Tennessee prisons ban Malcolm X, block subscription to the ‘Militant’

By Seth Galinsky
February 14, 2022

Officials at South Central Correctional Facility, a privately run state prison in Clifton, Tennessee, sent back a shipment of three books a prisoner there ordered from Seattle-based Books for Prisoners in November. They wrote on the packing slip: “Malcolm X not allowed.” And recently a prisoner at Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility there had his Militant subscription rejected as coming from an “unapproved vendor.”

Prison officials gave no reason for the censorship of literature by or on Malcolm X. The banned book is Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, a biography written for students by Walter Dean Myers. It won the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King award in 2017.

“It’s a kids’ biography, not a movement call to arms or anything like that,” Andy Chan, from Books for Prisoners, told the Militant Jan. 29. “If you can’t allow prisoners to read a book like that, then what can they read? It’s confounding to me that it’s an issue at all.”

“This is not an unusual event,” Chan said, describing the experiences Books for Prisoners has had in sending used and new books at no charge to prisoners.

The group has  faced many attempts to suppress books over the years. They get 1,000 to 1,200 requests for books a month, which they send to inmates in more than 45 states.

“Tennessee has not been one of the more difficult states, but in the last few months it has become more difficult,” he said.

“For a period of time it really did seem like it was getting easier and easier around the country,” Chan said, noting that attempts to ban books “for even mentioning race because they claimed it would ‘inflame’ racial tensions” have become less frequent.

But now, he said, “there’s this more modern form of censorship, including spurious concerns of contraband,” like in Pennsylvania where authorities claimed illegal drugs could be soaked into book pages.

“There’s an associated issue,” Chan said. Some prisons have tried to block physical books in general, claiming that “technology can replace books. Prison authorities then charge prisoners inflated prices for e-readers and rent out books at inflated prices that most can’t afford.”

It’s ironic that it was a book on Malcolm X that was blocked. Malcolm X spent several years in prison, where he came to reject his youthful crimes and anti-social behavior. He wrote — in a quote that is displayed on the Books for Prisoners website — that when he began reading, which he turned to voraciously, “I never had been so truly free in my life.”

“I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me,” Malcolm X told Alex Haley in his Autobiography. “I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”

‘Militant’ withheld from prisoner

The Militant, which has prisoner subscribers in some 25 states, has also recently faced what appears to be a de facto ban on the paper in a prison in Tennessee.

A prisoner at Trousdale Turner Correctional prison informed the Militant that he hasn’t been getting his paper. One issue was returned to the Militant, stamped “unapproved vendor.” But that’s a violation of the prison’s own rules, which say newspapers sent directly from the publisher don’t need any special authorization.

No other notices have been received by the prisoner subscriber or by the Militant saying the paper has been banned. Prison rules state that the publisher and inmate must be informed of bans and allowed to appeal.

Militant attorney David Goldstein has contacted Tennessee prison authorities seeking clarification. If necessary, the Militant will file an appeal and launch a public campaign to ensure our subscribers get their papers.

“The number of prisoners across the U.S. reading the Militant has increased over the last year or so,” Militant editor John Studer said Jan. 29. “Workers, no matter what side of the prison wall they are on, have a right to read material of their choosing, to think for themselves, to take positions on political questions, large and small.

“We join with all those demanding that South Central Correctional Facility reverse its unconstitutional ban on Malcolm X books,” Studer said. “And we expect Tennessee prison authorities to remove any obstacles in the way of our subscribers there receiving their subscription to the Militant.”