Challenged Books In the Prison System: Slavery By Another Name

Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name chronicles the abuse of prison labour in the South, looking at practices like convict leasing and the exploitation of Black prisoners in the wake of the Civil War. The United States may have banned slavery, but prison labour effectively created another form. It’s a scathing indictment of the prison system in the US, explaining how a series of laws essentially criminalising living while Black were passed, boosting the prison population, which was then farmed out as cheap labour.

…the most dramatic example of that was a brick factory on the outskirts of town that, at the turn of the century, was producing hundreds of thousands of bricks every day. The city of Atlanta bought millions and millions of those bricks. The factory was operated entirely with forced workers. And almost 100 percent black forced workers. There were even times that on Sunday afternoons, a kind of old-fashioned slave auction would happen, where a white man who controlled black workers would go out to Chattahoochee Brick and horse trade with the guards at Chattahoochee Brick, trading one man for another, or two men. (source)

It is a book that critically examines the history of prison labour, and sheds light on a very dark era in US history. It’s a fascinating read, especially for people who might not be familiar with this particular subject, and was released to critical acclaim. Blackmon points out that people work very hard to not be aware of this history, to erase it from their minds, to avoid dealing with it, which makes book like this all the more critical to read. This is an in your face narrative that does not let readers off the hook.

And there’s heavily embedded commentary on the use of prisoners for free labour, racism in the prison system, and the complex history of the prison industrial complex. Readers come away with a better understanding of the fraught relationship between the Black community and law enforcement. There is not a lot of room for trust, there, not when there’s a long history of exploiting power to imprison people, a long history that continues to this day. We need look only to the huge racial disparities in the US prison system, and to the growing use of prison labour, to understand that the issues highlighted in Slavery By Another Name have not gone away, and still need to be addressed.

This may be why a prison in Alabama decided it wouldn’t allow Mark Melvin to read it. It cited regulations, arguing that it could ban the book because it might ‘incite violence.’ Melvin, who works in the prison library, just wanted a good book to read, and was clearly interested in the history of race and the prison system. He is, incidentally, a white man sentenced to life in prison after involvement in a murder at the age of 14; these are the ‘irredeemable hard cases’ we’re supposed to lock up, these are the people we are supposed to throw away the key for. Men who choose to read intellectually stimulating and challenging books while imprisoned.

Censorship of reading materials in prisons is certainly nothing new; every scrap of material that enters a prison is closely scrutinised to determine if it should be allowed. And censors enjoy considerable leeway when it comes to deciding what they will censor, and how. This case might not have come to light if Melvin hadn’t pushed it in court, suing for access. It would have been just another book banning in the prison system, an event that happens on a daily basis.

Prisoners are barred from reading pretty much any ‘inflammatory’ materials that might make them more aware of the injustices of the justice system. A pretty broad assortment of ‘radical’ books are just off-limits in the prison system because they provide information and context. They are inflammatory, in the sense that it’s hard to read them out the outside without getting angry, hard to read them and NOT want to set the current ‘justice system’ on fire. Reading them on the inside, from within the system they criticise, would be a very different experience. Probably even more enraging.

Efforts to keep prisoners complacent are also a big part of the prison system, which is why the California Department of Corrections has cracked down so ferociously on the hunger strike that began at Pelican Bay, spreading to other prisons throughout California and ultimately across the nation. Because this was a dangerous, threatening thing. Prisoners, speaking for themselves. Prisoners having contact with the media. Prisoners protesting in a way that could not be ignored or shuffled under the carpet. These were not complacent, tame, calm prisoners, and thus they needed to be punished.

Prison officials seem to believe that if they keep ‘inflammatory’ books away from their inmates, and crack down hard at the slightest sign of protest, they will be able to maintain order. One is reasonably led to ask why such extreme measures are necessary; if, perhaps, the problem here lies not with the prisoners, who quite understandably resist incarceration and abuses while imprisoned, but with the system. A system where prisoners are used as a source of cheap, disposable labour. Are raped and beaten by guards and other inmates. Are not provided with access to adequate food. Are executed when they are clearly, palpably, obviously innocent of the crimes they were convicted for. One is led to ask, perhaps, why it is that so much money is invested in controlling prisoners, and slapping books out of the hands of people who want to learn.