Racism and the War on Books
The last piece that I posted on this subject was written in this prison a couple of months ago, before I’d been thrown into “the hole” on administrative segregation. I wrote about the prison’s banning of reading material, which they have classified as “anarchist.” Security here has been removing such items from my mail. Prior to that posting I had written about a newly enforced policy at the CNCC that functionally prevents books from being sent in from the outside.
In the days immediately after that policy became effective – a policy that we are still trying to fight – the prison was in the position of having a backlog of books to still deliver to people in prison here, books that had arrived at the facility before the date chosen to enact the policy. In delivering those books, the same kind of discrimination was employed as that which I wrote about in regard to my mail. Books identified as “anarchist” were denied, including a book of poetry by Kelly Pflug-Back and one authored by the Curious George Collective titled Anarchy in the Age of Dinosaurs.
Discrimination against “anarchists” is not the only kind displayed by this prison’s administration in their censorship and banning of books, as the title of this piece suggests.
A couple of us were going to file applications to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal as one of the very few possible grievance mechanisms available to those of us imprisoned here. However, the multiple copies of the application that have been sent to me here seem to have been intercepted by the staff and not one has made it into my hands.
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In my last piece, titled Anarchist Material Removed, I noted that one of the articles that the CNCC wanted to prevent people imprisoned here from reading was an interview with Shane Bauer in which he spoke about solitary confinement practices in the United States being in some respects more severe than those in Iran, where he was imprisoned. We know very well that the Ontario Super Jails are styled after American prisons, this one having been run by an American corrections corporation for a time, with most practices left untouched or in some cases made even harsher.
In that article Bauer talks about the Secure Housing Units (SHUs) at the Pelican Bay Prison in California. He mentions that one of the things which results in people being thrown in the SHU there is the identification of so called “gang-related material” in their possession or in their mail.
Bauer explains that in at least one instance, Black liberationist political material – an essay by W.E.B. DuBois – was labelled by Pelican Bay Security as “gang-related material” and resulted in the person to whom the essay had been sent getting transferred to the SHU, where they will be held in indefinite solitary confinement.
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Adrian Nolan, 31, is another person imprisoned at the CNCC who has had books denied to him because management here have alleged that some of the content sent to him violates their security protocols. The reason he was given was that the books constituted “gang-related material.”
Unfortunately, the notes from my interview with Nolan, like all of my notes, letters and papers, were confiscated when I was placed in solitary confinement on January 21 for unspecified “security reasons.” Fortunately, I do remember much of the content of that conversation.
Nolan said to me that it is wrong to consider the books “gang related”; rather, he described them as “urban books.” He used that term to draw attention to the fact that a sergeant here had employed it when explaining what Security defined as “gang related”: “You know: urban books,” said the sergeant.
Nolan and others were quick to name this as the obvious racism that it is.
Abdi Mohammed, 23, told me that the only difference between these so called urban books and many of the books currently read by people imprisoned here is that these are written by Black authors with Black characters and set in Black neighbourhoods.
Adrian Nolan agreed with this assessment. He talks about one of the book series which he was trying to bring in, which he told me were nearly indistinguishable in genre from many John Grisham or James Patterson books (which are very popular here) – they are thriller mysteries, they’re about crime, like many novels are.
There is also another type of book that is in wide circulation here at the CNCC which Nolan compared to those which were rejected by security: the evangelizing Christian books provided by the Chaplaincy. Ironically, these are for the most part the only books available to people stuck in “the hole” (other than Bibles and Christian self-help books). It seems that this rule may have been quietly and partially – for those of us on “administrative” rather than punitive segregation – repealed since I first wrote about it several weeks ago.
The general outline of these Christian books is that the story is told by formerly imprisoned people who have found religion and become devoutly faithful. The first half (or more) is always full of drug use and violence and then late in the novel the author-narrator finds Jesus and starts to live a religious life.
Nolan pointed out that this is very similar to some of the books he tried to have sent in (and to share with other people), the primary difference being that they are not pushing Christianity, they are about Black people.
Abdi Mohammed told me that it is unfortunate that the CNCC administration is blinded by racism because unlike most of the books available here, ones Nolan wanted to share are “books we can relate to.” I remember Mohammed saying this with reference to himself and other young imprisoned people of colour.
Sadly though, this discrimination does not surprise Mohammed. He says that racism is pervasive at the CNCC. He has felt it himself and witnessed it many times.
I wish that I had access to my notes and Mohammed’s own words available. One thing I do remember him saying is that as a Somali Muslim he has experienced racism because of his colour, his country and also his religion.
Mohammed said that racism is a serious problem at non-urban jails like this one in Penetanguishene.
The staff here are almost excusively White, in stark contrast with prisons located in the GTA. The difference is palpable and Mohammed says this results in both systemic and day- to-day racism.
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There is a tragic irony in the comparison of books allegedly containing “gang-related material” with evangelical Christian books that are numerous in this and other prisons.
The practice of having only Christian books available to people imprisoned in segregation here is itself a notable colonizing act in a country with a history of violent Christianization.
Indeed, racism is a pervasive factor in the CNCC’s war on books. But as Abdi Mohammed pointed out, the racism in the so called justice system is much deeper than just this front. A deeply ingrained systemic racism – from the over-policing of neighbourhoods of colour to the normalized hegemony of Whiteness – is but reflected in this prison’s policies that deny imprisoned people access to books.
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A couple of things need to be said about trying to file an application with the Ontario Human Rights Commission – a couple of things in addition to the fact that our efforts have thus far been thwarted by the CNCC, which has prevented me from receiving the application.
Resorting to this kind of application is a tremendous compromise. It is a soft reformist measure at best. “Human rights” discourse is an inherently liberal doctrine that appeals to the authority of the state to define and grant people’s so called “rights” and reflects privilege in terms of who gets access to those rights.
That said, I still find it alarming that when I called “Offender Issues”—also known as the Client Conflict Resolution Unit and which is supposed to be our first recourse for human rights issues in the provincial prison system—they said that access to books is not a serious enough issue for them to care about. More alarmingly, they also said that discrimination against political ideology is not a human rights issue. They refused to talk to me about racism and that complaint stemmed from an incident involving another person.
The application, as a tactic, was not an attempt to portray discrimination against White anarchists like myself on the same plane as racism against people of colour. Rather, it was part of a strategy that is attempting to put the issue of systemic abuse of people’s “rights” onto the table for discussion.
Racism, denial of rights based on political ideology, contesting freedom of thought through the censorship and banning of books and other reading material; these are all happening in the Ontario prison system.
That racism and political identity might be similarly targeted by state institutions merely reaffirms the notion that there is a real necessity for organized resistance against this colonial system that employs prison justice as one of its primary weapons.
Racism is an endemic feature of Euro-American capitalist colonial culture and statehood. It is inevitable that this manifests in the way prisons are run; prisons playing a central role in maintaining and enforcing that system. The CNCC is not only no exception but, as Abdi Mohammed explained, it is actually one of the more racist prisons in the provincial system.
Note: The policy of making non-religious books unavailable to people imprisoned on the segregation unit—for which there now seems to be an exemption for people here on “administrative segregation”—is not a policy that either the chaplaincy or the guards are responsible for. Like most problems, this one is a problem with those in charge.