News & Politics

Prisons Ban Books (Except the Bible)

Nationwide, the works of Toni Morrison, Sojourner Truth and even Shakespeare have reportedly been banned in prisons.

WhenMalcolm X made the transition from a crimminal to a Civil Rights icon he credited the books he was able to read while in prison for his success. But the catalyst that took a man from the streets to the history books is often denied to those incarcerated today as many U.S. prisons have started banning most reading materials.

Nationwide,the works of Toni Morrison and Sojourner Truth have reportedly been banned in prisons, even Shakespeare. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a suit against the Berkeley County Jail in South Carolina, because inmates there are allegedly only allowed to read the Bible. And by July this year, the Connecticut Department of Corrections plans to further limit the books inmates there can read over concerns that an ex-con took part in the notorious Petit family murders in 2007 after reading violent books in prison.

“The idea that this horrific crime was a result of what they read in jail and not other factors is simplistic,” said David C. Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, to theLoop21. “The Bible contains many scenes of appalling violence and cruelty, but no one suggests that prisoners should not be allowed to read the Bible.”

A publication called the Prison Legal News (PLN), which produces materials informing inmates of their rights, is the plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit against Berkeley County Detention Center, along with the U.S. Justice Department. In 2008, a staffer at the jail allegedly told a PLN staffer that the publication was banned there due to its Bible-only policy.

PLN editor Paul Wright told theLoop21 that over the last 10 to 15 years, correctional facilities have become increasingly likely to implement policies of blanket censorship on reading materials. During that timeframe, he said that PLN has been involved in a few dozen lawsuits involving reading bans in prisons. He said the inclination towards censorship reflects how “overall, all Americans’ civil and constitutional rights are being undermined, not just in prisons and jails.”

While no one’s arguing that prisoners should be reading books that instruct them on, say, picking locks or tunnel digging to help them escape, imposing blanket bans on what they can read does a disservice to them and to society generally. Campus Progress points out, for example, that there’s a direct correlation between illiteracy and incarceration. Like Malcolm X when he entered prison, an estimated 70 percent of inmates cannot read above a grade school level. That figure grows to 85 percent among juvenile inmates. Given that at 38.3 percent,  the number of African Americans in prison is nearly triple their share of the U.S. population overall, reading bans in correctional facilities directly impact the ability of many African American immates to educate themselves.

Reading has long been used as a vehicle to help rehabilitate prisoners.

“Research shows the best predictors that a prisoner will be able to return to the community and live a productive life depends on whether they’ve maintained connections to the outside word,” Fathi said. “Allowing prisoners to receive books, newspapers and magazine helps them engage and is very important from a public safety standpoint.”

The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was just one high-profile advocate for protecting prisoners’ right to read. He argued, “When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.” 

In the effort to get tough on crime there has been an overall shift to prison being about solely about punishment, not about rehabilitation. But with so many prison inmates being addicts or having severe mental health needs, our prisons have become the new asylums and rehab clinics. A prison record already reduces the chances of employment post-release for most ex-convicts. If denied even the basics of rehabilitation -- reading for self-enrichment -- what hope is there for those convicted to ever have a productive life outside of the penal system?

Brief sentences become defacto "life sentences" as drug and non-violent crime offenders are trapped behind a label they cannot shake.

Nadra Kareem Nittle is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Racialicious.com, About.com and other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter @NadraKareem.
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