The state of Arizona lifted its ban on the book Chokehold after gaining national attention for banning the book written about the US criminal justice system policing Black men.
“An uproar over the ban of Chokehold: Policing Black Men, including threats of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, prompted Arizona prison officials to review a publication blacklist and reverse suspending the book,” National Public Radio (NPR) reported.
A growing number of state prison systems, including California, bans prisoners from possessing certain books, deeming them contraband.
Chokehold was written by Georgetown University criminal law professor and former federal prosecutor Paul Butler. His publisher notified him in March that the book was “un- authorized” in Arizona prisons.
“The notice did not specify what led to the decision,” The Associated Press reported.
The ban drew criticism from a number of prisoner and First Amendment advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“In order for them to ban a book, they have to show the restriction is related to a legit- imate prison interest,” ACLU attorney Emerson Sykes said. “There’s no interest to keep inmates from learning about the criminal justice system and policing.”
Sykes challenged the book ban in May with a letter written to Charles Ryan, Arizona’s director of corrections, the Arizona Republic reported.
“The very people who experience extreme racial disparity in incarceration cannot be prohibited from reading a book whose purpose is to ex- amine and educate about that disparity,” Sykes wrote.
In a blog, Anne Branigin said, “America is taking more and more books out of its prisons…” She said books critical of mass incarceration are often banned.
Chokehold is “the metaphor of the deadly police tactic used to force people into submission,” Branigin wrote.
Five years ago, Eric Garner, a Black man died after Daniel Pantaleo, a White New York City police officer, used the choke hold to subdue him.
“I can’t breathe,” were Garner’s last words before he succumbed to cardiac arrest, the San Francisco Chronicle (Associated Press) reported. “The medical examiner ruled (his) death a homicide caused by a police choke hold.”
“To prohibit prisoners from reading a book about race and the criminal legal system is not only misguided and harmful, but also violates the right to free speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution and…the Arizona Constitution,” wrote Sykes.
The U.S. Supreme Court case, Turner v. Safley, makes an allowance for banning certain books in prisons if the ban serves penological interests such as preventing violence, riots, resistance, a work stoppage or anything that may jeopardize the safe- ty, security or orderly operation of an institution.
“Corrections does not have a blanket list of prohibited magazines, newspapers, books, or music,” the Republic reported.
The California Code of Regulations, Title 15, section 3134.1 (e), contains the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) Centralized List of Disapproved Publications. Books not included on the list are sometimes banned by officials arbitrarily and later challenged in court.
“Under certain circumstances, it is permissible to prevent incarcerated people from reading materials of their choosing,” Sykes wrote. “However, it is unconstitutional to censor a book that educates prisoners on how legal, penal, and other institutions have shaped their own lives and poses no threat to the safety and security of the facility.”
Butler, who is Black, wrote Chokehold after he was falsely accused of assault and arrested, “an event that dramatically changed his view of the justice system,” the Republic reported.
“During the trial, I experienced for myself a lot of things that defendants I’d prosecuted said were evidence of how unfair the system was: Police lied, witnesses who knew what happened didn’t come forward,” the Republic reported Butler telling The Guardian in 2017.
Butler said he was acquitted in ten minutes because “I could afford the best lawyer in the city, had legal skills and social standing, and because I was innocent.” But he said “the experience made a man out of me. It made a Black man out of me.”
When Chokehold was banned, the ACLU said Arizona corrections officials gave no explanation for it.
“I am concerned that many people in custody are subject to other illegal and unfair acts by jailers that most people on the outside never hear about,” Butler said to NPR. “Providing books to inmates promotes literacy, rehabilitation and civic engagement.”
According to Branigin’s blog, Sykes’ letter “points out that Chokehold explicitly dis- avows violence…” She also pointed to Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and Washington forbidding free books sent to prisoners.
After the ban was lifted, Sykes wrote a letter stating he is pleased Arizona corrections officials removed the ban on Chokehold. He did, however, state the long fight over what books prisoners can access is far from over, NPR reported. “These bans are taking place in prisons and jails around the country,” he told NPR.
In 2015, Prison Legal News sued the Arizona Department of Corrections for censorship after the department stopped allowing the monthly publication into its prisons. The department spokesman at that time, Andrew Wilder, told Capitol Media Services the department’s action was ensuring “the safe, secure and orderly operation of (its) prisons.”
“If rehabilitation is taken seriously and preparation for a life after prison is taken seriously, then prison officials have every interest in promoting education among those who are trying to understand how they got to where they are, and how to make sure they don’t come back,” Sykes said.