Last week, following a public outcry, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced he would suspend a pilot program that would have severely restricted books in state prisons and left 50,000 inmates in veritable information darkness. The program would have prohibited inmates from receiving any packages that weren’t bought through approved vendors, which critics pointed out carried very few books on topics outside religion and puzzles.
But while New York’s inmates were spared this program for now, prisoners across the country still contend with policies that ban or restrict access to books and other reading materials, for reasons ranging from reasonable to arbitrary to downright bizarre.
Prisoners in Alabama are banned from being in book clubs. In Michigan and Ohio, prisoners are barred from reading books that teach computer skills. In Michigan, the computer programming manual C++ For Dummies was kept out of a prison in 2012 because it posed a “threat to the order/security of institution.” The same reasoning applied to a book about Egyptian hieroglyphics.
On the list of tens of thousands of books Texas has banned in its prisons are The Essential Gore Vidal and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Last week, following reports that two New Jersey prisons had banned Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the state quickly reversed the prohibition.
Books are important for everyone, but access to books is crucial for prisoners. Inmates have no or very limited access to the internet, so reading is a way to stay connected to society, if not to just pass time. Policies on book access for prisoners are widely divergent, and sometimes bafflingly inconsistent, across state, federal, and private prisons.
Mostly, the governing bodies keep the process and criteria for banning books frustratingly opaque. For some clues as to what goes into these decisions, however, a document from the state of Pennsylvania is particularly revealing. Unlike other states’ departments of corrections, Pennsylvania’s publishes a document that lists what books make it in, alongside the ones that are prohibited, sometimes with detailed reasons.
The list, a spreadsheet containing over 500 items, shows publications that were sent to prisoners and initially banned by the local prison, then were sent up the chain for further review after the prisoner appealed the decision. So it’s only a partial record of the total books banned and permitted across the state.
Still, taken as a whole, the spreadsheet paints a dystopian picture of bureaucrats and mailroom inspectors poring over hobbyist books and magazines, looking for clearly defined nipples and tips on reading body language. But it also gives a window into the subjective attempts on the part of prison management to decode pages of fine print on what Pennsylvania prisoners can read.
The result is that a how-to on drawing nude figures and a book of fairies illustrated as pin-up girls have been banned, but an essay collection called Hot Cougar Sex, erotica called House of Dark Delights, and pop-science book Female Ejaculation all were permitted, presumably because they are narrative-based. A book called How to Sue Everyone: Ready-to-Use Legal Letters to Terrorize Friends & Family, by Andrew Harley, was also allowed into prison. So was The New Jim Crow, a book by a legal scholar who argues that mass incarceration of black Americans on drug offenses has undermined many gains of the civil rights movement.
“The Department of Corrections publication review policy is designed to allow inmates to have access to the widest possible array of publications,” writes Amy Worden, a press secretary for the Pennsylvania DOC, by email. “Publications are denied only as necessary to ensure the safety, security and rehabilitation requirements inherent in the operation of a prison.”
Here’s a sample from the list:
Book: Body Language 101: The Ultimate Guide to Knowing When People Are Lying, How They Are Feeling, What They Are Thinking, and More
Author: David Lamber
Reason: “security—ways to deceive others”
Book: Hollywood in Kodachrome
Author: David Wills
Reason: “Nudity – nipples with less than opaque covering”
Book: The Millionaire Prisoner: Special TCB Edition
Author: Joshua Kruger
Reason: “Running/marketing a business from within the prison”
Book: The Nude Female Figure (A Visual Reference for the Artist)
Author: Mark Edward Smith
Reason: “This book was originally permitted; (1/5/16) however, it was re-reviewed and shall be DENIED. Inmates are not using this material for artistic purposes.”
Book: Fairy Song: A Gallery of Fairies, Sprites, and Nymphs
Reason: “Nudity/Sexually Explicit Nature, Minors”
Publication: GQ: vol. 87, issue 3
Reason: “Ways in which to make hoses to deficate (sic) on inmate in next cell; fill milk cartons with feces to destroy cells; making weapons from hose clamps, how hep C patients brew feces to throw on others, etc.”
Book: Robert’s Rules of Order: 11th Edition
Author: Henry M. Robert III, et al.
Reason: “This book is NOT a book used to create or maintain a government. It is a guideline on how to successfully establish and run a meeting.”
Publication: Interview: vol. XLVII
Reason: “This publication is not intended for sexual arrousal (sic) and the one photo in question is of no concern.”
Book: The Complete Book of Voodoo
Author: Robert W. Pelton
Reason: “This publication does not cause a threat to the facility”
Book: The Complete Book of Spells, Ceremonies & Magic
Author: Migene González-Wippler
Reason: “Reviewed by Religious and Legal Services. Legal Services noted that this is a historical study of magic/religion and it does not endorse the practices it describes. Therefore, it should be permitted.”
Publication: Inked: issue 88
Reason: “These photos are of breast cancer survivors and how they covered their scars. This is not something to arouse or be sexually suggestive.”
Book: Dungeons and Dragons Gaming Books
Reason: “The status of this was changed due to re-review and conversations with security. It is felt that any publications regarding D&D shall be permitted, UNLESS there are cards. No cards shall be permitted, only written materials. “