September 6th, 2010
Alabama Prison Bans Pulitzer Prize-Winning Book, Slavery By Another Name
In September 2010, lawyers at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit civil rights law firm in Montgomery, Alabama, mailed a copy of Slavery by Another Name to client Mark Melvin, then incarcerated at Kilby Correctional Facility. Written by award-winning journalist Douglas Blackmon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book documents the little known history of convict leasing in Alabama in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the book’s title suggests, the exploitative and inhumane convict leasing system strongly resembled slavery. Under the pretext of criminal punishment, African Americans arrested on frivolous charges were sold to plantations, turpentine farms, mining companies, and railroads and forced to work in perilous conditions to pay off “debt” accumulated from unjust court costs and fines.
Deciding that the book’s title was “too provocative,” Kilby prison officials prohibited Mark Melvin from receiving Slavery by Another Name when it arrived in the mail. When Melvin used the internal grievance process to appeal the book’s banning, prison officials defended their decision and insisted the book was properly banned under a rule prohibiting material that incites “violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.” Alabama prison officials had previously limited prisoners’ access to portrayals of Southern racial history; in the early 2000s, wardens in some Alabama prisons prohibited prisoners from watching a re-broadcast of the Roots miniseries.
In September 2011, represented by EJI lawyers, Mark Melvin sued the Alabama Department of Corrections to be able to read Slavery By Another Name. The civil litigation was settled in February 2013, when state officials finally agreed to allow prisoners to read the book.