“What do you mean they rejected a book on anti-racism?” I ask, checking my stride. I stop beside a steel table planted in the concrete floor of our gray day room, trying my best to balance nonchalance with eavesdropping.
“I mean what I just said. These shitbags won’t let me have the book because,” he whips a rejection notice up to eye level, “they think it will ‘precipitate violence in the facility.’” The paper crumples in his clenching fist.
“Ol’ Nazi-Bob-next-door can get Mein Kampf for his morning studies, but I can’t read what a respected professor has to say about peacefully confronting hate. This is bullshit.”
I walk off without saying a word, unsure what I could say that would be helpful.
More and more, I’ve seen prisons in my state of Washington banning books on racism, claiming they promote racism and lead to violence. Yet, this isn’t what anyone would expect if the point is to rid racism and reduce violence. Which, no doubt, is a good idea.
Historically, prisons have been hotbeds of predation and violence, driven by race-based indoctrination of different groups. I regrettably spent my first six years in prison being misguided and I have the scars and tattoos to prove it. I know about these dynamics better than most. People arrive here programmed by pop culture to expect hyper-racialized spaces: The tables you sit at, the phones you call from, and the cells you live in are all determined by skin tone.
We also arrive, many of us at least, socially and emotionally broken, isolated and alone, weighed down by shame-encrusted regret for whatever it was that brought us here. Starting from that vulnerable point, it’s a little easier to understand how a newcomer starts with a desire to fit in and, after percolating in peer pressure and propaganda, ends up subjecting themselves to a White supremacist ideology. Incarceration creates this environment, and certain measures may be necessary to curb some of the chaos: that’s essentially the Supreme Court’s rationale for saying that wardens can infringe on incarcerated people’s First amendment rights so long as it serves some legitimate interest of the prison.
It’s under this logic that prison administrators have been banning racist literature. But censorship is arguably doing the opposite. Just look at the books actually being banned. One is Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, a book that exploded in popularity during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and confronted racism while denouncing violence. Then there’s Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, a book that exposes the failings of our prison system and identifies modern carceralism as an expression of ongoing racism. Both these books challenge readers to think critically about structural forms of oppression, yet both books were rejected by a local institution. Even though months later, the state’s prison headquarters overturned both decisions and delivered the books, by then word of the bans had spread, so people stopped trying to get them.
Sure, there’s a handful of racist tomes that get turned away, but caught up in the rejection dragnet are also books that advocate strongly against racism and oppression.
Then there are all the books that aren’t being rejected. Mein Kampf is the most-cited example, but worse are books like Matt Hale’s Ending White Slavery, Edgar Steele’s Defensive Racism, and (perhaps the worst) Ben Klassen’s White Man’s Bible, which carries a subtitle that gives you a sense of the propaganda it peddles: “A powerful religious program dedicated to the survival, expansion, and advancement of the White race.”
These are the books making up the modern-day canon of racist indoctrination – the books doing the mental subjugation – yet there’s been an unbanned copy of each circulating at every prison I’ve been to. It seems that books that combat racism and carceralism threaten security while books that foster mental subjugation and White supremacy are little cause for concern. Why else would Kendi be blocked while Klassen is allowed in?
‘Books have been the traditional escape, the way to expand a worldview to the horizons when life would otherwise have it stop at arm’s length.’
A suspicious person might think this is intentional: ban the books that may cause resentment against mostly White prison guards and administrators while letting in materials that stoke division among the incarcerated population. But the reasons might be less conspiracy theory and more bumbling. The local decision-makers may just be critically misinformed. It could be they’ve been pushed into positions without literacy or critical thinking. They have little training in broad categories like sociology and political science, and no informed exposure to more nuanced subjects like the origins of racism and ways to counter it. To put it nicely: they’re in over their heads.
One reason they’re in over their heads is the fact that, while it’s legal to limit books for prisoners, there are no real guardrails to keep things from getting ridiculous. Consider the process. A book sent to a prisoner has to overcome significant hurdles to get in. It must come directly from a publisher or vetted vendor to the facility where the prisoner is housed. When it shows up, it hits the desk in the mailroom where a staff person judges the book against extensive criteria.
There are 40 criteria to choose from, ranging from “explicit content” to “not specifically authorized by policy,” the latter making it easy to find a reason to ban if that’s the intention. But when it comes to racism, the primary criterion is whether the text presents one group as inferior to another and may reasonably be deemed to precipitate violence between groups. The key phrase is “reasonably deemed.”
Yet the real problem is the bans. Even with better trained people scouring every book to ensure all bigoted words are stopped at the door, that wouldn’t do the work of ridding racism. When a book is placed on the banned list, the information it contains isn’t repudiated but, to at least some, given the shimmering glint of capital-T truth. When Militia Mike gets a rejection, he, too, stands in protest in the day room.
The context of his speech is different from those who stand against racism, but his words are eerily familiar: “The Man wants to keep us in the dark! He’s afraid we’ll learn more about the global network of elites seeking to enslave the minds of our great people and subdue us into cow-like beasts whose only role in this world is to passively pull plows for the rich.”
And many people will think he’s speaking sense.
Censorship is made worse by implementing it more strictly. Bans work to further ostracize incarcerated people from society. A ban in prison isn’t like the bans we’ve been hearing of lately in school systems and the like – schools and prisons may be connected by a pipeline, but the censorship in prisons is complete.
When a ban happens in a school, kids could still conceivably get that literature from somewhere. The moment a curious kid steps off school grounds there’s Google at the fingertips, ready to provide all the answers. In prison, the censorship controls your whole world. Prisoners are already sequestered from society, housed in rural outposts that almost always are many miles from their families. The ability to connect with outside ideas is moderated through TV shows or confined to costly, short, and monitored calls. The sphere of experience and exposure is entirely outside of their control.
Books have been the traditional escape, the way to expand a worldview to the horizons when life would otherwise have it stop at arm’s length. But prison book bans stop people from actually learning why racism is wrong – morally and intellectually.
The only way to remove the mystery behind racist ideologies is to learn about them, often directly. Being able to analyze arguments propped up on wholly disproven theories of evolution, featuring grossly oversimplified summaries of outdated sociological studies, and propelled by jingoistic calls to tribalism, reveals the foolishness of racism. And when this is coupled with texts on anti-racism, the revelation is even greater.
It’s tough to learn about forced family separation during slavery, post-Civil War segregation, convict leasing, exclusion from social programs, discriminatory loan practices, redlining, underfunded schools, and overpoliced neighborhoods without coming to a better understanding of our society. And it’s tough to learn that much of the class conflict between the poor and middle-class is stoked by elite powerbrokers hoping we do not unite against them. That’s a realization that would rid racism and reduce violence. That’s a realization worthy of an extraordinary measure.
Book bans, however, are not that measure. What I know is that hatred is a virus not cured by quarantines – it must be challenged directly. Only open access to facts and a willingness to confront complex topics can break through bigotry. That’s what helped me; I read. A lot.
Imagine if prisons would stop putting energy into preventing things from coming in and start allowing incarcerated people to read and think and engage. And then imagine if, instead of paying some reviewer to judge books, the prison invited Ibram X. Kendi or Mariame Kaba to host a seminar or book reading.
Of course, this involves risk and requires engagement in a sometimes messy process. But as W.E.B. Dubois noted, “Democracy is a method of doing the impossible. It is the only method yet discovered of making the education and development of all men a matter of all men’s desperate desire.”
In a time when it feels like democracy itself is under attack on several fronts, and multiple systems are broken, Americans will sooner or later have to ask: what do we want to do with our prisons? Do we want to control the population by withholding information? Or would we like to form an environment that encourages intellectual and moral growth, and creates better citizens? If we want the latter, it will be hard work and will require substantial changes to policy and practices. But a good place to start is the beginning of this article: Ban the book bans.
Tomas Keen is a 2023 PEN America Prison Writing Award winner. His work has appeared in the Economist’s 1843 Magazine, Inquest, Open Campus, Seattle Times, and others. Since 2010, he’s been serving a 20-year prison sentence for first-degree assault in Washington State.
Help Tomas and other people incarcerated in Washington State who just want to read by contributing to Books to Prisoners. For more information and ways to act against carceral censorship please visit https://pen.org/campaign/prison-banned-books-week-2023/.