Last month, the Salem Reporter published a piece on the number of technology-related titles banned at prisons across the state of Oregon. The reason behind the banning — like the reason behind all prison book bannings — was tied to the safety of the facility.
Or, as the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) put it: Information would create clear and present danger.
Of the 1,600 banned books on the list, technology-titles make up a small percentage. Most titles are banned from Oregon prisons for being sexually explicit, which is a common reason practiced at prisons across the United States. Of course, there is no one single determining factor here. “Sexually explicit” is vague enough to be entirely subjective, echoing the sentiments of Supreme Court Justice Potter: “I know it when I see it.”
Oregon’s decision to disallow individual books into their prisons is not new. The majority of, if not all, states maintain a list of titles that have been deemed inappropriate for prison consumption. These lists have existed for decades, shared among prison administrators and the staff members who need to know, such as the prison librarians and mailroom. The concern is anything too sexually graphic or violent, along with items that pose a threat to the employees and/or the security of the prison.
The issue is that some states, like Oregon, are narrowing the definition of “acceptable” books, drastically reducing what the men and women in the prisons are allowed to read. This includes Washington, Arizona, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, among others.
I can appreciate (if perhaps disagree with) with why books on hacking or coding are seen as a risk. But I can’t get behind banning, say, Windows 10 for Dummies, which exists on Oregon’s list.
Upon release, incarcerated individuals already face obstacles when it comes to finding a job. The unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated individuals is higher than it was for all of the United States during the Great Depression. These rates are even higher for formally incarcerated Black men and Black women, two demographics already grossly overrepresented in American prisons.
Correctional institutions should be assisting these individuals by providing opportunities for personal and professional growth. Opportunities that will, hopefully, allow them to overcome having to check the “formally incarcerated” box on a job application. This includes preparing them with necessary computer skills. Instead, states like Oregon are taking away the very tools the men and women need to find gainful employment once they are released.
In some cases, genre-specific books are banned, such as the technology books in Oregon. In other cases, the issue is not what the books are about but where the books came from. Back in May, my state of Ohio banned books that were donated from RedBird, a non-profit organization that “is dedicated to providing Ohio prisoners with free books and reading materials.”
RedBird and similar organizations were told that Ohio prisons were no longer accepting used books from unauthorized vendors. Only new books from pre-approved vendors were be allowed in the facility. RedBird was added to the list of approved vendors but was still told they have to send only new books.
This one hits particularly close because from February 2009 until November 2010, I worked as the sole librarian at an all-male, minimum-security prison on the far west side of Cleveland. Like many prison librarians, my job was to meet the recreational and educational reading needs of the men incarcerated at our facility.
Donations were the only thing that kept my library floating.
Donations were also the only thing many of the men could afford.
Just like on the outside, books are expensive, and not everyone has the benefit of family and friends who have the means to purchase a new copy from one of the approved vendors and have it mailed to the prison. These organizations exist to fill those gaps in access, with the explicit goal of getting books into the hands of incarcerated men and women.
Reading and literacy is a crucial component to reducing recidivism rates, and it often happens while an individual is behind bars.
RAND found that correctional education improves inmates’ chances of not returning to prison. Not just coursework and books, but those that participated in computer-assisted instruction “learned slightly more in reading and substantially more in math in the same amount of instructional time.” Not only do prison education programs increase an individual’s chances of finding work once released, but these same programs also reduce the likelihood they will re-offend.
This is an important data point for the United States, which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. While our population only makes up 5 percent of the total global population, we account for 25 percent of all total inmates across the globe. This is a staggering discrepancy that cannot be ignored. Our prisons are overcrowded and rather than provide programs and reading materials known to reduce recidivism, prison administrations across the country are banning them.
While prison book banning policies are usually swiftly reversed after public outcry, they shouldn’t even be instituted to begin with. Strong communities are built on the backs of books, and books should not be viewed as contraband. Nor should books be available only to the privileged few who can afford them. Books should be treated like the tools for opportunity and success that they are and be freely made available to all.
Grunenwald is the author of READING BEHIND BARS: A True Story of Literature, Law, and Life as a Prison Librarian (Skyhorse, 2019). Want more? Subscribe to her newsletter to stay in touch.