Texas Prisons’ Controversial Banned Book List

Banned books are the source of a lot of controversy. Some are banned for ridiculous reasons, like smoking in the bathroom, and others are banned for valid reasons, like racist commentary. It seems that Texas has it a little backwards when it comes to banning books in prisons. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has banned over 15,000 books from its system. According to the Texas Civil Rights Project, there are six reasons for banning a book for prisoners. 

TDCJ policy bans books if they:

1) Contain contraband;

2) Contain information about manufacturing explosives, drugs or weapons;

3) Are written “solely for the purpose of” “achiev[ing] the breakdown of prisons” through strikes, riots, or gang activity;

4) The prison makes “a specific determination … that the publication is detrimental to offenders’ rehabilitation because it would encourage deviant criminal sexual behavior”;

5) Have instructions on how to set up “criminal schemes”; or,

6) Contain “sexually explicit images.”

Through the mailroom, the books received are checked against a master list of accepted books and are then approved or not. According to Slate,

TDCJ cites use of the N-word to justify banning dozens of books about race from authors as varied as Noam ChomskyLangston HughesPhilip RothSalman Rushdie, Harriet Beecher StoweStuds TerkelSojourner Truth, and Richard Wright. Yet, while classics such as H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about Texas high school football, and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, a history of Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers, have been banned for their discussions of race—i.e. use of the N-word—TDCJ permits prisoners to read many of the most racist books ever written, including Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf and David Duke’s My Awakening.

So Mein Kampf, written by a racist leader of mass genocide is acceptable in prison, but Langston Hughes isn’t? David Duke, the former leader of the KKK’s book is allowed, but you can’t read Sojourner Truth, a slave who taught herself to read and write, and fought for women’s rights?! 

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What does banning books in the prison system exactly do? Prisoners are already in prison. Besides getting more time, what would result from reading? I find it hard to believe that being able to read Mein Kampf and My Awakening is somehow less threatening to the prison system than Langston Hughes or Richard Wright. 

Two years ago, as reported by The Independent, Italian prisoners got their prison time CUT for every book they read. Every book read took off three days from their sentence and “It would be capped at 48 days in one year – amounting to 16 books in 12 months.” That sounds a more beneficial than banning material. 

If people were not in prison, they would have access to the banned books. Who’s to say that the reading material above actually increases criminal activity? I’ve read plenty of books that have a lot of scandalous material in it, but I don’t go around acting on it. The prison system needs reform in a lot more monumental ways, but banning books, I think, is just another way to treat prisoners unfairly. 


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