PLN editor quoted on books banned by prison officials
Dan Slater’s book Wolf Boy is the latest of many to be banned to American prisoners for reasons that seem capricious, illogical and vindictive
by Stuart Miller
Sunday 25 September 2016 06.00 EDT
Dan Slater’s new non-fiction book Wolf Boys recounts the story of two Mexican-American teens in Texas seduced by the violent cartels across the border and the Mexican-born Texas detective who hunts them. It is grim and violent, yet it is a detailed and thoughtful look at American society and the war on drugs. It has also been condemned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Directors Review Committee, which declared Wolf Boys off limits to all Texas prisoners before it was even published this month.
TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark cites one page, which “contains information on how to conceal and smuggle illegal narcotics.” In other words, while the book shows the downfall of the two boys who cross over to the dark side - both are serving decades in the TDCJ system — it was banished for these two sentences on page 124:
Mario purchased pickup trucks from which he removed panels and lights. The trick was packing the drugs in a part of the vehicle where the body wouldn’t lose its hollow sound when slapped.
“The system is so aggressive and arbitrary,” says Slater. “If you asked me to name 100 sentences that might have gotten my book banned those would not have made the list.”
The TDCJ’s verdict does inadvertently draw attention to Banned Books Week - an annual campaign sponsored by numerous organizations, including American Library Association - which begins on Sunday.
“It’s truly tragic,” says the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom deputy director Deborah Caldwell Stone, referring both to the removal of Wolf Boys and the larger issue. She says prisoners who read tend to behave better and rehabilitate sooner but prison officials care only about maintaining power and control. “There is probably a new story every day like this.”
Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News, says Texas has 15,000 banned books but the list “is growing exponentially. Once a book goes on it never comes off.”
The Texas list is not just long but diverse. It includes former Senator Bob Dole’s World War II: An Illustrated History of Crisis and Courage; Jenna Bush’s Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope; Jon Stewart’s America; A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction; and 101 Best Family Card Games. Then there are books banned for what TDCJ calls “racial content,” such as The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, the Texas football classic Friday Night Lights, Flannery O’Conner Everything That Rises Must Converge, and Lisa Belkin’s Show Me a Hero, which depicts the struggle to desegregate housing in Yonkers, New York in the face of institutional racism.
But don’t worry: Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, David Duke’s Jewish Supremacism, and the Nazi Aryan Youth Primer are all kosher. (Clark would not directly respond regarding this issue.)
“Texas is less rational than other states,” says Michelle Dillon program coordinator of the Seattle-based non-profit Books to Prisoners, although it’s a national problem she adds, particularly in more conservative states in the south. Wright says federal prisons have even banned President Obama’s books.
The process for Wolf Boys was an exception. In Texas, as in most states, the judge and jury on a book’s fate is typically an anonymous mailroom clerk, “who often don’t have high school diplomas,” says Wright. “The bureaucratic system rubber stamps it from there.”
Texas is one of the few states with a comprehensive database; that committee typically acts as a court of appeals. (Prisoners wishing to appeal obviously cannot have a copy of the book to prepare their case.) While most states allow each prison to operate haphazardly, Wright says the states with databases — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and North Carolina – “are the most systematic and organized in their censorship.”
The lists are generally not accessible, Wright says, and the lack of transparency means publishers or groups or people sending books don’t know what’s banned.
“There is no accountability,” Dillon says, adding that some inmates have complained that one clerk might ban a book that another would let through, either because the one clerk is grouchy, doesn’t like the prisoner for whom it is intended, or has more conservative values. Wright says any minority viewpoint—racial, ethnic, political or religious is especially likely to be shot down.
But it goes beyond that. A collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a collection of Leonardo DaVinci’s sketches have both been banished in Texas for sexual content (the Shakespeare edition had a painting with nudity on the cover) while a book like The Pleasure’s All Mine, filled with descriptions of kinky sex made it through.
Dillon and Stone both acknowledge that certain books should be banned — books about lock picking or bomb making, for example. But the paranoid approach taken is a “slippery slope because everything becomes suspicious,” Dillon says, so a prisoner cannot learn about American sign language because it may be used to flash signals or to read biographies of black leaders or about the inequities of our justice system because it may make them less cooperative.
“We understand there are sometimes concerns,” Stone adds, but points out that it would make more sense to take certain books away from specific prisoners (such as books with scenes of rape or pedophilia from people convicted of those crimes) than to create blanket bans. “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.”
Wright, who says the “very, very occasional victories” come in less conservative states, is harsher in his assessment, saying the courts “have abdicated their duty” by letting prison officials make law based on “Because we said so.”
Slater is disheartened by the entire situation. “It’s like we’re living in the dark ages,” Slater says. “I believe strongly in the power of knowledge and enlightenment and in what books can do, especially for someone who is down and who feels a connection to a story.”