Just after writing my blog last week about the wonders of Changing Lives Through Literature (see "What You Need to Know About Changing Lives Through Literature") I came across an article on the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) titled "Should prison inmates be allowed to read whatever they choose?"
We know prisons only let in paperback books. At least that is what Framingham Women's Prison told me some years ago. But they also certainly don't want books critical of their practices and wouldn't house my book, Shakespeare Behind Bars in the prison library when it was first published. They said it was because it was a hardback but even in paper, I've heard it hasn't made its way there.
Husna Haq, in his CSM article mentions that recently the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco overturned a previous ruling barring a prisoner from receiving a book he requested deemed "problematic" by prison officials. The book in question was The Silver Crown by Mathilde Madden "which has widely become known as 'werewolf erotica,' and was considered too sexual by corrections officers."
What? Corrections Officers are deciding that a book is too sexual for prisoners to read?
Get a load of this other recent news article posted in Business Insider. Called "America's Prison Guards Are The 'Ugly Stepchildren' Of The Criminal Justice System" the article reveals how guards "allegedly snuck cellphones and other contraband to Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gangsters." They allowed them to do whatever they wanted apparently, and BGF leader Tavon White is accused of impregnating four guards, two of whom got tattoos with his name.
Thankfully, as Salon reported, the Court found that the prison had overstepped its bounds in the case, engaging in an “arbitrary and capricious application of the regulation.” The judge declared that " The Silver Crown did not meet the famous 'three-pronged' standard by which American courts have determined obscenity since the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision on Miller v. California in 1973."
A 2011 suit by the American Civil Liberties Union charged a South Carolina prison with denying its prisoners all reading material other than the Bible.Other cases include an Alabama prison that barred a prisoner from reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II by Douglas Blackmon.
Why, because it was too controversial? That's what I was told at Framingham when I wanted to teach a June Jordan essay and direct a version of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Way before Oprah produced a movie in this novel, I had planned to have many Janies and the focus on a re-creation of the trial scene. But the prison said that involving my theatre troupe in such an effort was "too racial." And I quote.
The truth is that prisons want to control behavior. They want to "reform" which usually means to turn out people who are as conformist as possible. Read, write fine. As long as they don't overstep "our boundaries."
The idea that freedom of the press or the freedom to read literature of one's choice doesn't exist for prisoners is unconstitutional. The idea that is does is illusion.