The Largest Book Ban in the U.S. is in Prison

Book ban in prisons

Last month I shared an article that my penpal Lacino Hamilton sent me, called “We Have to Come to Grips With the Real Function of Police: Which Incidentally is to Keep Order, Not Peace.” Lacino routinely writes and mails me essays and articles he would like others to read, so I promised to post them all here (he’s also been published multiple times on Truthout). This month’s piece Lacino wrote is titled “The Largets Book Ban in the U.S. Exists in State & Federal Prisons” and of course, I’ve made no edits to his writing.

I recently received correspondence from PEN. The name is quite a pun. It is an organization that supports a free press and imprisoned journalist. In all upper case bold print PEN asked me a question that warrants serious analysis: “If studies show that allowing prisoners access to outside information and ideas reduces recidivism and is essential to a successful transition back into society, THEN WHY DOES THE LARGEST BOOK BAN IN THE U.S. EXIST IN STATE AND FEDERAL PRISONS?”

Before I get to the why it is important to note that banning books in U.S. prisons happens in a multitude of ways, some less obvious than others. For example, some books are simply not allowed to enter prison, seemingly harmless books. in Texas the Department of Criminal Justice has banned over 10,000 books, including books by Alice Walker, John Grisham, Jenna Bush Hager, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Bob Dole. Other prison systems ban entire genres, like those that discuss mass incarceration, feminism, grant writing, social movements, computer technology, and business books.

Books are banned by limiting where they can be obtained. Here in Michigan prison officials only allow books to be purchased directly from a publisher or from an approved vendor list. On its face this sounds reasonable, but on further analysis publishers seldom sell individual books, they sell in bulk, so that is not a reliable option. The approved vendor list consists mostly of internet companies and Michigan prisoners do not have access to the internet. Books are banned by only allowing books to be purchased from vendors who have agreed to sell books at unexplained markups. So a lot of books simply cost way too much. Another way of banning books is only allowing books to be purchased from vendors that traffic in westerns, romance novels, or other information deficient books. But why?

The primary goal of banning books in prison has nothing to do with rehabilitation, nothing to do with public safety, but everything to do with controlling and dominating the prison population. It’s easier to control and dominate an ignorant population than one that is informed. Furthermore, controlling and dominating prisoners is accomplished through micromanagement and creating “good prisoners,” dehumanized people. A concept useful for thinking about book bans are constructed.

There are five broad tactics used to micro-manage and create good prisoners which relate to banning books. First, maintaining strict discipline. Prisoners are never to exercise free will or judgement when it comes to anything of importance or major consequence. Second, instead of outside information and ideas, prison employees implant in prisoners a consciousness of personal inferiority. A large information base does just the opposite. Third, it is essential to awe prisoners with a sense of the prison’s enormous power. To keep prisoners looking at themselves through the information and ideas of the prison. Fourth, condition prisoners to unquestionably accept the prison’s perspective, as if there are no other perspectives. And fifth, create a habit of perfect dependence upon the prison: don’t know much can’t do much.

That is the goal deeply embedded in the largest book ban in the U.S. People cannot act outside their information base, or at least cannot do so with proficiency. So if prisoners, which 75 percent enter prison without a high school diploma or G.E.D., are prevented from adding to their information base, they are being prevented from acting other an a dehumanized person.

The state and federal prison’s book ban proposes numerous pedagogical challenges to establish ways of teaching and learning while in prison. I hope that readers will turn their attention to how to flood prisons with information and ideas as a core social justice principle. Information and ideas that build up to a more realistic perception of American society, themselves, the conditions of confinement, and alternatives to caging people for part or all of their lives.

In this sense, having access to large volumes of information and ideas is not a mere “technique” prisoners can use to know more: rather, a communicative process that enables prisoners to develop critical consciousness. So instead of banning books, let’s ban banning books.