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In solitary confinement, banned books are a lifeline

Like it or not, I’m a role model for my fellow inmates. I won’t apologize for valuing a good book.

Toni Demuro

Surviving my seventh sweltering summer in a Texas solitary confinement women’s prison is easier when I’m escaping in a good book.

After I read a graphic novel titled, Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight For Their Rights by Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico, I knew I would violate prison rules.

This prison promotes an anti-reading environment. “Traffic and Trade” is the disciplinary infraction issued for sharing personal property such as books, magazines or shampoo with other incarcerated people. We already get additional punishment when we remain alone in our cells for 23 hours a day. This punishment includes restrictions on recreation, loss of the daily one hour out of our cells, limits on commissary purchases, hygiene and correspondence material, and the removal of personal items from our possession like our radios and family photographs.

One weekly library book is the prize for remaining discipline-free. The library doesn’t allow us to read old magazines and newspapers before discarding them. I’ve been ordered to “get rid of those books” under the pretense that they pose a fire hazard. I think that this prison lacking adequate fire alarms is a bigger hazard. And this is why I break the rules by sharing my books.

The complex dance begins. As a team, my neighbors stick mirrors out windows to watch for guards.

I secure the book in a sock attached to several connecting shoestrings and dangle it out my window. Waiting for the signal, I swing the heavy sock five cells to my right. It reaches a first-floor window where it’s grabbed and passed from outstretched hand to outstretched hand until it reaches its intended recipient. Days pass as the book makes the rounds to all 228 people in solitary.

Then: a message. The book has been confiscated.

Kwaneta Harris in a Texas prison.Ariana Gomez

A tall Black woman guard sashays up the stairs wearing a smirk and fanning my book. I stand at my cell door turning my ID over and over in my hand, waiting for her to collect it for my disciplinary. She flips through the pages and asks, “Dis yours?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Yes what?” she snarls.

“Yes Ma’am,” I answer to the woman who is the same age as my son.

I just want her to write the disciplinary order and leave me alone. Instead, she tells me that because of its “radical content,” the book could promote a riot.

I wanted the other women to read Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists because I want these mostly young women to see what we’ve accomplished throughout history – to know that being a woman isn’t a curse. It left me inspired and wondering: what will my contribution be? Many women in solitary with me have been locked up since childhood.

One message continuously conveyed to us is Proverbs 31 – the verse that talks about how the virtuous woman is subservient and obedient. I wanted to counter this message as well as the messaging we get during our mandatory viewing of the Fox News Hour – the only thing on the television during our one hour a day outside our cells in the recreation cage.

Anger floods me but I remain silent. This guard is known for antagonizing people. She wants an argument, but only the youth argue with the guards. She says she is giving me a warning and waits for an apology from me, her weight shifted to one leg.

Instead, I say, “Write me up,” as I take the three steps to my bed.

The dorm is listening. At 51, whether I like it or not, I am a role model. Security staff usually describe me as an “Old school - no problem inmate.” I have to demonstrate the value of education. To show, by my actions, that there are times you must stand unapologetically for the right to know. Consequences be damned.

As I lie on my thin mattress, feeling the metal of my prison bed, I begin to plot. There are ways to retrieve my book. I start talking to other staff about the book. Many people who work inside can be reasoned with. A guard with a feather tattoo tells me she hasn’t seen my book and assures me that if she does, she’ll return it. But, it’s the janitor who finds it in the trash and brings my book to me.

I pay her a $4.50 bag of coffee for slipping it through the gap in my door. A new neighbor arrives and asks me through our shared vent, “Excuse me, I don’t know how long Imma be down here for Refusing To Work. Can I borrow a book?”

“Sure,” I answer. “Go to your window.”

Kwaneta Harris is a mother and former nurse incarcerated in solitary confinement in Texas. She is the winner of the 2022 Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize. Her writing can be found in PEN America’s Works of Justice series, TruthOut, Lux Magazine, Mango Prism and the Dallas Morning News.

If you’d like to support Kwaneta and other women incarcerated in Texas, you may contribute to Inside Books, based in Austin. For more information and ways to act against carceral censorship, please visit https://pen.org/campaign/prison-banned-books-week-2023/.