By Alan Bean
An Alabama inmate is suing for the right to read a Pulitzer prize-winning book, “Slavery By Another Name.” The book chronicles the use of prisons and harsh treatment to maintain control over black citizens in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th.
The folks who run the Kirby Correctional Facility think the book constitutes a security risk.
When I read this story I was reminded of the Never Again rally Friends of Justice sponsored on the second anniversary of the infamous Tulia drug sting. For reasons that have always eluded me, prisons within a 100-mile radius of Tulia (a small town in the Texas panhandle) were placed on full lockdown the day of the rally. That means prisoners were confined to their cells and fed PB&J sandwiches while the incendiary sermons, comedy routines, musical presentations and speeches unfolded in front of 400 people in a Tulia park.
The presence of Friends of Justice at the June 2010 trial of Curtis Flowers in Winona, MS prompted a similar kind of over-reaction. An African-American intern who drove to Winona to assist defense counsel was pulled over by an officer who forced her to explain her reasons for being in town.
The authorities don’t always react this way. The officers who handled the September 2007 march on Jena, Louisiana were uniformly cordial and professional, even though a crowd of at least 30,000 people was marching through a community of 3,000.
Subjective decisions made by a few key administrators are usually determinative in these cases and a little common sense goes a long way. Last week, a newspaper editor in Athens, GA refused to run two columns on the Troy Davis execution written by Pulitzer prize winner Leonard Pitts. Why? He thought Pitts was intentionally sharing factual errors. In one of the offending columns, Pitts presented a litany of cases in which prosecutors got it wrong in capital cases. Spencer Lawton, the man who prosecuted Troy Davis, insists he nailed the right man. Pitts wasn’t impressed. All the prosecutors responsible for convicting innocent people across America in recent years also thought they got it right.
Without that confidence, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.
Meaning the death penalty, a flimsy edifice erected on the shaky premise that we always get it right, that human systems always work as designed, that witnesses make no mistakes, that science is never fallible, that cops never lie, that lawyers are never incompetent.
You have to believe that. You have to make yourself believe it. Otherwise, how do you sleep at night? So, of course, a prosecutor speaks confidence. What else is he going to speak? Truth? Truth is too big, too dangerous, too damning. Truth asks a simple question: In what field of endeavor have we always gotten it right? And you know the answer to that.
Pitts’ take may be incendiary, but it is also right. When authority figures deny access to incendiary materials you can bet you’re missing out on some mighty good stuff.
Alabama Inmate Sues to Read Southern History Book
The past is never dead, though at the Kilby Correctional Facility outside of Montgomery, Ala., it seems it is not particularly welcome.
Last Friday, Mark Melvin, who is serving a life sentence at Kilby, filed suit in federal court against the prison’s officials and the state commissioner of corrections, claiming they have unjustly kept a book out of his hands.
The book, which was sent to him by his lawyer, is a work of history. More specifically, it is a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Southern history, an investigation of the systematically heinous treatment of black prisoners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mr. Melvin, 33, alleges in his suit that prison officials deemed it “a security threat.”
The dispute began a year ago. Mr. Melvin was entering his 18th year in the state’s custody, having been charged at 14 with helping his older brother commit two murders. He was well-behaved enough to be granted parole in 2008, but after committing what his lawyer called “a technical violation” at a transition house, he was sent back.
So he has been reading novels and biographies, studies of World War II and Irish history, his lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, said. After his return to prison, Mr. Melvin was assigned by the warden to work in the prison’s law library.
Last September, Mr. Stevenson sent Mr. Melvin a couple of books, including “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” by Douglas A. Blackmon, the senior national correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. It won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2009.
The book chronicles the vast and brutal convict leasing system, which became nearly indistinguishable from antebellum slavery as it grew. In this system, people, in almost all cases black, were arrested by local law enforcement, often on the flimsiest of charges, and forced to labor on the cotton farms of wealthy planters or in the coal mines of corporations to pay off their criminal penalties. Though convict leasing occurred across the South, the book focuses on Alabama.
Mr. Melvin never received the book. According to his lawsuit, he was told by an official at Kilby that the book was “too incendiary” and “too provocative,” and was ordered to have it sent back at his own expense.
He appealed, but in his lawsuit he says that prison officials upheld the decision, citing a regulation banning any mail that incites “violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.” (Mr. Melvin is white.)
So he sued.
A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections said officials had not seen the suit on Monday and could not comment.
Mr. Stevenson, who is also the director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, said he considered the lawsuit to be less about the rights of people in prison but primarily about the country’s refusal to own up to its racial history
Stanley Washington, a former inmate who is now a caseworker for the equal justice group, said that at the Alabama prison where he was serving a sentence in 2001, inmates were forbidden to watch the mini-series “Roots.”
“They didn’t give a reason,” Mr. Washington said. “We figured they thought it would rile up the blacks against the whites.”
Mr. Blackmon, in a phone interview, said he had not heard about any other instance of his book’s being banned, though makers of a documentary based on it were prevented from filming in one Alabama town by the mayor and city attorney.
“The idea that a book like mine is somehow incendiary or a call to violence is so absurd,” he said.
While doing research on the book in small county courthouses around the state, he said, he was met sometimes with wariness but never with outright resistance.
“To be honest, these events had slipped deep enough into the past that there weren’t very many people who even knew to be cautious about them,” he said.
Indeed, the last of the thousands of convicts who had been toiling in the deadly Birmingham coal mines were moved out in 1928. They were sent to Kilby.