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PLN editor quoted in article about book censorship in Texas prison system

Austin American-Statesman, Jan. 1, 2010.
PLN editor quoted in article about book censorship in Texas prison system - Austin American-Statesman 2010

Authors decry being locked out of lockup

Prisoners can't read acclaimed books that mention banned topics.

By Eric Dexheimer


Published: 8:31 p.m. Thursday, May 13, 2010

The New York Times called it "an important reckoning." "A gripping history lesson," an Associated Press book reviewer declared.

"Anyone interested in America's prison system should read it," concluded The Dallas Morning News assessment of "Texas Tough," a new book covering the history of the state's corrections system.

One group with a natural interest in the subject has yet to crack the book's cover, however: Texas prisoners themselves. In March, mailroom handlers assigned to review incoming literature at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's James A. Lynaugh Unit in Fort Stockton judged a short passage in the opening chapter of "Texas Tough" about a girl's childhood molestation to be inappropriate for prisoners to read.

"My book gets banned because of indecency with a child?" said Robert Perkinson, the University of Hawaii American Studies professor who wrote the book. "The section is about how a huge portion of prisoners were abused themselves as children."

Prison officials confirm that Perkinson's book is on the agency's no-read list, which includes thousands of titles, among them some acclaimed literature and classic art. Mailroom readers in each unit quickly scan incoming books and can reject one if they spot any of about a dozen banned topics, including child nudity, sexually explicit descriptions and descriptions of weapons.

If a prisoner appeals the decision, the volume is read in its entirety by administrators in the department's headquarters in Huntsville. Jason Clark, a prison spokesman, said "Texas Tough" is being reviewed over "several issues."

But for now it remains off-limits to convicts. As such, the book joins a curious subgenre of banned volumes: nonfiction books about prisons — including those based on first-hand accounts of locked-up convicts or their guards — that are judged inappropriate for other prisoners to read.

Jim Willett learned only this week that his book made the list. "Warden: Texas Prison Life and Death From the Inside Out," a memoir of his career working inside Texas prisons, was rejected in 2005 because "arial (sic) photos of prisons could facilitate (an) escape," according to agency notes.

"It is kind of ironic," Willett said, "considering that I was a good employee for the prison system for 30 years, and the book contained no negatives about the system." Still, as a former corrections officer he is sympathetic.

"I guess it would look pretty bad if they'd let inmates get their hands on 'Warden' and then some inmate escaped and used the aerial picture to figure out where to go."

Willett the author is more ambivalent: "If only I'd left out that one picture, I would have had more readers."

So might "The Encyclopedia of American Prisons," banned in 2005, if it hadn't mentioned prison escapes; and "Maximum Security: Inside Stories From the World's Toughest Prisons," rejected in 2008, if it hadn't brought up prison gangs.

Some books about incarceration have been permitted in Texas lockups. "A World Apart: Women, Prison and Life Behind Bars" received the department seal of approval in 2006. The following year, agency reviewers gave the thumbs-up to "Why Are So Many Black Men in U.S. Prisons?"

But prison officials say they must block certain types of reading material to maintain order and support inmate rehabilitation. And placing some prison lit in inmates' hands is unquestionably risky: "Hacksaw: The True Story of America's Greatest Escape Artist," was tossed by Texas prison readers in May 2008 for any one of author Edward Jones's depictions of his 14 successful jailbreaks over 20 years. (As a morality tale the book is more corrections-positive: Jones wrote it from prison.)

But what to make of the "Prison Coffee Table Book Project," a collection of prisoner artwork? The pieces were all created inside prison by inmates, said Ohio organizer Carol Briney. Texas officials wouldn't let the art come back in book form because of a drawing of a naked breast.

Critics who decry prison censorship argue it amounts to an unconstitutional means of control. "An ignorant prison populace is much easier to manage," said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, a national publication from a nonprofit organization that advocates for prisoner rights. It is suing the Texas criminal justice department for nixing a series of books it distributes, including "Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System."

Others point out there are real-world consequences to restrictive reading policies in prisons. Up to half of prisoners struggle with literacy, according to national studies, one more obstacle to finding work when they are released. Unemployment, in turn, is associated with recidivism.

Barring writings on a subject in which inmates have a special interest gives them one less incentive to pick up a book, Perkinson said. "The agency is banning just the sorts of books that prisoners would find most engaging. Sure, inmates have access to wholesome fiction written for the 'Leave It to Beaver' set, but anything with grit — anything that resembles the real lives of prisoners and that might therefore cause them to reflect on their circumstances and mistakes in fresh ways — gets banned."

Still, some authors concede they have mixed feelings about having their work read by their captive subjects. "There's nothing scary, nothing bad in it; it's about the mundane, everyday life inside prison," said Tom Martin, a 17-year veteran corrections officer in the state of Washington and author of "Behind Prison Walls: The Real World of Working in Today's Prisons."

Texas officials banned his book in April 2009 because of references to inmates making moonshine. But there are other passages Martin isn't sure are suitable for prisoners either, even if it's their own day-to-day lives he's describing. "I break things down in the book that the less-sophisticated offenders haven't put together yet" — such as how some try to manipulate guards, he said.

What makes the rejection of "Texas Tough" particularly unusual is that the entire project had the blessing of corrections officials. "I toured a ton of units and interviewed about 100 inmates and officers, and corresponded with 50 others," Perkinson said. "All of the interviews were approved."

In March, after reading a review of the book in Texas Monthly, Douglas Hedges, serving 10 years for intoxicated manslaughter with a vehicle, ordered it from Barnes & Noble. The mailroom reviewer apparently stopped reading when he hit a short description of a parolee's childhood molestation at the hands of a relative: "Sweating and reeking of beer, L.D. would have Kim sit on his lap and put her hand on his penis."

Researchers say a quarter of all female inmates were sexually abused as children. "My book is full of (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) voices," said Perkinson. "But now those voices are kept outside the gate."