An Incarcerated Writer Fights Book Bans in Prisons
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry from WNYC and PRX in collaboration with GBH news in Boston.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The largest book band in America is not in a school district or even a local public library. It's in American prisons. These bans can come from prison wide, state, or federal policies and are aimed mostly at material that is deemed sexually explicit, detrimental to security, or that disrupt the social order of a prison but sometimes, it can seem sort of arbitrary. Previously books like Freakonomics were banned in prisons in Texas, and a federal prison in Colorado in 2009 blocked an inmate from reading president Barack Obama's memoir because it was deemed to be potentially detrimental to national security.
Automated voice: This call is from an inmate at Washington Correction Center.
Christopher Blackwell: Hello my name is Christopher Blackwell. I'm an incarcerated journalist in Washington State. I'm the co-founder of Look2Justice and a key member with empowerment avenue.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Christopher is incarcerated at a Washington state facility and is serving a 45-year sentence for robbery and a murder he committed in his 20s. Last month Christopher wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about having a right to read and to get an education even while incarcerated, and he told about his own experience with book restrictions.
Christopher Blackwell: I was working with Dr. Michael Kimmel who focuses a lot on toxic masculinity and other related topics and it was a topic that has recently been really important to me in understanding how individuals are focused on violence and how we use violence to solve a lot of our issues as males and individuals that come from impoverished communities.
When Mr. Kimmel sent in his book from our discussion, the department of corrections decided to reject the book and that put me on edge and I was like well this seems a little ridiculous. Then when I seen what their reason was for rejecting the book that it could possibly cause basically an uprising in the prison, I thought it was even a little more ludicrous so I decided that all right we need to fight this here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now just note right here that we reached out to the Washington State Department of Corrections to hear why they denied access to Michael Kimmel's book Angry white men and they said it was rejected because "the content could reasonably be thought to lead or add to tensions between groups specifically in a prison setting." They also noted that Christopher appealed and was granted access to the book.
Christopher Blackwell: It made me think that we need to put this on a bigger platform that these kinds of books would be rejected from people that are inside.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Christopher I get it on the one hand the idea that a book addressing toxic masculinity would cause a prison uprising. Seems like actually the opposite of what it might cause but on the other hand, as somebody who traffics in ideas, I don't hate the idea that being exposed to ideas might lead people to behave differently and maybe in ways that really challenge the system.
Christopher Blackwell: I mean, I think there's a line between the two and we also want to make sure that we retain our right to free speech and our right to read and educate ourselves and things like that. I think sometimes we navigate in a system with the department of corrections where they have a real gray area of trying to protect the safety and security of the prison which you know is completely understandable in means where that would be necessary like if I was trying to get the anarchist cookbook or something crazy like that, that would be completely understandable that we wouldn't want that coming inside the prison.
On the other hand, it's important to know that we cannot have people just deciding when it comes to free speech and things like that. That's why we have laws and the constitution and just like sheer logic and understanding that prisoners reading certain things like this would be beneficial to them changing the way they live their life and reentering society with a lot more knowledge and a better aspect and take on how they should live their life and interact with our fellow citizens.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What are you reading right now?
Christopher Blackwell: Well, right now I've been reading a lot of Bell Hooks. I've been reading some Mariame Kaba and trying to sharpen up on some other areas. I'm really focused on the whole aspect of toxic masculinity and how as males and as individuals that come from certain kinds of communities, that we end up with the mindset that violence is our only way to deal with conflict or harm or any avenue where we feel targeted that we just don't have other outlets but we do.
We do have a lot of ways to deal with conflict resolution and just having communication and building communication skills so you know how to talk about and navigate when you have these issues in your life. I think that for me that's been my core focus lately is to better understand that because not only has that helped me but it also gives me the skills to share that with other individuals so we can start to change that mindset and that thing around how we live and how we deal and solve problems.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You write in the op-ed about how powerful it was for you to have an opportunity to begin education while incarcerated and how different it was than simply having physical outlets. Talk to me about that. What difference did it make for you to have the books in. The smart people and the tough conversations?
Christopher Blackwell: Education to me is we always hear people ask, what's the aha moment? A defining moment in an individual's life when they are on the wrong path or something and just something sparks and they begin to just shift into a different path. For me and for a lot of people I know, it's always different but for me it was education and it wasn't a special moment or anything like that.
I like to define these moments and this transformation as when someone actually builds their self confidence and their self-esteem and that this inherently when this is developed in a person, they love themselves and when they love themselves they can't harm others because that would inadvertently only harm themselves again. I know that's what education did for me is education helped me build and construct a really strong confidence and self-esteem for myself because I hadn't had that growing up.
I grew up in a really poor community. When I went to school, our schools were full of gangs and drugs and violence and things like that. Our schools and our teachers were more focused on behavior opposed to our education, I feel like. When that happens, you tend to just fall further and further behind. When that happen, you start to feel dumb and you don't belong and things like that.
I never for myself was able to build that confidence that I could pass in class with an A or that I could write a constructive paper or do critical thinking or even read a book. I had never read a book until I had came to prison and I came to prison at the age of 22. I think that these things are just core foundations and when we see that we can actually do these things that we are a part of the general society as a whole.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For many activists there's been a push to defund and divest from the police and from carceral systems pointing out that instead, we should be putting money in places like the schools, into the communities that experience poverty like the community that you grew up in but sometimes that disinvestment does mean that for folks who are incarcerated, you have fewer programs, fewer opportunities. Have you experienced that?
Christopher Blackwell: Of course, that stuff happens and that stuff's talked about. I think a lot of the time the narratives around some of these conversations get misconstrued around what defund can mean. When we talk about the carceral state, yes, defunding in a carceral state would be great but we don't want to defund in the areas that are actually going to build the characters of which I mentioned before where we want to build a character who has confidence and self-esteem that we can put back in community as a society member not as an other.
We can't ever do anything that creates an other because when we create an other then someone feels like they don't belong and that's inadvertently how people get out and they just continue to cause harm. When we talk about getting rid of these programs and these things that are actually really helpful to individuals developing and changing on that path, that is an investment into society.
Like we're actually taking away something from society. That part to take away from would be is to helping heal and develop individuals that can safely return society to society in a safe timeline and that the investment can come from holding people incarcerated for decades past when their sentence is due. I know a lot of gentlemen in here that are incredible human beings, they're transformers, they do great work, they're mentors, they're teachers and they've been down for decades and have decades left on their sentence.
If they were reinstated into the community, they would be the individuals doing the work in the community and I know a lot of friends that did decades and are now out in the community and they are the ones doing the violence reduction work. They are the ones doing gang prevention and out there working with the kids to help them see that there's other opportunities and things like that. Yes, we should pull money out of some of these systems in those ways but only if we're investing in healthy ways to where we can make sure that we're actually helping and building communities that need this.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do anyone who's had an opportunity to have a Pell grant while incarcerated?
Christopher Blackwell: I have.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you talk a little bit about the importance?
Christopher Blackwell: I've been a beneficiary of that and again, it's like education changed my life. Having the chance to educate myself, having the chance to learn how to read, how to critically think, that changed my life. I know a lot of people say why would this person who's in prison get a free education when I have to pay for my kids' education? That's one side of the coin, that is an argument but I would also say is that it's not just getting a free education.
It's usually people that are in prison getting this come from impoverished communities, communities where we would've not had the chance to go to College and things like that. Again, it's an investment in society. When we better someone who doesn't know how to get by because they've been taught all these things that have been damaging and harmful for how they live their life, and we invest in that human being to then become a productive member of society.
Then again, we have a better society for all people. Having that stuff in prison is instrumental because it is one of the cornerstones to changing and developing a human life and bringing worth to that life. I think that's an investment that's worth having.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you give me a reading list? If there were say a few books, a handful, four or five that you think really everybody right now ought to be reading, what's on your reading list?
Christopher Blackwell: I think they should be reading Mariame Kaba, We Do This 'Til We Free Us. They should definitely read The Four Agreements. I would definitely take a second to read Michael Kimmel's book Angry White Men, that really helped me understand a lot of things of where people's entitlements and feelings come from. I would just say anything of a topic that you feel strongly about around incarceration, around poverty, around activism work, and you have a strong opinion but you might not have both sides to the story.
Read something about that. Read some of the other side. Maybe you'll think about it a little different. I would encourage people to do that. When I watch the news, I watch all the news stations. I don't limit myself to CNN or MSNBC or Fox or anything like that. I watch a little bit of all of them. I have a little more in my mind to help me form and critically think about how I want to make a decision, so I am educated around the things that I say that I'm passionate about. I would just encourage people to dive into some of that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You were talking a little bit about all of the different news sources, CNN, MS, Fox, that you want to be exposed to in order to really build your own worldview perspective. In addition to books, what are the kinds of news sources and information that you have access to?
Christopher Blackwell: When it comes to access to information, we do have cable TV. We are able to watch the news stations, both national and local. Then I have a lot of people that are willing to send me stuff that comes in. If I see something or if I lock onto a topic and want to learn more about it, I can have articles and stuff sent in. We have access to buy newspapers and stuff like that if we want to have a subscription for that. That's also another good source.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nobody's worried that watching cable news might cause a riot in the prison.
Christopher Blackwell: They don't seem to be worried about that. I think again, I would be a little worried if that was the excuse on why we couldn't watch cable news. I think this is important. When we talk about some of the other countries and how they deal with incarceration like Germany, let's take Germany for a fact. When Germany incarcerates an individual, they have a core belief that this is one of our citizens and it is not our job to punish and harm this individual, but our job to try to reshape this individual and get them prepared to reenter society in a healthy manner so they don't ever cause harm again in our society.
That's again, one of the things why I say it's so dangerous in creating an other. If we put people in prison and constantly do these kinds of things, like draconian thoughts of how we deal with incarceration, then we're always going to end up with someone worse off and that someone goes back. We don't want to strip them down from things. We don't want to cast them off in ways. We want to add to them and build to them. Someone inner broken, we need to fix them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why do you think we don't approach incarceration that way in this country?
Christopher Blackwell: I think because we believe in the prison industrial complex. I think the prison system has become a profiting thing. We trade private prisons on the stock exchange. We have companies like Securus and Global Tel Link and JPay that make hundreds of millions of dollars off of local phone calls that are free to the rest of the society. They charge for emails that are free to society. We have created an industry around prisons that now all these companies hire lobbyists and go and lobby politicians and fund their campaigns.
I think that we could solve mass incarceration in the United States with one bill. If the president said, "You can't profit off prisons anymore, profiting off prisons isn't going to happen. We're not going to stand for it." That would be the end of mass incarceration because no one would be invested in just holding people in prison. A lot of the fear-mongering and stuff that's done around prison and the individuals that are inside prison is done for those reasons to continue to allow the prison industrial complex to keep running like a well-oiled machine.
Not that people in prison haven't caused serious harm, I've caused serious harm to my community. I'm very accountable for that. What needs to happen is I need to learn how to be responsible and accountable for that and I need to work through that so I never do that again because I am coming home. I want to come home to be the best person I can and offer the most I can.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Christopher Blackwell is incarcerated in the state of Washington. He's co-founder of the nonprofit Look2Justice. Chris, thanks so much.
Christopher Blackwell: Thank you very much.
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