Banning Books in Prison

By Chaka Holley

Many were shocked when Gary Indiana, a decaying city with a population of 100,000, announced the closing of the city’s main library. Due to budget cuts, the library board voted 4-3 to close the bankrupted city’s main branch. The public response was not in favor of this decision.  For many, the public library was their only access to books and other resources.

Gary is not alone; prisons are also limiting access to reading materials. These limits are not due to budget cuts however, but to prohibition.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing South Carolina’s Berkeley County Jail for prohibiting all books outside of the Bible. In Connecticut, the department of corrections is following suit. Similarly, other prisons around the country are also under scrutiny for banning books.

Both in Berkley and Connecticut officials have claimed that the bans are for safety reasons.  A Berkley spokesperson noted that some books contained staples and could potentially be used for adverse purposes. This attempt to reduce harm to staff and other inmates appears reasonable, until information surfaced that the jail routinely sold notebooks with staples to inmates. These sales were only discontinued after the ACLU filed a law suit.

The Connecticut department of corrections claims that, after reading violent books in prison, a parolee  participated in the murder of 3 people and the brutal beating of another.   Presumably, other factors also played a role in the parolee’s behavior.

Education level impacts the likelihood of incarceration.  Children who are not reading by third grade are likely to go to prison. In California, if a child isn’t reading on 4th grade level when tested the state budgets for building another prison cell.  75% of prisoners read below a 12th grade level and 19% of inmates are fully illiterate .

Many inmates read to educate themselves or simply to pass time. Reading helps them stay informed about the past and the present. The more in touch inmates returning into society are, the greater the chance of a successful re-entry.

Sanctioning books reveals a blatant disrespect for inmate autonomy. The stripping of autonomy as a source of punishment is counter-productive. Retributive justice (“an eye for an eye”) serves to punish rather than to rehabilitate. Restorative justice, on the other hand, responds to the needs of offenders in order to repair the damage done to the victim and to reform the offender.

Inmates are reformed as they take responsibility for their actions. Choice is a key component in empowerment and is necessary for change.  Reading bans remove personal responsibility and replace it with a Bible.

There is little justice in our justice system.  Prisons fail both the prisoner and the larger society. Self-worth is an essential component to success. When prisoners return to society with low self esteem it is challenging for them to succeed and become productive citizens.

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, states that “education is a precondition of survival in America today”. When books are held hostage, so are the minds of those lacking access to them. Until the criminal justice system lives up to its name, lady justice will never lose her blindfold.

3 thoughts on “Banning Books in Prison

  1. This was a great and informative article. Thank you! I especially liked the part about punishment vs. rehabilitation. Very insightful.

  2. That’s sickening…P.E.N. should be notified if they haven’t heard already…

  3. The issues go beyond literacy to due process and teaching respect for law. I was imprisoned by USMS in a state jail for 4 months. (I don’t have a criminal record and wasn’t charged with a federal offense. I wasn’t arraigned, there was no bail hearing and no speedy trial notice. I was told in the federal court hearing by the insurance defense lawyer who requested that former judge Edward Nottingham imprison me that I didn’t have a right to a lawyer or a right to an evidentiary hearing.)

    I combed their library for books that would help me and I also tried to help my other inmates. All that was there was an incomplete set of American Jurisprudence. Even though 40 % of the prisoners were federal holds, there was no information on federal habeas and no copy of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure or Title 18.

    If you remember not that long ago, the Government Printing Office was printing all sorts of volumes. I think they must still have those web printers around somewhere and probably giant rolls of paper too. My theory is that if we want to reduce recidivism we need to get prisoners to buy into the idea of Rule of Law by treating them with perfect respect for their rights and encouraging them to educate themselves about law so that they can assist their lawyers or represent themselves if necessary. I think the feds should print off legal materials using their warehoused printers and surplus paper and provide each prisoner with legal materials. If the government printing office is supplying the books, there will be no security issues.

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