September 28, 2016
Prisoners in Texas are allowed to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but not Jon Stewart’s America
by Julia Fleischaker
In a piece published Tuesday at Quartz, Thu-Huong Ha writes:
Each US state has their own policies for what books and magazines to let into prisons, and the rules aren’t clear or consistent. And as the Guardian reports, Texas is one of the strictest, with a statewide ban on selected titles including Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning The Color Purple, 14th century Italian epic poem Inferno, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, and Jacob Riis’s 1890 photography book about poverty, How the Other Half Lives.
Speaking with Stuart Miller at the Guardian, Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News, said that there are currently 15,000 banned books on the Texas list, a number that’s “growing exponentially. Once a book goes on it never comes off.”
Dan Slater, who is interviewed in Miller’s article, has also written at Slate about the experience of seeing his own book banned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel was banned because it “allegedly contains material about ‘criminal schemes’ related to smuggling and jury tampering.” Slater writes:
“Criminal schemes” are one of TDCJ’s six grounds for banning a book. Of TDCJ’s other five grounds, two are indisputably sound: books that contain contraband, such as drugs tucked inside the cover; and books that contain information about how to manufacture drugs, explosives, or other weapons. The next two grounds are harder to justify: books that contain sexually explicit images; and books determined to be “detrimental to offenders’ rehabilitation” by encouraging “deviant criminal sexual behavior.” The sixth and broadest ground—a prohibition against books determined to have been written “solely for the purpose” of achieving the breakdown of prisons through strikes, riots, or gang activity—permits the prison to ban pretty much any book about civil rights that uses the word “nigger.” Tragically, it has been used repeatedly for just that purpose.
According to Slater, that last rule has justified the TDCJ banning “dozens of books about race from authors as varied as Noam Chomsky, Langston Hughes, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Studs Terkel, Sojourner Truth, and Richard Wright. Yet, while classics such as H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about Texas high school football, and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, a history of Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers, have been banned for their discussions of race—i.e. use of the N-word—TDCJ permits prisoners to read many of the most racist books ever written, including Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf and David Duke’s My Awakening.”
Even though there’s an official list, the Guardian quotes Michelle Dillon, who works with the Seattle-based non-profit Books to Prisoners, as saying “there is no accountability.” She adds that “inmates have complained that one clerk might ban a book that another would let through, either because the one clerk is grouchy, doesn’t like the prisoner for whom it is intended, or has more conservative values.” Miller adds that “Wright says any minority viewpoint — racial, ethnic, political or religious is especially likely to be shot down.”
His experiences looking at the regulations, and the way they’re enforced, left Slater disheartened.
“It’s like we’re living in the dark ages,” Slater says. “I believe strongly in the power of knowledge and enlightenment and in what books can do, especially for someone who is down and who feels a connection to a story.”
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.