Written by Jeff Rose
A recent Dallas Morning News article reports that many surprising books are banned from Texas prisons (like a book of Shakespearean sonnets and The Color Purple, while books like Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and some works produced by Ku Klux Klan are not.
Sounds off, right? The Texas Department of Criminal Justice lists several reasons a book may be banned. One book, Freakeconomics, which considers everyday concepts and explains their economic impact, is banned because it has racial content that may encourage disruptive behavior known to cause prison breakdowns. But pro-segregation books by David Duke, former KKK grand imperial wizard, are not banned for what could arguably cause more disruptive behavior.
While some books are understandably banned, such as ones that depict violent or illegal acts, or (notably) one pop-up edition of A Charlie Brown Christmas—which is banned for potentially hiding contraband materials within—there appear to be some inconsistencies in this procedure. If a book like John Grisham’s A Time to Kill is banned, why isn’t Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho? If a book like Hell’s Angels by Hunter Thompson is banned for sexually perverse material, then why isn’t Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov?
While I’m certainly not trying to give Texas prisons more ideas of what to ban, it’s obvious that their bans are so inherently subjective that there are too many inconsistent examples. The current system of banning books forces the mailroom staff at each prison to review publications. It’s a structure that is bound to created more flawed bans.
Banning these books could have many negative impacts on the nearly 150,000 inmates in Texas prisons. A 1994 study illustrates how many inmates in state and federal prisons are illiterate or struggle to read at higher rates than the rest of the U.S. population.
To have over 10,000 books banned fails to promote a system of self-learning and escapism from inmates’ lives in the prison system.
There are several ways to work around including these banned books. One way could be to only permit certain books to stay within the prison library and to be read under supervision, like the aforementioned pop-up book. This could also be done for books that detail criminal schemes or prison life. If certain inmates were incarcerated for illegal sexual acts, they would not be permitted access to books with sexual themes for a certain period of their sentence. Same could go for prisoners who were convicted of illegal drug acts, violence, etc. These are not ideal methods, but they’re certainly better than outright banning certain books from every inmate.
Our Texas prisoners deserve the right to read what books they want. If you want to learn more about books in prison systems or send a book to a prison, check out Books 2 Prisons and the Prison Book Program, as well as this list of local organizations.