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In prison, knowledge is power’ How publications are restricted in Indiana prisons

Indiana Daily Student, March 27, 2022.

When Shaka Shakur was transferred from an Indiana Department of Corrections prison to one in Virginia in 2018, the law books he used to help himself and other prisoners work on their appeals should have been in his cell waiting for him.

They weren't.

Shakur is a co-founder of the New Afrikan Liberation Collective, a group mainly comprised of Indiana prisoners who seek Black liberation. He has ongoing litigation in Indiana, and for him and prisoners like him, being transferred away without his home state’s law books can make it difficult or impossible to meet legal deadlines and continue working on your own case.

Shakur, 55, was convicted of attempted murder of a Gary, Indiana, police officer in 2004, which he says is a wrongful conviction. After spending nearly 20 years of his 63-year sentence in Indiana, he was transferred to Virginia under an agreement between state prison systems that allows them to send their prisoners to other states.

Shakur described the move as domestic exile, and he said he was transferred as a punishment for his political activities inside the prison. In an email, IDOC Chief Communications Officer Annie Goeller said Shakur was transferred after stabbing an IDOC staff member.

He said he’s spent a lot of time in segregation — or solitary confinement — and a lot of time reading.

Books play an important role in his life on the inside, providing him information about the outside world and connecting him to other incarcerated people via study groups he’s been a part of at multiple facilities. But in Indiana and in Virginia prisons alike, Shakur said he’s had trouble getting and keeping books.

In February, he was re-reading “Wretched of the Earth” by Frantz Fanon. This book, and most of the books he reads, are about decolonization, patriarchy, abolition and Black history, topics geared toward educating and politicizing himself and other prisoners.

And topics which he and others said are sometimes classified as security threats and difficult to get past the mailroom.

“They were denying us history books on Malcolm X and George Jackson, but you go to the library and you’ve got a ton of material in the library on Nazism,” Shakur said of his time in Indiana prisons.

Experiences like Shakur’s aren’t uncommon. A 2019 report by PEN America, a freedom of expression advocacy group, concluded that publication censorship in prisons is the largest book ban and one of the largest First Amendment violations in the U.S. today.

Like in other states, mailroom staff in IDOC facilities decide what publications to reject based on their discretion. They are encouraged to err on the side of caution if they are unsure what to do, according to mailroom training materials IDOC provided to the Indiana Daily Student. Rules can change without public notice and vary between facilities.

Chief Communications Officer Annie Goeller declined to be interviewed for this story without previewing a list of questions, which the IDS does not allow as a condition of interviews. The IDS provided some allegations in writing for Goeller to comment on. Comments attributed to IDOC rather than to Goeller came from the agency’s public records email.

In an email, IDOC said mailroom staff make rejection decisions based on their training, and if they are unsure, they consult investigation and intelligence agents, who either make a decision or refer the material to the IDOC legal division. IDOC said this chain of command ensures consistent decisions across facilities.

Prison book bans fall into two broad categories: content-based and content-neutral.

Content-neutral bans are based on the physical characteristics of the material. For example, IDOC facilities reject used books if they have damage such as stains or markings.

Content-based bans prohibit material that prison officials believe could disrupt the security or order of the prison.

In an email responding to a public records request for a list of rejected publications and another request for rejection notices, IDOC said no such list exists and that all rejection decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. Other states maintain prohibited materials lists and have released them in response to records requests.

​​The 2019 PEN America report found that prisons disproportionately ban books about Black history and civil rights on the grounds that they may disrupt order in the prison or incite racial hatred. Anecdotally, that pattern persists in Indiana.

Adam Scouten is an organizer for IDOC Watch, a prison abolitionist organization that works with political prisoners and prisoners who become politicized while incarcerated. He said IDOC frequently rejects pro-Black and Afrocentric literature on the grounds that it presents a security threat or could incite racial hatred. If a publication mentions a group that IDOC has designated as a Security Threat Group, that publication will be rejected, he said.

He listed “Stand Up, Struggle Forward” by Sanyika Shakur and the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper as publications he knew of that had been recently rejected at IDOC facilities.

Nube Brown is the editor of the San Francisco Bay View, which publishes stories about San Francisco’s Black community and writings by prisoners all over the U.S. She said the paper is sometimes rejected at Indiana prisons and when she receives rejection letters, they often argue the publication poses a security threat and contains language that could cause riots.

“They don't want our publication because it's educational. It's inspiring. It brings hope,” Brown said. “If the prisoners are educated about who they are, what is happening, then may be able to get together and resist what's taking place. That, of course, is a threat to the system.”

Andy Chan is a long-time volunteer and current president of Books to Prisoners, a nonprofit that sends books to prisoners across the U.S. He said one common content-based rejection of books that Books to Prisoners encounters is for racial content — particularly for books about Black history and civil rights.

Without a list of prohibited titles or a log of rejection notices including titles, it’s impossible to say precisely whether and to what extent IDOC disproportionately rejects books by and about Black people, or if there’s variation between facilities.

In an email, Goeller said IDOC does not reject publications by and about Black people. She said the Black Panther Party is classified as a Security Threat Group because the FBI lists it as an extremist organization.

Rules for sending books to people incarcerated in IDOC facilities have fluctuated in recent years. In 2018, five IDOC facilities began to only allow books from two vendors, Amazon and Edward Hamilton, and rejected all used books. In mailroom training materials, IDOC said this decision by those five facilities was not approved by the central office.

In November 2020, a nonprofit group called the Human Rights Defense Center sued IDOC for rejecting its publications. Dan Marshall, general counsel at HRDC, said IDOC is supposed to notify publishers if their materials are rejected. But Marshall said HRDC only found out when their subscribers notified them.

In January 2021, a court issued a preliminary injunction ordering IDOC to stop rejecting books on the basis of their supplier. The injunction also required IDOC to send written notice to the sender of withheld publications including a specific explanation of what part of the material threatened a “specific legitimate penological interest” and a citation of which policy is being violated. IDOC has to provide explicit justifications for withholding or censoring publications.

In a rejection letter sent to Books to Prisoners after the injunction, IDOC did not cite a specific policy being violated. Goeller could not comment on why this rejection did not include a reason but acknowledged the policy requires IDOC to do so. The IDS was not able to obtain other rejection notices before publication to evaluate whether this rejection notice represents a pattern.

In November 2021, IDOC settled with the Human Rights Defense Center. In addition to reinforcing the preliminary injunction, IDOC agreed to pay damages and to implement new policies and a training program by the end of January 2022. Marshall said he hopes the settlement will improve consistency and access.

In response to a records request for rejection notices, IDOC said in an email, “The forms you are requesting are given to each individual offender and a copy is placed in their packet. The staff does not keep a collective database or log of all correspondence that is confiscated.”

The settlement requires IDOC to maintain logs documenting mail confiscations.

Before the settlement, Marshall said IDOC had argued that HRDC’s publications posed a security threat.

“They agreed to ultimately settle the case and let our publications in,” Marshall said. “If they truly thought there was a security problem, they wouldn't have done that.”

For incarcerated people, books and other publications are a source of education, empowerment, entertainment and connection to the outside world. Prison libraries are limited and incarcerated people must be accompanied by a guard to visit the library. Tablets powered by Global Tel Link allow prisoners to buy e-books, music and movies, but they’re prohibitively expensive for many prisoners.

Scouten said for people who are in a Secure Housing Unit, alone in their cell for upward of 23 hours a day, a lack of book access can be especially devastating.

“You're stewing in isolation, without an outlet for your mind. And it gives the lie to the official narrative that prison exists for reform and rehabilitation,” Scouten said. “The only way available to prisoners to be able to make any positive use of their time is really through literature.”

Prisons have the right to ban material that threatens prison security, but those restrictions are sometimes used to reject material that prisoners have a right to access.

Dan Marshall, general counsel at HRDC, said just because prison book restrictions often violate the First Amendment doesn’t mean restrictions that violate incarcerated people’s rights don’t happen.

“As our dozens and dozens of lawsuits attest, prisons and jails don’t always like to follow the Constitution in that regard,” Marshall said. “Indiana’s not the only place where we’ve had problems with our magazine and our books.”

Prisons are supposed to notify senders when their mail is rejected. But like Marshall, Brown of the San Francisco Bay View and Chan of Books to Prisoners said they sometimes find out that their mail has been rejected when the incarcerated person tells them, without communication from IDOC. Organizations that send materials to prisoners often don’t have the bandwidth to keep track of whether their materials are getting in or to appeal the mailroom’s decision, even when they’re technically allowed to do so.

In the prison yard, Shaka Shakur studies.

When he first went behind bars at 16, older prisoners mentored him. They taught him about Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, the prison movement in the American south. As he learned, he would go out into the yard, sharing what he learned with others.

These conversations evolved into study and struggle groups. Sometimes as many as 20 prisoners would be studying instead of playing basketball, Shakur said.

Their group created tests and assigned book reports. They would sit and talk about current events, how to create their own re-entry programs or political topics like liberation and socialism.

Shakur said he was recently forced to send home over 90 of his personal books, which he shared with other prisoners. Most of them were legal and medical texts. He had exceeded his 15-book limit, so the rest were considered contraband.

He said rebuilding the current study group’s infrastructure will be frustrating and expensive. But he’ll reorder more books, and he’ll share them with others.

“In prison, knowledge is power,” Shakur said. “It’s a threat to the establishment.”