[Marxism] White prisoner in Alabama sues to win right to read anti-racist history
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 28 09:48:41 MDT 2011
NY Times September 26, 2011
Alabama Inmate Sues to Read Southern History Book
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
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.
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