Utopia is banned in Texas prisons? It’s Banned Books Week

Utopia is banned in Texas prisons? It’s Banned Books Week

It’s Banned Books Week again:

Official Site

“Banned Books Week is the national book community’s annual celebration of the freedom to read.”

Since 1982, the group (which includes the American Library Association) has listed the most “challenged” books.

I write about this every year, and my feelings on it are simple and I think pretty clear. Reading books is a good thing. Reading diverse books is a good thing. Limiting the books people read, as a rule of thumb, is a bad thing.

I can understand banning the distribution or sale of books which infringe copyright: that’s not the same thing as banning the book, it’s enforcing the law on a particular version or circulation of a book.

This year, I thought I’d highlight a particular issue: books banned in prisons.

Let’s start with this article from The Guardian (a British newspaper):

The Guardian article by Stuart Miller

It talks specifically about the Texas Department of Criminal Justice banning a wide variety of books for prisoners.

It kicks off talking about Wolf Boys, a non-fiction book which doesn’t encourage drug use…but does have a short section on an obvious way to smuggle drugs, which is apparently why it was banned.

I would have linked to it…but the publisher has blocked text-to-speech** access, which is another whole issue and not, let me stress, equivalent.

This is the government preventing prisoners from getting books…legal censorship for a particular population.

Now, unquestionably, prisoners have fewer rights than the non-prison population. As a simple example, they can’t freely assemble within the prison…they can be told specifically they can’t gather together.

I tried to find an official list of all the books that are banned…and was stymied in several attempts. I found broken 404 links, and comments (including from news organizations) about not being able to get such a list.

That seems a bit odd. Doesn’t seem like the family of a prisoner, who might buy a paper copy of a book and send it to a prisoner, should know if it will be confiscated and the rules offended? They might not want to break the rules: but how can they do that if they don’t know what they are? Sure, I can see a spot decision made on a book which has not been previously evaluated, but you might as well tell people the books about which you’ve already decided.

I’ve seen some books listed, but can’t confirm them…hence the “?” in my headline.

I saw a report that they ban

Utopia (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

This is a 16th Century book by Thomas More about a fictional society…the word has come into common use as a “perfect society”, but I’m sure that’s not how people tend to seriously interpret it (for one thing, slavery is part of the society…although the slaves do have gold chains).

On the other hand, I’ve seen a report that Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler is permitted.

I would give prisoners free access to any legally produced books.

I can immediately see some objections raised.

Sexually explicit material?

Sure, that’s fine with me, when legally produced.

Books on making bombs? If they are legal, I’m not banning them. What, you think when criminals have served their terms they can’t get those books on the outside? They won’t have the materials they need in the prison…you aren’t preventing them from learning how to make bombs, you are just delaying it.

Racist/homophobic/sexist books and so on?

Yes, I would allow that. I wouldn’t have the government determining what fits certain rules and what doesn’t. Fifty years ago, many topics which we consider to be acceptable, even empowering today, would have been banned as potentially dangerous…that they would make people not “right thinking”.

I suspect that unfettered access to public libraries for prisoners would have a net positive effect on reducing future criminal acts.

I don’t have the evidence for that…just my feeling. I would guess that the TDCJ doesn’t have science that shows that reading a book that advocates hatred against a protected group being read by prisoners actually increases activity against that group.

I don’t know much about them, but I did run across this organization:

Books to Prisoners

You can choose to support them through


if you like…maybe just for this week. There are other organizations you can support that way that may tie into this issue, of course.

All of this reminds me of the campaign against comic books in the 1950s, covered more than ably in

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

by David Hadju, which I recommend.

That’s not to equate prisoners with children, but in both cases, the concept is that reading may corrupt the morals of a population (although, clearly, there are other justifications given for banning books for prisoners, including, as noted above, practical knowledge).

What do you think? Should prisoners have free access to books? If not, which types of books should be banned? Why should they be banned? Is it because of the impact of the book on the prisoner, or as a form of punishment? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

** A Kindle/Fire with text-to-speech can read any text downloaded to it…unless that access is blocked by the publisher inserting code into the file to prevent it. That’s why you can have the device read personal documents to you (I’ve done that). I believe that this sort of access blocking disproportionately disadvantages the disabled, although I also believe it is legal (provided that there is at least one accessible version of each e-book available, however, that one can require a certification of disability). For that reason, I don’t deliberately link to books which block TTS access here (although it may happen accidentally, particularly if the access is blocked after I’ve linked it). I do believe this is a personal decision, and there  are legitimate arguments for purchasing those books.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

10 Responses to “Utopia is banned in Texas prisons? It’s Banned Books Week”

  1. Phink Says:

    I have never been to prison so I can’t say for certain but I bet that part about sexual abuse in prison and rape does happen. I mean these people don’t go there for singing in the Church choir. Some are deranged, dangerous, and care little about anyone else.

    That is why I think any book or magazine that shows any nudity (possibly even semi-nudity) should be banned. I’m not sure it will help with the above situation but visual aids of sexual exploits would probably make the situation worse. No data to back that up but just my guess.

    I normally am against banning any books because I am a lover of freedom above all else. Who is to decide what is right or wrong? However, I have very little if any sympathy for those that prey on society. Just yesterday a young lady, working trying to take care of her family in NE Arkansas, was murdered leaving work. If they catch the sub-human who did this then I really don’t care if he gets to read at all or not.

    I sometimes sound heartless but I am actually extremely compassionate and that is what makes me so angry at those that will snuff out a life, or rape a woman, or sell drugs to kids etc. I could not care less about their reading needs. Yes, I know there might be some in there that just made a stupid mistake at a young age and if we could take it on a case by case basis then I’d feel different about it but we can’t do that. I wish we could but we can’t.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Phink!

      I understand and appreciate your empathy.

      A deranged person should be in a mental health facility, rather than in this prison population. That’s a different situation: a mental health professional there might certainly judge that specific books (or other objects, for that matter) would impede recovery. I would be fine with that: I would tend to trust a mental health professional’s judgement for an ill person.

      In terms of viewing nudity (I’ll admit I was thinking more of books with text, like novels, but I suppose the rule would also have to apply to books/periodicals with pictures), I don’t know what impact that has on people who have committed sexual violence. As I understand it, that is usually more about violence than sex…that viewing pictures of nudes doesn’t encourage rape (reading a book from the point of view of a rapist might be different).

      However, I think that, if there was evidence for it, that books could be separated for different types of prisoners. Remember that many prisoners are there for drug offenses (with no violence involved). There are white collar crimes. There are many types of felonies that don’t involve violence.

      The question is whether reading the books can help rehabilitate people. If it can, keeping books away seems to be a mistake. If the books neither help not hurt, than keeping them away seems to be perhaps part of punishment…which could, arguably, be in alignment with society’s goal.

      My point is that for me, without contradicting evidence, my feeling is that reading books can have a positive effect (there is evidence for that). I want to have the most beneficial outcome, the one that leads to the least harm and the most help. My guess is that isn’t always in the calculation for which books to ban…that punishment/censorship may simply be easier.

      Obviously, a complicated topic. My leaning going into any discussion is freedom of reading over restriction of reading…then I need evidence to the contrary to override that (which would be the case for mentally ill people).

  2. Lady Galaxy Says:

    One reason for keeping criminals locked up is to keep them from harming folks on the outside. Another reason is to punish them for their actions. The biggest part of the punishment comes in the form of restricting their freedom. I’ve never worked inside a prison, so I’ll trust the judgment of those who do work in a prison to decide which books are dangerous or not.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      One idea for while people is incarcerated is to rehabilitate them, so they are less likely to commit additional crimes after release. That longer term benefit is, understandably, not a prime driver for people who work in the prison. Their first concern, I would think, would be the safety of the people who are incarcerated…balanced by constitutional and other societal statements of what’s appropriate (keeping everybody physically restrained all the time would probably be safest, but would be considered to be inappropriate).

      If anyone needs to judge which books are dangerous or not, I would rather leave it to behaviorists/therapists who can assess long term effect.

      I guess it comes down to my basic belief that reading can make you a better person…which would balance a sense of punishment by taking away something which might result in a personal and societal benefit by improving a person’s empathy.

  3. Karen Says:

    Hi Buffo, I subscribe to your blog through Amazon but haven’t received a new post since Sunday. Would you please check with Amazon to see if there’s an issue?t

    • Lady Galaxy Says:

      Same here. I also haven’t received updates from NY Times blog since Monday evening. I tried restarting the Kindle that receives the blogs, which usually fixes blog problems, but that didn’t work.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Karen!

      I’ll see if I can find out anything…thanks for letting me know!

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        The NY Times blog came back on its own. I had to unsubscribe, wait awhile, then resubscribe to get the current ILMK that included this post. Time will tell if the next new post appears on my Kindle in a timely manner. I’ll let you know.

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        FYI Even though you’ve added a new article, as of 18:24 zulu time 09/29/16 the ILMK blog hasn’t updated. The NY Times blog hasn’t sent an update since around 19:00 zulu yesterday. It usually updates several times a day.

  4. Karen Says:

    Hi Buffo, I subscribe to your blog through Amazon but haven’t received a new post since Sunday. Would you please check with Amazon to see if there’s an issue? (Sorry if this appears twice)

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