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Sun Dec 1, 2019, 11:05 AM

Books Have the Power to Rehabilitate. But Prisons Are Blocking Access to Them.

Books Have the Power to Rehabilitate. But Prisons Are Blocking Access to Them.
No Ulysses, Where’s Waldo?, or The New Jim Crow: Welcome to “the nation’s largest book ban.”
By Samantha Michaels; Photos by Carlos ChavarríaJanuary/February 2020 Issue

Behind the walls of California State Prison, Sacramento, six inmates gather in the library for their weekly short-story club. The librarian introduces the day’s pick, Doris Lessing’s A Sunrise on the Veld, and the men take turns reading it aloud. Some of them lean forward in their chairs as they listen; one traces the words with his index finger. It almost feels like a classroom, except that the library’s computers don’t connect to the internet, and there’s no natural light. A back room holds metal cages where prisoners with behavioral problems can do legal research. About half the books are donated, many from a public library, and the pickings are slim: Nonfiction is kept behind the counter, and most of the fiction is locked away in a small room.

About half the books that make up the library collection at California State Prison, Sacramento, are donated.

But for Michael Blanco, who is 19 years into an 87-to-life sentence, this represents a vast improvement. At his last prison, he says the librarians stocked the shelves largely with books inmates had requested from family and nonprofits. Still, California has one of the better prison library programs. The state spends $350,000 annually on recreational books for prisoners, much more than other states do.

Citing concerns about contraband, officials around the country are ratcheting up restrictions on what gets into prison libraries. They say there’s been an uptick of drug smuggling via books, whose pages can be soaked with synthetic marijuana or other potent liquids. In September 2018, Pennsylvania’s corrections department temporarily banned all book donations after dozens of prison staffers landed in the emergency room with tingling skin, headaches, and dizziness after handling inmates’ belongings. New York, Maryland, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have adopted similar policies, and Washington state banned most used books from its prisons, though all eventually backtracked because of public outrage.

Even in places without wholesale bans, corrections departments are cracking down. Florida blocks 20,000 titles and Texas blocks 10,000 titles they claim could stir up disorder. A recent report by PEN America decried similar restrictions around the country as so arbitrary and sweeping as to effectively be “the nation’s largest book ban.” Texas prisons have prohibited Where’s Waldo? and a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets with racy illustrations. Literary groups and activists banded together to protest the censorship in Florida prisons by appealing to the Supreme Court in the fall of 2018. “Access to compelling books can be a godsend,” they wrote in an amicus brief, “for both prisoners and the rest of us, who benefit when prisoners have constructive outlets and better odds of rehabilitation.”



The Prison Censors

A sampling of censorship documented by groups that send free books to inmates:

In 2018, a prison rejected a used copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style because the first page had a spider carcass on it.

A New York prison banned a book of lunar maps because it would “present risks of escape.”

In 2009, Texas censors blocked The Elements of Persuasion: Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Faster and Win More Business, because it “could be used to persuade others.”

Pennsylvania once banned manuals for Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy game, because they could supposedly encourage insurrection or guerrilla warfare against the government or create danger within a prison.

In 2008, a federal prison in Colorado barred an inmate from reading Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope—arguing the former president’s memoirs were potentially detrimental to national security. (The prisoner was an al-Qaeda member convicted of planning to assassinate George W. Bush, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons later reversed the ban.)

Censors stopped an Arizona inmate from reading Gray’s Anatomy because it might inspire him to request more health care, and because diagrams of human anatomy were “sexually explicit.”

In 2017, Texas’ list of banned books included Freakonomics, a bestselling book that applies economic theory to unexpected topics, because a quote with a racial epithet in a chapter about the Ku Klux Klan meant it was “designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption.” But censors have allowed inmates to read two books written by former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.

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Reply Books Have the Power to Rehabilitate. But Prisons Are Blocking Access to Them. (Original post)
babylonsister Dec 1 OP
Brainstormy Dec 1 #1
marybourg Dec 1 #2
happybird Dec 1 #3

Response to babylonsister (Original post)

Sun Dec 1, 2019, 11:35 AM

1. we had a Norton Anthology of English poetry

which we sent to an inmate rejected by the prison system here in Georgia. Too subversive I suppose.

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Response to babylonsister (Original post)

Sun Dec 1, 2019, 11:58 AM

2. I regularly buy paperback dictionaries at book sales

and donate them to a nonprofit collecting books for prisons. That’s their most requested book. Sometimes I slip in a subversive book, but I don’t know how far it gets.

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Response to babylonsister (Original post)

Sun Dec 1, 2019, 01:28 PM

3. I send books to a friend in jail

they have to be shipped directly from Amazon. No third party sellers, all books must be shipped by Amazon, only. When he first went in, I called to ask about restrictions: no porn, no books about tattoos. That seems reasonable, and nothing I’ve sent (much of it subversive because he’s a subverted kind of guy, lol) has been rejected. But that’s just regular jail...

He’s finally being sentenced this month and will be moved to federal prison. It will be interesting to see what rules the new place will have about books.

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