Freedom of information and the ability to advance oneself socially are two pillars that defined the founding the United States. The idea of The American Dream depends on a citizen’s ability to take advantage of the resources of the nation in order to build a better life for their children. Censorship of the media, literature, and other means of communication can significantly inhibit the functioning of these ideals.
This is particularly true when it comes to the existence of banned books lists in prisons throughout the United States.
Most banned book lists aim to reduce the chances inmates have of learning to build weapons or being encouraged to engage in violence, especially along racial lines. However, in some states, Mein Kampf is available for prisoners to read despite the presence of Aryan/white supremacist prison gangs.
The widespread nature of these banned book lists alludes to a greater theme of oppression and suppression in the prison system of the United States.
Recently, state prisons in North Carolina and New Jersey placed Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow on their lists of prohibited books.
Alexander, a civil rights lawyer, argues in her book that mass incarceration was used as a means of discriminating against and oppressing black people; particularly black men. Both in North Carolina and New Jersey, the official reason given for denying inmates access to this book was the fear that it would lead to fighting in prisons.
Alexander believes the choice to bar her book was deliberate, telling The New York Times, “Perhaps they worry the truth might actually set the captives free.” After hard work by the ACLU chapters of both states, the book will now be available to inmates.
The presence of banned book lists in prisons, specifically the banning of The New Jim Crow, speaks to a larger problem with the United States prison complex. Are prisons not meant to be places of reform? While the committers of heinous crimes may be deemed unsaveable, shouldn’t our justice system be actively trying to help non-violent offenders get themselves sorted out and put them on a better path then the one they were on when they came in?
By denying inmates access to books like The New Jim Crow, the system continuously works to keep offenders on a cyclical path, instead of allowing them to read and learn and grow, thus allowing them to make a change for themselves and their families to truly fulfill The American Dream.
The role racial discrimination plays seems to be entrenched in many layers of the U.S. justice system. It is not just who gets arrested at more frequent rates, but also whose values and interests are fostered within prisons.
The fact that Mein Kampf is available for prisoners’ enjoyment, but The New Jim Crow, a book that directly address many struggles of inmates of color, is banned privileges a white dominant/white-centric position.
Alexander seems to wonder if this limitation is strategic in order to prevent inmates from understanding the social and political consequences that led to their incarceration. This is a wonder I echo, the clear bias present in our legal system serves to continue allowing white men to thrive while ensuring a lack of mobility for others.
How has widespread reform not come from the inside? How long will we stand silently by and watch the prison complex destroy our nation from the ground up?