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Prison Libraries Ban Literature, Raise Controversy

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Alcatraz shut down in 1963, leaving just this sign of its prison library. Recent controversies are bubbling up again over what kinds of literature inmates should be allowed to have.

CREDIT: Flickr / Banlon1964

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 listof 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.

Courtney Young is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can e-mail her at thethirtymilewoman@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @cocacy.

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