Arizona Officials Say It’s Unsafe for Prisoners to Read About Race and Criminal Justice—They're Wrong

By Emerson Skyes & Lamya Agarwala, ACLU

For many people behind bars, books can be a lifeline to the outside world. In the words of poet, attorney, and former prisoner Reginald Dwayne Betts, “Books weren't really magic when I was a child, they were just something that I [enjoyed] reading. I thought it was important, but when I got locked up it became magic, it became a means to an end.”

 
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Prisons are not, and should not be, just punitive institutions. They should also be rehabilitative, which becomes especially clear when you consider that 95 percent of incarcerated people will return to their communities. If prisons and jails take rehabilitation seriously—and people behind bars are to have genuine opportunities to build a foundation for when they leave—access to educational material is critical. Books provide one of the few opportunities for self-directed education, entertainment, and self-improvement at virtually no expense to the government. 

That’s why the Arizona Department of Corrections’ (ADC) recent ban on Paul Butler’s book, “Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” is so misguidedThe ADC claims that allowing prisoners to read the book would be “detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation” of its prisons, but that is absurd.  

Butler, a former federal prosecutor, uses the chokehold — a deadly tactic used by police officers to force people into submission — as a metaphor to explore the history and practical implications of racial oppression within the U.S. criminal justice system. “Chokehold” provides a guide for Black men who may encounter the criminal justice system, evaluates tactics used in social movements to promote reform, and charts a path for a safer and more just society. Prison, Butler argues, is not the answer.

And yet, nothing in the book is even remotely dangerous. In fact, Butler describes “violence against police officers, or any other persons” as “unjustified, on moral grounds and because it would hurt the movement.”

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