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Arizona Prisons Urged To Reverse Ban On 'Chokehold' Book

A state prison in Florence, Ariz. Civil liberties advocates are protesting a policy that denies state inmates the right to read a book about the impact of the criminal justice system on black men.
A state prison in Florence, Ariz. Civil liberties advocates are protesting a policy that denies state inmates the right to read a book about the impact of the criminal justice system on black men.

State corrections officials in Arizona are facing calls to reverse a ban on a book that that explores the impact of the criminal justice system on black men. Prison officials say the book contains "unauthorized content," while civil rights advocates claim that placing the book on a blacklist amounts to censorship.

The book in question, Chokehold: Policing Black Men, by Georgetown University Professor Paul Butler, argues for a radical rethinking of prison policy, even pondering abolishing prisons altogether. But Butler, a former federal prosecutor, never advocates for violent responses to what he sees as systemic injustices.

Still, Arizona officials view the book as being potentially "detrimental to the safe, secure and orderly operation" of prison facilities, according to a letter reviewed by NPR that the Arizona Department of Corrections sent to The New Press, the New York-based publisher of Butler's book.

In an interview Wednesday, Butler said the determination has left him puzzled.

"There's nothing in Chokehold that makes jailers have to worry about their safety," Butler said. "My book wants to transform society in the same non-violent way that people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King have created change."

Emerson Sykes, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, recently wrote a letter to Arizona officials stating that the ban violates the free speech rights of prisoners, saying it is "unconstitutional to censor a book that educates prisoners on how legal, penal and other institutions have shaped their own lives."

Sykes said if the pressure campaign is unsuccessful, the group is ready to file a federal lawsuit.

"It is unconstitutional to ban a book just because the government doesn't like its policy proposals," Sykes told NPR. "This is a classic First Amendment violation."

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of prisons to ban books when doing so is seen as a way to protect prison security.

In Arizona, prisons forbid inmates from reading materials that could incite a riot. Any publications containing "unacceptable sexual or hostile behavior" are also banned.

But Butler said his 2017 book does not meet any the criteria to make it prohibited, noting that that the decision strikes him as ironic.

"I used the word chokehold as a metaphor for how law and public policy work to keep black men down," Butler said. "The ban on Chokehold in Arizona is actually an example of the chokehold."

Last year, the ACLU called for an end to a ban of another book on the interaction of racism and the criminal justice system, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, which prison officials in states including New Jersey had boycotted. Corrections officials there later dropped the ban.

Supporters of inmates having greater access to books say limiting educational opportunities for prisoners could hurt their chances of having a smooth transition back into society.

A from the Rand Corporation found that inmates who spent some of their time behind bars reading and participating in educational programs had a 43% lower chance of reoffending. Rand researchers also found that more education for prisoners improved their chance of landing a job upon release.

Arizona has one of the nation's highest incarceration rates of black men. Although about 5% of Arizona's population in black, nearly 15% of the state's prison inmates are black.

Butler said inmates do not need to read his book to understand racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

"Anyone in jail in Arizona already knows the criminal legal process targets African American men," he said. "All they have to do is look around."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.