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HRDC comments on prison censorship for Banned Book Week

Post-Intelligencer, Sept. 24, 2019.

'Threats to security': Fifty Shades, Boy Scouts Handbook and other books rejected from WA prisons

For Banned Books Week, organizations are highlighting books banned in prisons, schools and libraries


Books about life in prison, black history, transgender identity and even coloring books have been banned from prisons across the country. Reasons for the rejections can vary, from security concerns to presence of sexually explicit content or violence.

As 2019 Banned Books Week starts up -- an annual event started in the 1980s -- organizations and libraries in Seattle and across the country are highlighting books that have been banned in schools, prisons and libraries, and speaking out against censorship.

One of the largest forums for censorship in the country is inside prisons, said Michelle Dillon, a board member for Books to Prisoners, a Seattle-based nonprofit that mails free books to inmates.

"It's a place that has just allowed the most absurd justifications for stopping access to information," Dillon, who also works as the public records manager for the Human Rights Defense Center, said.

Banned Books Week is a good opportunity to highlight some of these "entrenched problems" that have been going on for decades, Dillon said. One of the most common justification prisons give for rejecting books is "threats to security," which she said was a "very broad category."

Everything from medical textbooks to art books have been banned in the past due to claims of "sexually explicit material," Dillon said. A lot of black history and culture books have also been banned in the past.

Other books she has seen rejected in prisons include those written in different languages and those about conditions inside prisons. "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" and "Trans Self, Trans Bodies," a resource book for transgender individuals, have also been banned in prisons.

Dillon said she has seen a rise in censorship in prisons, which she said could be "epitomized" by a ban Washington prisons implemented earlier this year on all books coming in from nonprofit groups. At the time, the Department of Corrections claimed it was done to prevent contraband from coming into the facilities. But the decision was quickly reversed after The Seattle Times showed several of the instances the Department of Corrections had cited did not involve contraband being brought in through books.

Dillon said there are a few reasons she believes prisons ban books, including the effects of restricting access to information.

"We're talking more of a subtle but long game, if you throttle access to make people less prepared to reenter into their communities," she said. "Basically there's the financial angle, but then there's also the isms that are baked into the system of mass incarceration, racism, white supremacy, all the things that really fuel the kind of materials that are prone to being banned."

Dillon referenced a quote she said she heard about there being an assumption that prisoners are not "sophisticated readers."

"It's this idea that if there's anything the slightest bit titillating or adult in theme, it's going to wreak havoc immediately in prison," she said, "instead of prisoners being able to read and discern and evaluate and analyze."

To appeal rejections, Dillon said she thinks litigation is one of the best ways. She said encouraging authors and publishers to fight back against bans is also an effective way, in addition to getting the public involved to voice their concerns and sign onto petitions and campaigns.

"Pretty much any marginalized identity you can think of is going to be quashed by censorship," she said.

The Seattle Public Library has displays in its central location and in branch libraries across the city, bringing attention to books that have been banned in the past. The week and the displays serve as "a way that libraries can raise awareness about the fact that things are still being challenged," said Kirk Blankenship, a selection librarian at The Seattle Public Library. He said it's important to give people an idea of what kinds of books are being banned in various spaces and spur conversations.

Blankenship said it is good to have conversations and for people to voice concerns if they believe books should be banned -- saying people usually have the best of intentions -- but he emphasized the importance of information being made available, in schools and libraries, in addition to prisons.

"I think it's the same ideas of intellectual freedom," he said, "and the ability to have rights of freedom of thought."

Here's a list of books that have been recently rejected in Washington prisons, according to the Department of Corrections Book Denial Log. You can also click through the slideshow above to check them out:

Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community, published by Oxford University Press, edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth

Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Freed, E. L. James

The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld, Jamie Bartlett

The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene

The Best Resource Directory for Prisoners, Mike Enemigo

Prison Action News

The Art & Power of Letter Writing for Prisoners, Mike Enemigo

Behind Bars: Surviving Prison, Jeffrey Ian Ross

Inside Out, Journal of an Ex Con, David Beachem

Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars, Clifton Collins Jr., Gustavo

Issues of USA Today, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Men's Health, Rolling Stone, Esquire Magazine , Fine Cooking, The Oprah Magazine and US Weekly have also been denied.