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Dangerous Books and the Prison System

The Texas Department of Corrections is afraid its prisoners will get ideas.  After reading Dave Zirin's book, "Welcome to the Terrordome", Texas death row inmate Kenneth Foster, who was sentenced for abetting a murder, wrote Zirin a letter detailing his … Read More

By / August 28, 2007

The Texas Department of Corrections is afraid its prisoners will get ideas.

 After reading Dave Zirin's book, "Welcome to the Terrordome", Texas death row inmate Kenneth Foster, who was sentenced for abetting a murder, wrote Zirin a letter detailing his thoughts on sports and prison: 

"I have never had the opportunity to view sports in this way. And as I went through these revelations I began to have epiphanies about the way sports have a similar existence in prison. The similarities shook me. Facing execution, the only thing that I began to get obsessive about was how to get heard and be free, and as the saying goes — you can't serve two gods. Sports, as you know, becomes a way of life. You monitor it, you almost come to breathe it. Sports becomes a way of life in prison, because it becomes a way of survival. For men that don't have family or friends to help them financially it becomes a way to occupy your time. That's another sad story in itself, but it's the root to many men's obsession with sports."

While it’s easy to fall in love with the genius (relative to expectations of barbarousness) of a prisonmate (see: Norman Mailer), the prison system should still readily encourage a correspondence between Zirin and Foster. Instead, when Zirin sent Foster a copy of his first book, "What's My Name Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the US", the Texas Department of Corrections quickly proclaimed the book ill-suited, even dangerous, to its system. Writes Zirin:

A form titled "Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice, Publication review/denial notification" issued to Kenneth on August 9 reads that What's My Name Fool? Was banned from the row because, "It contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots." They specifically write that "pages 44 & 55" met this criteria.

After lifting my jaw off the ground, I went to those dangerous palindromic pages.

On 44, the radioactive quote in question comes from that seditious revolutionary Jackie Robinson — you know, the guy whose number is retired by all of Major League Baseball. I quote Robinson's autobiography when he writes about suffering racism early in his rookie season. He wrote: 

"I felt tortured and I tried to just play ball and ignore the insults but it was really getting to me. For one wild and rage crazed moment I thought, 'To hell with Mr. Rickey's noble experiment. To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create.' I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches, and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all."

On page 55, the offensive passage was about Jack Johnson's defeat of the "Great White Hope," Jim Jeffries. It reads, "Johnson was faster, stronger and smarter than Jeffries. He knocked Jeffries out with ease. After Johnson's victory, there were race riots around the country in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and Washington, D.C. Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attacking Blacks, and Blacks fighting back. This reaction to a boxing match was one of the most widespread racial uprisings in the U.S. until the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."

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