When a prisoner is behind bars, he or she typically has access to a library of donated books to pass the time. There are stories about incarcerated people getting their GED or even taking college classes, others learned enough law to fight for appeals. Then some just read the classics available on the shelves. That is, unless you’re in jail in Texas.
According to the Houston Press, the type of books available are growing smaller and smaller each year. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has consistently been working to rid jails of specific titles for decades, but after banning Wolf Boys due to finding a single page to be offensive, they’re finally drawing public outrage.
The new Dan Slater book is about two Mexican-American teenagers in Texas. They get drawn into a life of crime by the drug cartels and a Mexican-born Texas detective is tasked with finding them. According to reviews, the tale is a little violent and the outlook isn’t great, but according to The Guardian, it serves as a “thoughtful look at American society and the war on drugs.”
Before the book was even published, it was banned due to two sentences that described the way someone smuggled illegal drugs.
“The system is so aggressive and arbitrary,” the author said. “If you asked me to name 100 sentences that might have gotten my book banned those would not have made the list.”
But Slater’s book isn’t the only strange choice. Books by Langston Hughes, Gore Vidal, Flannery O’Connor, Sinclair Lewis and Thomas More have all been banned.
The guidelines for Texas are so loose that realistically anyone could ban any book for any reason. They were supposed to be banned if there is any mention of how to make weapons, drugs or explosives and if there is anything in the book that would “incite a prison riot” or has “sexually explicit images.” By that same logic, The Bible depicts murder, rape, sex and one of it’s leading characters encourages breaking laws and revolts against the King.
Strangely enough, books The Color Purple, which won a Pulitzer Prize, has been banned. A book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets was banned because of a nude painting on the cover. Dante’s Inferno and Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights are also on the blocked list. A collection of Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches was also banned for nudity, but a kinky sex book titled The Pleasure’s All Mine passed through. To make matters worse, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and David Duke’s My Awakening also get the Texas Corrections sign of approval. As does Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare, proving the book ban is not only arbitrary but ridiculous.
A 2011 investigation from the Texas Civil Rights Project found about 11,800 titles on the banned list. In just five years that’s grown to over 15,000.
While the issue is a national problem, Michelle Dillon, program coordinator of the Seattle-based non-profit Books to Prisoners, told The Guardian, “Texas is less rational than other states.”
To make matters worse, the decision of whether to ban is essentially left up to a mail clerk, who decides when books come in if they’ll be passed through to the inmate or not.
“There is no accountability,” Dillon says. She also noted there’s no consistency because one clerk will let a book go to the inmate while another will ban the same book because he or she is having a bad day or even because he or she has conservative values.
“We understand there are sometimes concerns,” said Deborah Caldwell Stone of the American Library Association. But if that was the rule, it would be more about taking specific books from specific prisoners. Books like Lolita probably shouldn’t go to those in prison for pedophilia or child pornography, for example.
“Unfortunately, the courts have not been friendly to us and support the rights of prison officials instead of the rights of prisoners to educate and rehabilitate themselves,” Stone concluded.