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What Arizona’s new book ban tells us about the state’s criminal justice system

FILE - This July 23, 2014 file photo shows a state prison in Florence, Ariz. A book that discusses t
This July 23, 2014, file photo shows a state prison in Florence, Ariz. A book that discusses the impact of the criminal justice system on black men is being kept out of the hands of Arizona prison inmates.
(AP)

Arizona officials are under fire from prisoners’ rights activists after their decision to ban a book about problems in the criminal justice decision from prisons in the state.

“Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” by law professor and former prosecutor Paul Butler, has been banned from state corrections facilities, NPR reports, because it contains “unauthorized content.” The Arizona Department of Corrections confirmed the ban to the book’s publisher, the New Press, saying the book might be “detrimental to the safe, secure and orderly operation” of Arizona prisons.

Butler’s book addresses issues of racism against African American men in the criminal justice system, and urges government officials to reconsider the way the American prison system works.

The author told NPR that nothing in his book would make “jailers have to worry about their safety.”

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“My book wants to transform society in the same non-violent way that people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King have created change,” he said.

Emerson Sykes of the ACLU told the Washington Post that the book’s ban is unconstitutional.

“The book bans are a symptom of the punitive mind-set that fails to account for the intellectual well-being and growth of those who are incarcerated,” Sykes said.

Arizona legislator Reginald Bolding, a Democrat, agreed with the ACLU.

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“I think it should be required reading,” Bolding told the Post."Whenever the state becomes a sponsor of shielding information, we become just as bad as those we see around the world doing the same thing.”

In a letter to Arizona Department of Corrections director Charles Ryan, Sykes said the ban “represents content-based censorship.”

“To prohibit prisoners from reading a book about race and the criminal legal system is not only misguided and harmful, but also violates the right to free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S.Constitution and the analogous right under Article 2, Section 6 of the Arizona Constitution,” the ACLU wrote.

A spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections told the New York Times that his department will review the book, and respond to the ACLU’s letter after the review is finished.

Sykes told NPR that the ACLU is prepared to sue the corrections department if the ban on “Chokehold” isn’t lifted.

“It is unconstitutional to ban a book just because the government doesn’t like its policy proposals,” Sykes said. “This is a classic First Amendment violation.”


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