Tag: prison reform

An incarcerated man reads - as is his right

U.S. Prisons Ban Books Critical of Criminal Justice System

For a country intent on the loosest possible definitions of free speech, one of our most marginalized populations is subject to an insidious degree of censorship.

The United States—the world leader in incarceration, imprisoning 2.2 million at this very moment—is fixated on free speech, but we favor the adjective over the verb. Prisons throughout the country are banning books that disagree with the racial disparity in U.S. prisons, the prison-industrial complex, and other incisive critiques of mass incarceration. And some are banning books altogether: one Georgia jail recently imposed a ban on all books, excluding only religious texts. Louisiana has banned non-Christian religious material, a decision that evidently violates the Constitutional provisions for religious freedom. Even the more liberal state of Washington forbade outsiders to make charitable book donations to prisons. Although the Washington Department of Corrections has rolled back the ban to accept donations from a small, specified list of charities, this compromise hardly changes the fact that WDOC only changed the rule because it couldn’t get away with it.

 

Books banned in Texas prisons, exceeding 15,000 total | Image Via Washington Post

 

Recently, the Arizona Department of Corrections has banned Chokehold, a non-fiction work exploring the role of race within the criminal justice system. Written by a former prosecutor, the book dispenses advice for black men and details the rights people can use to protect themselves (for example, during searches). While this may be unjust, it’s not unprecedented: North Carolina and Florida have banned The New Jim Crowanother book dedicated to exposing racism’s inextricable link to mass incarceration.

This past week, the American Civil Liberties Union formally addressed the issue, requesting that Arizona overturn this ban. An excerpt from the letter explains the hypocrisy inherent in the ban:

The very people who experience extreme racial disparity in incarceration cannot be prohibited from reading a book whose purpose is to examine and educate about that disparity. Improving understanding of policing, incarceration, and racial bias is especially critical given Arizona’s stark racial disparities and overall high rates of incarceration.

Advocates have pointed out the practical issues with these bans, those that transcend moral or ethical arguments. There is no budgetary component to book-donation charities, meaning that there are no financial consequences for allowing these charities to stock prison libraries. It’s also likely that incarcerated people will not spend their entire lives in prison. Given that the average prison sentence is three years, state departments of correction should assume that most of these people will return to society. Shouldn’t we want them to be emotionally healthy when they do? Shouldn’t we want them to be educated?

Under the First Amendment, only books which would actively endanger the prison or the people in it are eligible for bans. This clause would, for example, bar a non-fiction work that might detail how to make explosives or weaponry. The intent is purely physical rather than psychological; ostensibly, there is no danger to society in allowing prisoners to understand the judicial system that keeps them confined. But there is a danger to the system that imprisons them.

 

 

 

Featured Image Via Video Blocks.

Georgia Sheriff Furthers The War On Books For Prisoners

Book bans (no books from the outside) have been a thing in prisons for years now. I feel the need to start this article by saying: I’ve never been to prison. For that, I am grateful; prison sounds horrible and is probably nothing like the image I have of it thanks to Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.

 

IMAGE VIA IMGUR.COM

Last week I read an article on CNN’s website about the sheriff of Chatham County, Georgia, who put a ban on books being sent to prisoners via the mail. His concern is that publications being sent through the mail will increase the risk of “combustible material in the inmate’s housing areas, which can lead to the spread of fire” and flow of hidden contraband. The ban limits prisoners to the books in a cart managed by the jail staff. The ACLU sent Sheriff Illiterate a letter stressing how this same ban will infringe upon inmates’ Constitutional rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment encompasses the right of people to receive books and publications in jail,” the letter states. “As one federal appeals court has recognized, ‘Freedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is also freedom to read.’”

 

IMAGE VIA CNN.COM

In the same article, CNN mentions how the Washington State Department of Corrections issued a similar ban last year as they tried to implicate an eBook only policy. Washington State has been affiliated with Books to Prisoners for years, an organization that “fosters a love of reading behind bars, encourage the pursuit of knowledge and self-empowerment, and break the cycle of recidivism.” They have since reversed said policy (after the ACLU’s swift intervention) saying that the department “acknowledges that it was an oversight on this issue.”

Prisoners’ rights to read, write, speak, practice their religion, and communicate with the outside world are often curtailed far beyond what is necessary for institutional security,” ACLU says on its website.

I believe in a human beings capacity for change. In order to change one has to open themselves up to new ideas. Knowledge. They have to learn. In another article on Bustle’s website, written in 2016, they list nine of the most read books in prison: the top two books on the list are A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook by Erwin James and GED Test Prep Books. This is proof of a true and valuable desire to achieve inside, or perhaps simply to survive. One could argue that printed literature holds more value in prison than on the outside where it often goes unappreciated. Inmates are going to trade whatever they have, possibly (probably) even drugs, just to get a glimpse of some transformative words.

Obviously, not all inmates are going to turn their lives around with the help of literature; but, maybe five percent will…maybe that percentage has hit rock bottom in a way that has shown them what to do next. Not everyone is a lost cause. No place should hinder philosophical liberation/reform for those who yearn to do good. Sometimes people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Martin Luther King’ wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail, Nelson Mandela wrote his autobiography, and Sir Thomas Malory wrote The Death of Arthur all while incarcerated. William Addis Invented the toothbrush, Jesse Hawley came up with the Erie Canal and Andy Dufresnes made us cry, all while incarcerated.  

 

Image Via Alternateending.com

 

 

Feature Image Via Thedailybeast.com

 

Sirius Black after having escaped Azkaban prison

Prisoners Smuggle Drugs Via Harry Potter Books

In Nottingham Prison, the inmates are book fiends.

As part of a recent investment, the prison—deemed one of London’s “most challenging” correctional facilities—spent £1.4 million on a specialized drug testing machine. Apparently, the machine was worth the expense: not only did it detect a drug-smuggling operation, but it also gave us the wild story of just how mind-blowing Harry Potter can be. When the results came in, authorities determined that the inmates weren’t just hooked on reading.

 

The actual Harry Potter pages used in the smuggling operation

Image Via BBc

 

The newly-purchased machine detected a “spice-like substance” sprayed onto the pages of J.K. Rowling’s childhood classic (and no, we’re not talking cardamom). Officials believe the book was doctored outside of the prison and then sent to inmates, a gift as seemingly—and falsely—innocent as Harry Potter fanfiction. By the time guards detected the deception, four hundred pages were missing from the volume. Authorities suspect inmates smoked the missing pages—guess the book was so good, they burned right through it.

Prisons Minister Rory Stewart has sworn to step down if prison conditions fail to improve. Although six of the ten prisons involved in the reforms have markedly changed their conditions, Nottingham remains one of two problem prisons, each “dangerous, disrespectful and drug ridden.” Yup, definitely the last one.

One crucial plot point is missing in this story: exactly which book was it? For the sake of a neat ending, let’s just say Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

 

Featured Image Via MuggleNet

Kim Kardashian-West and Alice Marie Johnson

Inmate Freed With Kim Kardashian-West’s Help Scores Book Deal

We know Kim Kardashian as a social media superstar—famous for being famous, a self-renewing resource of celebrity. She’s a bit like a real-life Barbie; it’s just that instead of going to medical school, launching herself into outer space, and tending to wounded animals (Barbie must have a fortune in student debt), Kardashian-West is a socialite, reality TV star, artist, entrepreneur, and cultural icon. We’d call her a wearer of many hats, except there just aren’t that many hats that Kardashian-West would deign to wear. Her latest look—advocate and contributor to prison reform—has the power to enact real social change. In fact, it already has.

 

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 31: Kim Kardashian West attends KKWxMario Dinner at Jean-Georges Beverly Hills on March 31, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/WireImage) Alice Marie Johnson

Image Via People Magazine

 

In 2018, Kardashian-West intervened in the case of Alice Marie Johnson, a sixty-two-year-old great-grandmother serving life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense. Johnson became involved in the drug world after her divorce and the chain-reaction of misfortunes that followed: gambling addiction; bankruptcy; unemployment; and, worst of all, her son’s untimely death. Though Johnson never handled drugs directly while working for a cocaine-trafficking ring, she did pass along coded messages to facilitate the transactions. When the police caught onto the operation, ten co-conspirators turned her in. As a result of their cooperation, each received reduced sentences ranging from no time at all to ten years’ imprisonment.

 

"Please wake up, America, and help end this injustice." -AMJ

Image Via YouTube

 

In 1997, Johnson was the only one sentenced to life. Since then, she’s expressed remorse for her involvement:

I felt like a failure… I went into a complete panic and out of desperation, I made one of the worst decisions of my life to make some quick money. I became involved in a drug conspiracy.

In an interview with Mic, Johnson describes the personal tragedies that have unfolded in her absence from the family home. Her mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, has no caretaker. After her arrest, her only living son dropped out of school. He is currently imprisoned himself. “Unless things change,” Johnson pleaded, “I will never go home alive.”

 

Kardashian-West, live on CNN, expresses her support for Alice Johnson

Image Via CNN

 

Does that upset you? It upset Kim K: after reading the article, she contacted Johnson’s legal team. “[Kardashian-West] was not only moved to tears,” said lawyer Brittney Barnett, “but moved to action.” In a highly-publicized stunt, the reality TV star met with Donald Trump to discuss the possibility of commuting Johnson’s sentence. An ecstatic Johnson offered her gratitude for the intervention:

Ms Kardashian, you are quite literally helping to save my life and restore me to my family. I was drowning and you have thrown me a life jacket, and given me hope that this life jacket I’m serving may one day be taken off.

And she had plenty to be grateful for. On May 30, 2018—Johnson’s birthday—she was officially free.

 

Alice Marie Johnson weeps at her release

Image Via CBS

 

This week, an imprint of HarperCollins has announced that there’s more to Johnson’s story. The book, After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom, will be available on May 21. Harper has deemed it an “honest, faith-driven memoir” taking a “deep look into the system of mass incarceration.” Kardashian-West will write the foreword. In an official statement, she shared what the story means to her and to the world:

Her story is a gift that will now reach so many millions more through her book and film. I hope Alice’s case is just the beginning of a movement to help those left behind. I am invested in continuing to support Alice and this cause.


Now that Johnson is free, she’s also free to tell her story. “I feel humbled that the telling of my story gives hope,” Johnson said, “and that my years of pain were not in vain.”