO understand how a book dealing with the treatment of African American men might provoke some unsettling questions in prisons that currently house them in disproportionate numbers.

It strikes me that one of the major purposes of schooling is to raise unsettling questions and promote open-minded dialogue. In prison, though, I have the sense that compliance and conformity in behavior and thinking are more important. I would like to believe that outside of prison things are different… but as long as students are being trained to pass examinations with one-right-answer I might be deluded.

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