Christopher Blackwell, Reading While Incarcerated Saved Me. So Why Are Prisons Banning Books?, The New York Times, 17 August 2022
SHELTON, Wash. — During my first decade in prison, I busied myself with exercising and hanging out in the big yard. I hardly grew as a person, aside from developing muscles that I really used only to intimidate others.
I stopped going to school at around 14. After multiple stints in juvenile detention, I was too far behind all my classmates to catch up. By my mid-20s, I was sentenced to a total of 45 years in prison, first for a robbery and then for taking the life of another person during a drug robbery. Every day I regret what I did. It wasn’t until I began college in prison in my 30s that I started to realize my full potential.
In my classes, I met people who were intelligent, spoke with confidence and understood structural forces I had almost no knowledge of, despite the huge role they played in my life. I realized I didn’t want to feel like the most ignorant person in the room. I, too, wanted to participate in an intellectual conversation and have people think I was smart and well spoken.
Shyly, I asked a classmate and fellow prisoner in my class if he’d be willing to help me. He jumped at the task. Before I knew it, I was absorbed in David Foster Wallace and Michel Foucault and using concepts and terms in conversations that were previously far over my head.
Books, like everything an incarcerated person receives — personal mail, emails, photos, news and education materials — are evaluated by prison officials and rejected or shared with us. Corrections departments typically claim they ban books that contain sexual content, racial animus or depictions of violence, criminal activity, anti-authority attitudes or escape. In practice, PEN America wrote in a 2019 report on prison book restriction policies, the restrictions “have been wide-ranging, from perverse to absurd to constitutionally troubling, with bans being applied in ways that defy logic.”