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Prison Libraries Ban Literature, Raise Controversy

Prison Libraries Ban Literature, Raise Controversy

In less than three months, the Department of Corrections’ Judiciary Committee will decide on a bill designed to further limit the types of reading materials made available to Connecticut prison libraries.

The bill was first proposed after the accused murderer in the highly publicized Petit family murders, was thought to have access to books described as “criminally malevolent in the extreme” while serving time for prior crimes. Advocates who wanted to ban such materials in prison argued that books that had plotlines that included rape, murder, torture, and arson were tantamount to arming this man with a “blueprint” for nefarious activity.

Exactly what types of books, magazines, journals, and other reading materials are made available to the incarcerated is not a new debate but one that has been raging since the 19th century. Some reading materials are currently censored with little public or legal resistance or as Boston Globe writer Michael Gerson writes, “Prisons could justifiably ban Tunnel Digging for Dummies.” However, bans on authors like Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda and Sister Helen Prejean, a staunch opponent of the death penalty, have been more controversial.

The ACLU recently filed a motion [PDF] in a U.S. district court that argues an existing policy at the Berkeley County Detention Center in Moncks Corner, S.C., is unconstitutional. The policy currently bans all reading material — save the Bible — from inmates. The creators of the policy are, apparently, unaware or unconcerned that the Bible contains rape, murder, and torture as well.

Across the country, many prison libraries have censored the works of Gore Vidal, Toni Morrison, Gustav Flaubert, Sojourner Truth, and William Shakespeare, to name a few. The specific regulations regarding what kinds of reading material allowed in the nation’s prison libraries vary from state to state. Guidelines for censorship can be broad and usually account for content of a sexual, racial, illegal, or otherwise “dangerous” nature.

This year, the Texas Civil Rights Project released a 59-page human rights report [PDF] that expounds on the oftentimes arbitrary and draconian measures taken to limit an inmate’s access to books. But in briefly skimming through the full list of banned books, it reads more like a syllabus for literature undergrads rather than something that would promote dangerous or illegal activity. In a recent story for The American Prospect, Adam Sewer uses the Virginia’s correctional system as a case study for how his own work has fallen under the umbrella of prison censorship.

A few months back, I attended an event entitled “Literacy, Libraries and Liberation,” featuring Toni Morrison and Angela Davis. Morrison read from a letter she received from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice explaining that her novel Paradise was banned because it “contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve a breakdown.”

“I was amused to get this but I was also thrilled,” Morrison said at the event. “It seemed like an extraordinary compliment that Paradise could actually blow up into a riot in a prison. So I thought that … I wanted to make some connection between prisons, their organization, their prohibitions, and what they understand to be lethal or dangerous, like reading, like literacy, like understanding.”

The link between literacy and incarceration is staggering. The National Institute of Literacy or the NIL reports that 70 percent of the prison population maintains a significant degree of illiteracy, unable able to read above a grade school level. For juvenile offenders, the percentage rises to 85 percent.  A newly published report [PDF] by the NAACP reveals a number of sobering statistics on prisoners and education. Among them, the NAACP reports that since the recession, state spending for prisons has surpassed spending for higher education and libraries.

One of the many powers of literacy is that it provides options — the option of individuals to engage in citizenship and act upon the full possibilities of their potential. Curtailing broad access to books within the prison system is counterproductive to say the least. With a rising prison population, it is important to give inmates access to literature. A ban on pornography and bomb building books makes sense, but the energy spent on banning the works of Alice Walker and Jon Stewart needs to be redirected.

This post was originally published by Campus Progress.

Related Stories:

Tea Party Candidate Says Move The Poor To Prison

In Prisons, Women Are Shackled While Giving Birth

Huck Finn Gets a Literary Pat-Down


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Photo from See-ming Lee via flickr
written by Courtney Young, a staff writer for Campus Progress

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3:40AM PDT on Sep 7, 2012

Some of the worst forms of pornography are perfectly socially acceptable. Violent sports can be worse than depictions of subagitation. Tobacco use in movies and books is treated as somehow more special than illegal drugs whose dealers did not have enough money to buy laws that make them acceptable.Society is too corrupt to trust with the authority on what is decent.

9:46PM PDT on Sep 6, 2012


2:59PM PDT on Sep 7, 2011


4:54AM PDT on Sep 3, 2011

A ban on pornography and bomb building books makes sense,

Perhaps it makes sense on the surface, but some prisons and some states consider anything gay to be pornographic by definition.

10:13AM PDT on May 2, 2011

I agree with Karen F. Ideas about child abuse as a reason for being crazy enough to beat the snot out of someone or being raped by your Uncle or some such person. How about being burned with cigarettes when you are five years old and left out in the cold at six? Would this be reason enough or maybe you don't have anyone to raise you except a criminal herself--anyone can bear a child, but it takes no how to raise one! We must have a grass-roots change in this country regarding raising children. Education should be mandatory and a leave for a Mom and Dad when a child is born with no threat of losing your job! Take example from other countries where 6 weeks vacation is the norm. PAID! If we don't treat our employees with respect and give them some family time, we are missing the point of being human. Humanity ...where are you?

9:56AM PDT on May 2, 2011

My comment to Diane L. is this: Spend a night in a State Prison and tell me again about your privileges. I don't think you would make it out in one piece, Diane. I think just peeing in front of your lovely Cell Mate would change you forever. How about body cavity checks? How about a filthy shower that only gets cleaned once a month? How about not talking to a loved one for month's on end because it cost forty cents a minute to talk to someone? How about not having any SOAP, PAPER, PENS, PERSONAL ITEMS unless you have someone on the outside to PUT MONEY IN YOUR PRISON OR JAIL ACCOUNT. How about the loneliness that creeps in at every level...the crass way that people talk with you. The punished are punished enough just by being in the JAIL or Prison. It's not a "Club Med." Where you got that idea is just pure ignorance. How'd you like to be in their with some nut job that rapes you? Does that shock you? Just trying to wake you up to reality. I pity you or anyone else who ever just doesn't pay their traffic tickets and ends up in a local jail. HELL!!! That's where you will be!! Maybe, one of your friends gets a DUI -- Xmas party night -- God help you! One will be treated to a cell and won't get out unless someone posts bail for you. And, then you will be punished further -- like any OTHER criminal -- even though it was a misdemeanor. But, who knows that! No one cares either! And, don't tell me that you don't know anyone who has a glass of wine and then gets

9:21AM PDT on May 2, 2011

NOT ALL PRISONERS committed heinous crimes! There's a large percentage of prisoners in jail for DRUG Dealing --they did not murder anyone or torture them! Some are in the jails for Marijuana Crimes -- Jail is not a place to be! It's a hole that one only has to be in to know just how inhumane it is. ONLY those who have no idea what goes on there would say negative things like some of those written here. JAILS and PRISONS are places of HUMAN UNKINDNESS and a prime example of man's inhumanity to man. It is a place where souls may be lost forever because people don't give a damn about them. When a human feels like no one cares, he may not care about himself or his fellow man! No need to give them books to read or even let them have paper and pen. In case you don't know it, the prisoners must have someone in their corner to send them money for SOAP, STAMPS, PAPER, COFFEE. THE COMMISSARY is the place where they get these "luxuries." Spend one night in jail and then tell me about doing the time and all that jargon. Even if you have a fight with your spouse and one just dares to push the other, JAIL TIME IS A MUST if the police come out to your home (in this state anyway) and, my friend's wife of 25 years called the police for this very reason. When this law-abiding man, veteran, was incarcerated, he was treated like dirt! Luckily, he got out in about 24 hours, but for those who cannot get out of jail, it is hell;dirty, smelly, hell holes!

7:14AM PDT on Apr 29, 2011

I find it amusing that the same system that releases some violent inmates to commit more crimes and provides an environment that breeds harsher criminals isn't at all interested in letting these people become educated to "rehabilitate" them. These people are still humans with rights and if you take away theirs believe yours won't be far behind and they can find any reason under the sun to take them because none of us are angels. Take a look at prisons in other countries that allow inmates families to visit them in a positive environment and make programs available that weren't ever made available to them. They don't have the high number of reoffenses like we do. It's simple like this: lock a human up treat them like an animal and our animalistic instincts appear give someone the opportunity to grow strong family bonds and give them a chance at intellect and the chances increase at having a more productive citizen.
Before the grace of god there go I

10:48AM PDT on Apr 25, 2011

What these people don't seem to realize is that once someone is in jail, they've already done their crime. Reading Shakespeare is not going to make them go out and do it again. All banning these books does to the inmates is rile them up and turn them against the officials making these decisions - instead of being able to find a release in books, they find anger that one of their escapes are being taken away.

9:59AM PDT on Apr 25, 2011

Do the crime-do the time.

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