Prison Book-Banning Policies Called Arbitrary and Self-Serving

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Every year, the American Library Association declares the final week of September "Banned Books Week," commemorated in many libraries with displays designed to highlight often-overreaching censorship of school and public libraries.

This year, however, a far-flung wave of stories in many publications highlighted a different sort of book banning -- that enforced by state prison officials around the nation. While far from the only target, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and its policies on allowable reading material for its approximately 140,000 state prison inmates came under particularly harsh criticism.

You're probably familiar with the saying that things are bigger in Texas. That's certainly true for the Lone Star State's list of taboo titles for prisoners. The TDCJ has compiled a database listing over 15,000 titles that it won't allow in prison libraries, or even let inmates receive from friends or family.

In 2011, the Texas Civil Rights Project issued a report detailing the state prison system's censorship mechanisms, and reported some surprising results. Numerous best-selling works by mainstream novelists -- such as John Grisham, Stephen King, and James Patterson -- are on the list of banned books, along with volumes from humorists George Carlin and Jon Stewart. So are classic works by George Orwell, Gustave Flaubert, St. Thomas More's Utopia, and even one paperback edition of Shakespeare's sonnets (for an offending Renaissance-style nude on the cover).

TDCJ outlines six rationales for excluding material: it contains contraband; provides info on making drugs, weapons or explosives; aims to support strikes, riots, or gang activity; encourages deviant criminal sexual behavior; gives instructions on setting up criminal schemes; or has sexually explicit images.

But censorship decisions - mostly made by low-level clerks checking on whether a title is one the forbidden list, and, if not, quickly perusing the book or magazine for suspect material - produce wildly arbitrary, inconsistent or even bizarre results. If an inmate appeals, a review board decides, and once an appeal is denied, the work is permanently banned.

The many critics of the Texas prison censorship system call the system self-serving for its strong tendency to bar works that touch on racial or civil rights themes or look critically at the prison system or incarceration conditions. The novel The Color Purple, an oral history of civil rights movement leaders, and even Friday Night Lights, a memoir of small-town high school football, proved too inflammatory to gain entry to Texas prisons. Yet Hitler's Mein Kampf or Louisiana KKK leader David Duke's writings are cleared.

Similarly, a history of TDCJ itself wasn't allowed in, supposedly due to a paragraph in which a female inmate claims that her life of drug abuse, crime and incarceration stems from an incestuous sexual assault she suffered as a young girl. A better-known work not on the TDCJ's taboo list: Lolita.

TDCJ's censorship policies were unsuccessfully challenged several years ago by the Texas Civil Rights Project, which argued that blocking Prison Legal News from delivering numerous book titles to Texas prison inmates violated their civil rights. But the 5th Circuit federal appeals court ruled that TDCJ's censorship decisions would be upheld as long as they could claim to be rationally related to legitimate prison interests.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com