By: Sarah Hicks
It should not, at this point, be a surprise to anyone that the United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world. While we have only 5 percent of the world’s population, we have a whopping 25 percent of the world’s prison population, and an incarceration rate of 716 per 100,000 people. The state that imprisons the most people is Texas, and Texas prisons have a censorship problem.
According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, books in state prisons can be banned “if they: 1) Contain contraband 2) Contain information about manufacturing explosives, drugs or weapons 3) Are written “solely for the purpose of” “achiev[ing] the breakdown of prisons” through strikes, riots or gang activity 4) The prison makes “a specific determination … that the publication is detrimental to offenders’ rehabilitation because it would encourage deviant criminal sexual behavior” 5) Have instructions on how to set up “criminal schemes” or 6) contain “sexually explicit images.”
This seems like a fairly straightforward list, but a lack of clear guidelines means that the decision to ban a book is usually up to one single prison employee. Most of these books end up banned when someone attempts to send one to a prisoner and someone in the mailroom decides to not give it to the intended recipient. In 2008 alone, prisoners were prevented from receiving 11,544 books. This resulted in 2,472 appeals, but it seems that only half of these were even reviewed.
So let me backtrack a little and explain exactly why this is a problem and what exactly is ending up banned. When someone sends a book to a prisoner in a Texas state prison, that book is checked against a list of “acceptable” materials. If the books is not on the list, then it’s up to mailroom workers to decide, based on the above guidelines, if the book is allowable or not. These workers aren’t really trained for this, and so the results are often pretty arbitrary. Books on the Civil Rights movement or books by groundbreaking African-American authors are banned for including the “n-word,” while books by neo-Nazis and white supremacists are totally allowed. A book with a classic nude painting on the cover might be banned solely due to nude painting and not the content, but Lolita is fine. And, again, the appeal process is difficult and rarely amounts to anything.
Now, this is not a new story. The details of this were revealed by Texas civil rights groups starting in 2011, and there was a bit of a buzz about it last fall, thanks to author Dan Slater. And while it may not seem like a huge deal to ban any number of books from getting into the hands of the more than 140,000 people in Texas’ state prisons, it’s does a lot of harm. As the 2011 Texas Civil Rights Project report notes, “reading habits correlate with being an active participant in one’s community, a skill that is critical to both social and individual well-being. Reading can enhance a prisoner’s ability for internal reflection, a skill prisoners commonly lack … As prisoners read about fictional characters, they consider the situation the characters find themselves in … Furthermore, social interaction is benefited through reading because the reader analyzes and engages in the social interactions of the characters in the story.” Reading, it seems, is one of the most beneficial things someone can do while imprisoned.
If we are truly standing for intellectual freedom, which includes the freedom to read, we must also extend our efforts to people in prison. While outrage on behalf of censorship in schools or public libraries is easier in many ways, if we ignore this issue in Texas prisons, we are absolutely neglecting the more than 2 million Americans imprisoned nationwide. Without pushback, the issues in Texas can easily spread to other states, and, in fact, they may have begun to already. It may not be possible for us to do much about the Texas situation, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be aware of intellectual freedom issues in our own states’ prisons.
Sarah Hicks is a current MLIS student at the University of Pittsburgh, and works in a local public library. She has long been passionate about issues regarding intellectual freedom, and believes that these issues are becoming increasingly important worldwide, especially those related to privacy, surveillance, and censorship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as certain stereotypes about librarians are not wholly untrue, she is both an avid reader (of many genres) and a total cat lady. Sarah can sometimes be found @exactlibrarian.