Howard Law School Cites Book Censorship in U.S. Prisons

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By Briana Thomas
Special to the AFRO

In recognition of Banned Books Week, a group of Howard University scholars pre-released a research report on Sep. 26 that exposes the nationwide policies of book censorship in American prisons. 

The study was completed by a cohort of student researchers in the Human and Civil Rights Clinic (HCR) at the university’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center School of Law (TMCRC), led by Executive Director Justin Hansford.

Researchers in the Human and Civil Rights Clinic at the Howard University Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center School of Law (TMCRC) released a report that exposes the nationwide policies of book censorship in American prisons. (Courtesy Photo)

The TMCRC is Howard’s flagship institution for the study and practice of civil rights, human rights, racial justice law and advocacy. Hansford told the AFRO that the center’s commitment to scholarship and activism includes filing advocate briefs, taking on cases with the HCR, and community organizing with students. 

“This is a project which was driven by the student, that’s one of the reasons we are so proud of the project,” Hansford explained. “For the last three semesters students at our human and civil rights law clinic contacted prisons and jails around the country so that we could come up with this report detailing the practices of all 50 states around banning of books in prisons and jails.”

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The student report, “Banning the Caged Bird,” is named after Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which has had a longtime history of being banned in various institutions such as schools and prisons. 

Hansford said they were outraged that Angelou’s book was being banned.

“Like the title of her book many of these people themselves could fly, but they are in cages. This idea of the caged bird really speaks to that untapped potential that we see from many of these people who are incarcerated but still have the power of thought and still have the ability to learn and grow, and express themselves,” Hansford told the AFRO

According to the report, it is common practice for prison systems to ban literature that references social justice, racial equality and Black history. For instance, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Paul Butler, Police Brutality by Elijah Muhammad, Political Prisoners, Prison and Black Liberation by Angela Davis, and Prison Industrial Complex for Beginners by James Braxton Peterson have all been banned in a U.S. prison at some time or another. 

Reading materials are regulated in prisons by overall bans on a particular book title or by restrictive vendor policies that exclude the book in question from the inmate catalog so the material can’t be purchased and therefore inaccessible, the report said. 

Some of Hansford and his team’s recommendations to solve the book-banning problem are to reform vendor policies, create statewide censorship policies instead of facility-level regulations, offer First Amendment rights training for prison officials and mail monitors, and to organize a committee of experts in prison administration and reform to review book banning decisions. 

The report was written in partnership with American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and will be released in its entirety this fall.