Arizona Prison System Bans Book About Imprisoned Black Men Due To Safety Concerns For Inmates, Prison Operations

A book that explores how black men in America are treated by both the police and within the prison system has been banned in Arizona state prisons.

The book 'Chokehold: Policing Black Men' was written by former federal prosecutor Paul Butler, who is now a Georgetown University criminal law professor who was notified his book had "unauthorized content," according to ABC15 in Phoenix.

Though the notice Butler received regarding his 2017 book didn't say exactly what was unauthorized, it said material within it was "detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the facility."

Butler said the word "Chokehold" in the title has a double entendre. One is how police restrain suspects by the neck, and the other is how African American men are subjugated by both society and the law.

"I disavow violence because first, I think it's immoral, and second, because it wouldn't work," Butler said. "I've received letters from several inmates who have read 'Chokehold' while they are serving time. No one has indicated that reading 'Chokehold' has caused any problems."

Emerson Sykes, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said the banning of 'Chokehold' by the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) is unwarranted, and the ACLU has called for the prison system to rescind its book ban.

"In order for them to ban a book, they have to show the restriction is related to a legitimate prison interest," Sykes said. "There's no interest to keep inmates from learning about the criminal justice system and policing."

Sykes said the ACLU plans to sue the corrections system if their written request to reverse the banning of 'Chokehold' isn't implemented or if the prison system fails to respond, and he said the ban was unconstitutional.

Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the department hasn't received any such letter from the ACLU asking for a reversal, and ADC didn't provide any further comment.

The state's corrections department prohibits inmates from receiving books, magazines, newspapers or other publications that contain information or descriptions that could potentially incite a riot. The prisons also prohibit illustrations, pictures or text that encourage "unacceptable sexual or hostile behaviors."

The U.S. Census shows that about five percent of Arizona's 7.1 million people are black. The corrections department records show that of the 42,000 Arizona inmates, 14.5 percent are black.

"One in 19 black men are in prison in Arizona right now," Butler said. "Rather than acknowledge it's a good thing that inmates want to read about and debate important public policy, Arizona pushes back against rehabilitation, against literacy, against the Constitution."

Christia Mercer, a Columbia University professor who has taught within the walls of New York prisons, said roughly half of adult prison populations don't even have a high school degree, and that reading books make the inmates feel like they're using free time to better themselves.

"Unless the book itself promotes violence, there is never reason not to allow it," Mercer said.

The corrections department is already in the middle of a similar court case with Prison Legal News, a monthly publication that claims correction officials did not deliver four 2014 issues that contained descriptions of sexual contact between prisoners and guards, where prisoners were harrassed. That case is set for trial in late 2019.