It’s long been known that prisons and jails ban books officials believe to be dangerous or inappropriate for incarcerated people. But a written rejection notice posted to Twitter shows a rare glimpse at how prison staff often enforce these restrictions to block political literature that they find objectionable.
A recent tweet shows a stack of returned books sent by the Seattle non-profit Books to Prisoners, which donates books to incarcerated populations across the US. The rejected books, which were sent to the South Central Correctional Center in Clifton, Tennessee, included a slip of paper with a note reading “Malcolm X not allowed.”
While the prison’s naming of the famous activist is explicit, such rejections are not uncommon. Prison rights advocates have noted that prison officials often ban large swaths of Black and indigenous authors, especially those who critique capitalism and the US carceral system.
A spokesperson from the Tennessee Department of Corrections could not immediately be reached for comment.
Prisons and jails have restrictions on book donations that vary wildly from one state or jurisdiction to another, and those often-vague guidelines are often interpreted by employees however they want with no consequences.
For example, the Arizona Department of Corrections bans reading material containing “depictions or descriptions 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.” In Kentucky, prisoners are prohibited from possessing books that are “likely to be disruptive” or are “inconsistent with rehabilitative goals.”
Prison scholars say this often results in entire categories of thought being banned, including material relevant to the marginalized groups that disproportionately populate US prisons.
“The justifications for censorship offered by prison officials are, far too often, skewed through the lens of power and control and frequently manifest as censorship of materials pertaining to marginalized identities,” write the authors of a 2020 study on information access for incarcerated people. “Commonly censored categories of books include Black history and fiction; Indigenous and Latinx publications; LBGTQ fiction and self-help; and publications written by and about incarcerated people.”