February 21, 2012

Why are certain books banned for prisoners?


Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative

In honor of Black History Month, Leonard Pitts tells a story to give readers pause in a column for the Orlando Sentinel.

According to Pitts, Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Ala.-based organization that provides legal representation for the indigent and incarcerated, sent two books to prisoner Mark Melvin last year. Melvin is in jail for life for a murder he committed when he was 14.  The books were Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, about a doctor’s struggle to bring medical services to Haiti, and Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of “how the South instituted a form of de-facto slavery by mass arresting black men on nonsense charges and ‘selling’ them to plantations, turpentine farms and other places of back-breaking labor.”

Melvin was allowed to read the first book, but was denied the right to read Slavery by Another Name. Stevenson told Pitts prison officials “felt it was too provocative, they didn’t like the title, they didn’t like the idea that the title conveyed. They didn’t read the book, but they were concerned about it and thought that it would be ‘too dangerous’ to have in the prisons.” 

According to Pitts:

Stevenson filed suit. As the case wends its way through the courts, it speaks with an eloquence to our complicated relationship with African-American history here in this 86th observance of what was once called Negro History Week. America, says Stevenson, struggles with “denialism,” i.e., a refusal to face its grim past of racial crimes and human rights violations.

The issue is not Mark Melvin. Stevenson says the attorney for the state — who declined to comment for this column — has told him the prison is not worried about Melvin; he is not considered a disciplinary problem.

The issue is not security. Since filing the suit, says Stevenson, he has heard from other prisoners who tell him that “years ago, there were a handful of Alabama prisons where the wardens would not let them watch ‘Roots.'”

No, the issue, it seems obvious, is a frightful, embarrassing history — and the suppression thereof.

“Other countries that have tried to recover from severe human rights problems that have lasted for decades,” says Stevenson, “have always recognized that you have to commit yourself to truth and reconciliation: South Africa, Rwanda. In the United States we never did that. We had legal reforms that were imposed on some populations against their will and then we just carried on.”

The key words being “against their will.” Indeed, Stevenson feels it’s “just a matter of time” before the nation begins to minimize “what segregation really was,” like a black version of Holocaust denial.

Pitts goes on to cite former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s 2010 statement claiming that integration in his state was “a very pleasant experience” …

Actually, integration in his state was marked by, among other atrocities, a firebombing, a fatal riot, the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the murders of three voting rights workers.

The only effective weapon against such lies is to learn the truth and tell it, shout it in the face of untruth, equivocation and denial. Bear witness.


Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.