More than eight years after it was published, author Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow continues to reap praise for its depiction of the racial impacts of contemporary criminal justice policies, with some book critics hailing it as one of the most important works of the 21st Century.
But until the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida intervened earlier this year, the book was banned for any Florida inmate to read. The Literature Review Committee at the state Department of Corrections (DOC) claimed that it presented a security threat and is filled with “racial overtures.”
A recent review by the Florida Phoenix of the list of banned books and publications at state prisons reveals some jarring inconsistencies in what material the DOC allows prisoners to read and what’s off limits.
The Literature Review Committee – which meets every two weeks – works under guidelines imposed by the DOC’s “Admissible Reading Material Rule,” which says that inmates can “receive and possess publications…unless the publication is found to be detrimental to the security, order or disciplinary or rehabilitative interests of any institution of the department…or when it is determined that the publication might facilitate criminal activity.”
Currently banned books in Florida prisons include five different volumes of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, the literary source for the hit HBO series; Black Klansman, black detective Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir on infiltrating the KKK with the Colorado Springs Police Department that was made into a major film this summer by Spike Lee; Innocent Man, novelist John Grisham’s first work of nonfiction in 2006 that became a number-one New York Times best-seller; and The Simpson’s Rainy Day Fun Book by creator Matt Groening.
“In general, I can understand why some publications have to be limited, but I think that the Florida DOC has gone way beyond the scope of their policy,” complains Raymer Maguire, Criminal Justice Manager on the ACLU’s Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform.
The banned book list also includes works about the Black Panthers, rappers like Tupac Shakur and Ice-T, and a collection of photos taken during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s. Yet in February, the panel approved an inmate’s request to read The Turner Diaries, a novel depicting a fictional white nationalist revolution culminating in global genocide. It’s the tome that federal prosecutors say helped inspire Timothy McVeigh to commit the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (described at the time as the worst act of terrorism in U.S. history).
While the criteria in the state’s administrative rule is fixed, “the individual committee member’s interpretations of that criteria may be subjective,” says DOC spokesman Patrick Manderfield. “Determinations to approve or deny specific publications are made by majority vote.”
The guidelines also state that any publication that “depicts nudity in such a way as to create the appearance that sexual conduct is imminent” are also prohibited, yet Fifty Shades of Gray, the 2011 erotic romance novel by British author E.L. James, and the two sequels it spawned – Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed – were also approved by prison censors.
Also approved: Some selected editions of Playboy and Letters to Penthouse. DOC spokesperson Manderfield says that approvals of those individual editions would be “the types of publications containing no images but acceptable written language.”
Other notable books currently banned include Survivor Rights by the American Friends Service Committee, a book about surviving solitary confinement; Lasagna Gardening, a book on gardening; comedian and political commentator D.L. Hughley’s new book, How Not to get Shot, and three novels by Don Winslow, the author of twenty acclaimed, award-winning international bestsellers (Cartel, The Power of the Dog and The Death and Life of Bobby Z). A spokesman for Winslow refrained from directly commenting, but was incredulous that a ban of Winslow’s books is taking place anywhere in America.
The prison system’s Literature Review Committee has three people on it – Melvin Herring, the designee for Bureau Chief of Education; Cliff Neel, designee for the Bureau Chief of Inmate Grievance and Appeals; and Tina Jenkins, designee for the Bureau Chief of Security. The DOC did not make them available to comment for this story.
Greg Newborn, the head of Florida Families Against Mandatory Minimums, questions the DOC’s review process.
“Is the burden on the department to show that there’s some problem or likelihood of a problem before a text is banned?” he asks, “Or can they just ban anything and then sort of make up the principle after the fact?”
The DOC was sued several years ago for unconstitutional censorship by the publishers of Prison Legal News, a monthly publication that reports on legal developments in the criminal justice system and other topics that affect inmates. The publishers also charged that while the department impounded every one of its monthly issues between 2009-2014, it failed to notify the publication less than half the time that they were being removed, a violation of the DOC’s own rules.
A Florida court ruled that the department’s decision to ban the publication did not violate the First Amendment, but did find that the state violated due process protections in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it impounded the issues of Prison Legal News. A judge with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta affirmed that decision this past May. Prison Legal News is now appealing the case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The DOC argues that it’s not banning the Prison Legal News because of its contents, but because of some of its ads – including ads for pen pals and three-way calling – which the DOC says pose security risks. Florida is the only corrections department in the country that has impounded Prison Legal News based solely on its ad content.
“One of the things we’ve seen is government censors seem to ascribe almost mythical powers to the written word that frankly just doesn’t exist,” says Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News.
Wright’s perspective is colored by the fact that he spent 17 years behind bars. He believes that the only publications that might be worthy of a ban are those that show readers/inmates how to make improvised weapons or explosives.
Not everyone agrees with that attitude, however.
Ray Hall is the founder of the Prison Book Project based in Titusville, a nonprofit that has been sending Christian books to prisoners in the U.S. and across the globe for more than two decades. For the most part he supports the idea of controlling what prisoners should read.
“Reading influences us,” he says. “It fills our minds with whatever we put into it. If we put good stuff into it, it’s going to result in good behavior,” adding that he believes “there’s probably a valid reason” for why the DOC bans the books it does.
Prisoner advocates were alarmed earlier this year after it was revealed that a proposed Federal Bureau of Prisons policy would require inmates to order all their books from a private vendor, and that they would have to pay a 30 percent tax plus shipping. After public criticism from families and prison reform advocates, the agency ultimately backed away from the policy, claiming that it was just part of an effort to curb contraband from entering the nation’s 122 federal prisons.
Myesha Braden is the director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She compares prison reading list bans with literacy and education bans from the slavery era.
“The idea that people who are in a controlled situation are better controlled if you are able to control what they think, and how they think is directly related,” she says.
Braden adds that too many people forget that incarcerated people still need to be treated as humans with essential needs.
“If we don’t do a better job of very quickly understanding that we need to treat individuals who are incarcerated like people (who) we still need to tend to their humanity,” she warns, “we are not going to have people who are returning to the community who would behave in the ways that we would like for them to behave. If we don’t tend to their humanity when they’re incarcerated, they’re going to lose a bit of that humanity, and that’s going to be reflected in how they behave when they reenter society.”
The ACLU of Florida’s Raymer Maguire agrees.
“Limiting the amount of literature, news and media that these individuals can consume just results in a deeper and deeper level of isolation,” he says, “which really doesn’t do a service to those individuals or to our community.”