Unless you are a publisher—or happen to be reading this in prison—you may be unfamiliar with the “Exclusion Notice” that prison authorities use to justify the withholding of magazines and other printed matter from incarcerated subscribers. Over the past several months, we at The Nation have received a number of these notices from the Office of Publication Review (OPR) at the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry. True to its Orwellian name, the explanations the OPR provides for banning a given issue are always vague and lacking any specific citation of allegedly offending material. Our April 5/12, 2021, issue, for example, was suppressed because it allegedly “Promotes Superiority of One Group Over Another, Racism, Degradation” and “Acts of Violence.” Since they gave no further detail, we can only assume the authorities objected to the cover story, “Black Immigrants Matter.” Our July 26/August 2, 2021, issue, devoted to “This Way to Utopia: Dreams of a Better World,” was excluded on the grounds that it might “Encourage Sexual or Hostile Behaviors.” The June 13/20, 2022, issue, with a cover story profiling former Maine governor Paul LePage, was also banned for alleged racism. As a one-off, such egregious misreading might be funny. Almost. But Malcolm X says in his Autobiography that reading in prison “changed forever the course of my life”—as it has for countless other prisoners. So when the notices kept coming, we decided to do something about it.
Working with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, we’ve asked the Arizona authorities to release the suppressed issues, and to ensure that administrators at each prison understand that publications such as The Nation “may not be banned simply because they are reporting acts of current or historic racism.” The ACLU’s letter also demands “continued respect for the First Amendment rights of incarcerated persons and those on the outside who wish to communicate with them.”
“The freedom to read is essential to our democracy,” proclaims the American Library Association. We couldn’t agree more—and invite any other organizations or publishers who share that view to join our fight.