Alabama Inmate Sues to Read Southern History Book
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
Published: September 26, 2011
The past is never dead, though at the Kilby Correctional
Facility outside of Montgomery, Ala., it seems it is not
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
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
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
So he sued.
A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections said
officials had not seen the suit on Monday and could not
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
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
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
"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
"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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