When Shaka Shakur was transferred from an Indiana Department of Corrections prison to one in Virginia in 2018, the law books he used to help himself and other prisoners work on their appeals should have been in his cell waiting for him.
Shakur is a co-founder of the New Afrikan Liberation Collective, a group mainly comprised of Indiana prisoners who seek Black liberation. He has ongoing litigation in Indiana, and for him and prisoners like him, being transferred away without his home state’s law books can make it difficult or impossible to meet legal deadlines and continue working on your own case.
Shakur, 55, was convicted of attempted murder of a Gary, Indiana, police officer in 2004, which he says is a wrongful conviction. After spending nearly 20 years of his 63-year sentence in Indiana, he was transferred to Virginia under an agreement between state prison systems that allows them to send their prisoners to other states.
Shakur described the move as domestic exile, and he said he was transferred as a punishment for his political activities inside the prison. In an email, IDOC Chief Communications Officer Annie Goeller said Shakur was transferred after stabbing an IDOC staff member.
He said he’s spent a lot of time in segregation — or solitary confinement — and a lot of time reading.
Books play an important role in his life on the inside, providing him information about the outside world and connecting him to other incarcerated people via study groups he’s been a part of at multiple facilities. But in Indiana and in Virginia prisons alike, Shakur said he’s had trouble getting and keeping books.
In February, he was re-reading “Wretched of the Earth” by Frantz Fanon. This book, and most of the books he reads, are about decolonization, patriarchy, abolition and Black history, topics geared toward educating and politicizing himself and other prisoners.
And topics which he and others said are sometimes classified as security threats and difficult to get past the mailroom.
“They were denying us history books on Malcolm X and George Jackson, but you go to the library and you’ve got a ton of material in the library on Nazism,” Shakur said of his time in Indiana prisons.
“They were denying us history books on Malcolm X and George Jackson, but you go to the library and you’ve got a ton of material in the library on Nazism.”
— Shaka Shakur
Experiences like Shakur’s aren’t uncommon. A 2019 report by PEN America, a freedom of expression advocacy group, concluded that publication censorship in prisons is the largest book ban and one of the largest First Amendment violations in the U.S. today.
Like in other states, mailroom staff in IDOC facilities decide what publications to reject based on their discretion. They are encouraged to err on the side of caution if they are unsure what to do, according to mailroom training materials IDOC provided to the Indiana Daily Student. Rules can change without public notice and vary between facilities.
Chief Communications Officer Annie Goeller declined to be interviewed for this story without previewing a list of questions, which the IDS does not allow as a condition of interviews. The IDS provided some allegations in writing for Goeller to comment on. Comments attributed to IDOC rather than to Goeller came from the agency’s public records email.
In an email, IDOC said mailroom staff make rejection decisions based on their training, and if they are unsure, they consult investigation and intelligence agents, who either make a decision or refer the material to the IDOC legal division. IDOC said this chain of command ensures consistent decisions across facilities.
Prison book bans fall into two broad categories: content-based and content-neutral.
Content-neutral bans are based on the physical characteristics of the material. For example, IDOC facilities reject used books if they have damage such as stains or markings.
Content-based bans prohibit material that prison officials believe could disrupt the security or order of the prison.