Why Can’t Shakespeare Go to Jail?: Thoughts on Literature Banned from American Prisons

Banned Books Week is an annual time to recognize and contemplate the “objectionable” literature in America: texts that sects of society have deemed morally, religiously, sexually, racially, whatever-it-may-be-ly reprehensible.

Book banning most commonly occurs within the realm of academic curricula, where proponents of censorship believe that preventing the texts under fire from reaching the hands and minds of impressionable youth will keep them uncorrupted. We at the UCWbL have recently held our own Banned Books Week events to recognize those texts that have been and are banned in schools and to support literary freedom.

But what about banning books from those who most would say are already corrupt, those who occupy America’s prisons? My goal in publishing this post is to open a constructive discussion of the methods and motivations behind book banning in American prisons. I ask you to consider, as a peer writing tutor would in a tutorial, how successfully this argument is constructed.

When you think of what type of books might be banned in prisons, what comes to mind? Tunnel Digging For Dummies? Sure. Hamlet? I think not. But it’s true, nonetheless. The Huffington Post recently published an article exposing the, at times, seemingly arbitrary and unnecessary restriction of reading material available to prisoners.

Andrew Losowsky, author of “Prison Book Bans: The Censorship Scandal Inside America’s Prisons,” notes that “The Federal Bureau of Prisons regulations state that publications can only be rejected if they are found to be “‘detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity.’. . . Yet. . .many correctional institutions censor materials far beyond these guidelines.” So what, exactly, is being prohibited?

It seems that in some instances it is whatever prison wardens or mail room staff deem unacceptable. In one South Carolina jail, there is only one book on the acceptable list: the Bible. A May 2011 article in The Guardian suggests that the ban of all reading material other than paperback Bibles is an overextension of a policy that bans any literature containing staples or nudity.

The article also presents a fact that wobbles the “no staples” principle: the legal pads sold in the store jails are not staple-free. My point is not to suggest that the reading restriction would be justified if those legal pads were banned, too, but to point out a pattern of inconsistencies and weak justifications behind prison book banning decisions.

Contradictions exist in other American jails, as the Texas Civil Rights Project Human Rights Report thoroughly illuminates; for example, the Texas prison system notes that it bans any publication that “is detrimental to offenders’ rehabilitation because it would encourage deviant criminal sexual behavior.” Many books are banned for the mere mention of rape, for example, yet Lolita, noted for its obviously pedophilic narrator and plot line, is not included in the list of over 1,000 texts.

Perhaps the most obvious example of contradiction the Texas Civil Rights Project points out is the case of Flannery O’Connor, who “has a banned book on this list: her short story collection Everything that Rises Must Converge. Mysteriously, the complete collection of her short stories, The Complete Stories, which includes every story in Everything that Rises Must Converge, is not banned.” Let’s consider for a moment how that paradoxical decision affects the reasoning of the argument.

As any good writer knows, an argument that contradicts itself weakens itself; consistency is key, as is support from external, authoritative sources.

In America, there’s not a document much more authoritative than the Constitution. Yet, as the sources I have referenced here note, the censorship practiced by these jails violates constitutional law, namely the First Amendment. So where is the justification, the basis or power that supports the argument made by these prison officials?

Considering how an idea relates to a larger context is another important argumentative strategy, so I’ll leave you with one final way to consider the argument for prison book bans: How does it relate to the democratic notion that prisons are rehabilitative rather than merely punitive institutions?

The Texas Civil Rights Project Human Rights Report makes the following point regarding the benefits of reading on rehabilitating prisoners while discouraging unrest in prisons (the basis many book banning policies cite in the first place): “By banning non-controversial books that prisoners want to read, prisons discourage inmates from picking up any book. Reading keeps prisoners occupied. ‘Idle minds are the devil’s workshop,’ especially in prison. If prisoners are busy reading, they are less likely to violate prison rules.”

What do you think?

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Joe O. says:

    I can see why some books may be banned for legitimate security reasons (e.g. titles like EZ Bombs< and Tunnel-Digging for Dummies, etc.) but I think most books should be allowed. I do not see how Lolita, let alone actual pornography, poses any threat to a prisons’s security.

    • jblock52 says:

      I think that the idea behind (not, as the case may be) banning Lolita is that it, and literature like it, is that it supports the mindset of child predators and may set them back in their rehabilitation (if that is, indeed, occurring). So, rather than trying to create banned book lists for individual populations of offenders, it seems that the books are banned for all. It’s not a security reason, per se, but it is counterintuitive to provide literature that supports a criminal mindset to perpetrators of that crime. That’s my understanding, anyway.

  • David S. says:

    I think many books are banned because of what authorities have HEARD they say, not because they read the books themselves. They fear their rumored ideology. The problem here is that the authorities have no faith in the authors to create works worth reading. They don’t see reading as a transformative experience, and they don’t see writers as capable of understanding their own work from more than one perspective. And let’s face it — everyone fears a left wing conspiracy.

    The other issue is the concept of the “prison industrial complex.” Prisons are businesses designed to bring big money to those who operate and supply them. Prisons are about containment, not rehabilitation. Who needs literature? Doesn’t it just make things more complicated?

    Taking a cue from Oprah Winfrey, maybe prison book clubs are one answer. That way a single book can be selected by a committee and read and discussed by many at the same time. The books chosen will not be particularly controversial, but they probably will be worthy of reading.