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Reading in Prison



Above: A man too dangerous for Texas prisoners

The U.S. prison system is primarily designed to lock up people of color, control their labor, and humiliate them. There is very little about justice in the criminal injustice system. Anything that potentially empowers prisoners is something to be eliminated. In Texas especially, that includes reading anything that might possibly inspire prisoners.

Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News, says Texas has 15,000 banned books but the list “is growing exponentially. Once a book goes on it never comes off.”

The Texas list is not just long but diverse. It includes former Senator Bob Dole’s World War II: An Illustrated History of Crisis and Courage; Jenna Bush’s Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope; Jon Stewart’s America; A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction; and 101 Best Family Card Games. Then there are books banned for what TDCJ calls “racial content,” such as The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, the Texas football classic Friday Night Lights, Flannery O’Conner Everything That Rises Must Converge, and Lisa Belkin’s Show Me a Hero, which depicts the struggle to desegregate housing in Yonkers, New York in the face of institutional racism.

But don’t worry: Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, David Duke’s Jewish Supremacism, and the Nazi Aryan Youth Primer are all kosher. (Clark would not directly respond regarding this issue.)

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  • efgoldman

    Totally and completely OT, but Arnold Palmer has died at 87.

    • keta

      He was not only a terrific golfer, he was also perhaps the greatest ambassador the game has ever seen. On a day that Rory McIlroy wins 11.53 million dollars I can’t help but reflect that, but for Palmer (and others, certainly), golf wouldn’t enjoy near the level of attention and prestige it enjoys today.

      R.I.P., King.

      • efgoldman

        His business advisor, Mark McKormack(sp?), also became the first sports agent.

      • wjts

        All that pales in comparison to his greatest contribution to human happiness: the eponymous beverage.

  • A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction

    I’d have thought that would be required reading.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    so you can’t read about Texas high school football because of ‘racial content’ but you can read from the collected droolings of David Duke. what is wrong with those people?

  • King Goat

    Is the ‘racial content’ thing about the ‘n word’ being in the listed books? They might have some kind of zero tolerance thing on that?

  • efgoldman

    God damn. It looks as if Texas really doesn’t want to be part of the Union in ways even the other traitor states can’t match.

    • Aubergine

      “Well, Tex, if that’s the way ya feel then don’t let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya.”

  • Gareth

    The U.S. prison system is primarily designed to lock up people of color, control their labor, and humiliate them.

    The U.S. prison population is 39% non-Hispanic white, so it’s very inefficient at this.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      The U.S. prison population is 39% non-Hispanic white, so it’s very inefficient at this.

      Trump will fix this problem, you can count on it.

    • carolannie

      You mean people defined as white, perhaps Hispanic (look up how many “Hispanics” identify as “white” to understand why this may be a definitional problem”)

      • Warren Terra

        People: the thing to do with a troll is not necessarily to feed it.

        • twbb

          It didn’t seem trolling to me; the American prison system is profoundly racist, but the claim that it is “primarily designed to lock up people of color, control their labor, and humiliate them” is an extraordinary one and I don’t think oushing back on it is trolling.

          • Warren Terra

            From a different commenter, sure. But: Gareth’s got form.

            • efgoldman

              It’s so hard to keep up now that JenBob and Dagchester have apparently gone to the great trollsite in the sky.

    • The percentage of non-Hispanic white people in the U.S. population has reached an all-time low: 63%. That is 197.7 million white people out of 313.9 million Americans. In 2000, whites were 69% of the population. In 1980, they made up 80%.


      Unless or until the honkie prison population hits 63%, it seems to be doing its job. The other primary purpose of the prison system, of course, is to punish/destroy drug users*, which probably accounts for there even being that many non-Hispanic white people in jail.

      See also: Racial/ethnic/whatever disparities in sentencing.

      *I.e., (in the minds of some) white people acting as if they were, you know, darker than a paper bag.

      • ThrottleJockey

        The other primary purpose of the prison system, of course, is to punish/destroy drug users*, which probably accounts for there even being that many non-Hispanic white people in jail.

        Since drug users only make up 17% of the system then it’s pretty shitty sry that too.

        Maybe it’s more than a giant lock up system for blacks…What I would give for some liberals to live in the hood and understand first hand what it’s like to be a daily victim of crime.

        • It’s 46% of Federal and had been >50% for quite some time (I’m given to understand).

          But yes, releasing all drug offenders wouldn’t end mass incarceration.

          That doesn’t mean it’s not a big wrong and, at the federal level, it seems pretty accurate to say that locking up druggies is a key goal. (Changing we hope.)

        • Ronan

          You re right and all, but you have to take into account turnover of the prison pop. Non violent Drug offences are usually lighter sentenced than violent crimes, so there’s more churn within that 17-22% who are in on drug offences at any given time

          • sonamib

            Hey, that’s a very good point. Lots of people are undergoing relatively short but traumatic stays in prison. And it’s completely unnecessary.

            • Brad Nailer

              Not to mention, criminal records are for life, no matter how brief your stay in prison was.

      • Cheerful

        As TJ notes, the theory that the current problem of prison overincarceration is all about drug crimes is a myth. Unless you take into account the extension of sentences for a variety of crimes, e.g. sex crimes, and the increasingly unbounded discretion of prosecutors to charge a variety of overlapping crimes (e.g. assault, and additional gun penalties) then you aren’t really addressing the issue.

      • Ronan

        Well another way of looking at it is income. Whites are disproportionately wealthier than blacks, native Americans and Latinos , and the poor are over represented in prison, so if you account for racial class differences what does the picture look like ?(undoubtedly still disproportionately locking up blacks, Latinos and native Americans, but it would probably complicate it a little )

        • Pat

          And one big reason why whites are disproportionately wealthier is because they have an easier time getting loans to buy tax-deduction supported homes in nicer neighborhoods where the schools are better and have more investment, whereas many people of color are restricted through institutional racism to renting in bad neighborhoods where the schools suck.

          • Ronan

            Absolutely, although I’m not sure that’s much benefit to the sub-population of whites most likely to end up incarcerated.

  • Warren Terra

    I wonder if Obama’s book – which includes drug use and racial content – is banned.

    Speaking of Obama: Erik, did you see he’s apparently against the use of ketchup on hot dogs (by those over 8 years old)?

    • I did not, but then I already knew he was one of our best presidents.

      • postmodulator

        This is genuinely surprising to either of you? He spent most of his adult life in Chicago. Chicagoans are borderline violent on the topic of ketchup on hot dogs.

        • Juicy_Joel

          He spent most of his adult life in Chicago.

          I’ll have you know he is from the inner-city of Chicago.

    • twbb

      What’s wrong with serving a vegetable with your hot dog?

      • (((Malaclypse)))

        Nothing at all, as long as they are peppers and onions.

        • Woodrowfan

          anything but brown mustard is an abomination before Nuggan.

        • Rugosa

          Peppers and onions are for Italian sausage. Sauerkraut is the vegetable of choice for hot dogs, onions optional.

          • Origami Isopod

            Onions are terrific on hotdogs. Fight me.

            Pickle relish is also great, especially the sweet kind. If sauerkraut counts as a veg, so does pickle relish.

        • NonyNony

          Also tomato slices and a pickle spear.

          Chicago dogs are fun to eat. I dunno that I’d always want to eat one at a ballpark, but they’re fun every once in a while. (Of course at the ballpark I prefer a brat to a hot dog every time anyway).

          • Origami Isopod

            (Of course at the ballpark I prefer a brat to a hot dog every time anyway).

            Sweeney Todd has a concession stand at your local ballpark?

            (yes, I know what a bratwurst is)

            • guthrie

              If Trump gets in, it’s only a matter of time.

      • Halloween Jack

        [wellactually]Tomatoes are fruits.[/wellactually]

        • Warren Terra

          I assumed twbb was making fun of St. Ronaldus Reaganus Magnus, whose administration famously declared ketchup to be a vegetable in crafting school lunches. Note: ketchup, not tomatoes.

  • NewishLawyer

    It’s good to know that neo-Nazi skinheads can become even more radicalized in prison. What would they do if they couldn’t read the Turner Diaries? They might have to think towards redemption!!!


  • Warren Terra

    We could propose books for them to ban. The novelization of Star Wars, for example, features armed resistance to legal governmental authority, drug trafficking, and a prison break.

    • N__B

      The novelization of Star Wars

      “Religious fanatics destroy government installation.”

      • Hells Littlest Angel

        “Religious fanatics destroy government installation.”

        I’m pretty sure that’s legal in Texas.

        • Bill Murray

          depends on the religion of the fanatics

    • postmodulator

      I seem to remember a prisoner, don’t remember where, had his Dungeons and Dragons books confiscated lest they inspire “fantasies of escape.”

    • Origami Isopod

      Are there any novelizations of The Battle of Algiers?

  • mikeSchilling

    You want to teach prisoners how to get a job, not go on the dole.

  • DocAmazing

    The Ballad of Non-Reading Gaol?

    • John Revolta

      Heheh………..very good. But probably on the list because, well, you know.

  • Colin Day

    But don’t worry: Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, David Duke’s Jewish Supremacism, and the Nazi Aryan Youth Primer are all kosher.

    The Guardian may want to check the definition of kosher.

    • elm

      That,s the joke. (Insert gif here.)

  • Davis X. Machina

    The real disgrace is the number of prisoners who can’t read…

  • AMK

    In fairness, it’s not like people in Texas read out of prison either.

    • Warren Terra

      1) People in prison have more time on their hands, and fewer other entertainment options.

      2) Can you back that claim up? Because, Pew does an annual poll about reading habits, but it doesn’t parse the results by state (and at 1500 respondents probably couldn’t for many states, though they could for populous states like Texas). I didn’t find anything (in a very cursory search) about either book reading or book sales by state.

      • AMK

        It’s a state with 27 million people where John Cornyn is the voice of reason. They don’t read books.

        • Thom

          Ha. But I am a Californian who has lived in Texas for 18 years and I can tell you that there are plenty of stupid people in both states, and plenty of people interested in books in both states. The conservative suburban town where I live has an excellent public library, which like other public libraries around the country offers a full range of social services to all comers as well as having a good book collection and public art program. And perhaps you think all those singer-songwriters from Texas don’t read. This may be true of Billy Joe Shaver, but is unlikely to be the case with e.g. James McMurtry.

          On the other hand, the legislature and state school board do their best to keep young people from learning anything (or learning anything that is widely believed by scholars). And for whatever reason, Texas drivers are terrible.

          • Pat

            I have heard that an inch of snow can put an entire Texas city on its knees.

            • Origami Isopod

              That’s true for any city that doesn’t regularly get snow, because they don’t budget for sufficient plows, sand, and salt. D.C. is notorious for shutting down if they get an inch of snow.

        • JL

          What a rigorous claim you have there.

        • Origami Isopod
      • Redwood Rhiadra

        I can’t tell you about Texas, but anecdotally, when I was living in Florida, my parents were regularly *berated* by strangers (with everyone else in sight nodding along with them) for reading in public and allowing their children to read in public; many of said strangers boasting that they had never read anything except the newspaper and the Bible since high school. I would not be remotely surprised to see similar attitudes prevalent in TX.

        • Aexia

          “I was in Nashville, Tennessee last year. After the show I went to a Waffle House. I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: ‘Hey, whatcha readin’ for?’ Isn’t that the weirdest fuckin’ question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading FOR? Well, goddamnit, ya stumped me! Why do I read? Well . . . hmmm…I dunno…I guess I read for a lot of reasons and the main one is so I don’t end up being a fuckin’ waffle waitress.” – Bill Hicks

          • Schadenboner

            Wow, classism with a side of sexism and regionalism? I think we just hit the schmucko trifecta.

            Tell me, Billy Boy: was she a land-whale too? We might be in Golden Derby territory here!

            • PohranicniStraze

              Well, Hicks was a Georgian, so it probably wasn’t regionalism so much as straight-up classism.

              • Schadenboner

                True, but I needed a #3 to hat trick it.

                I was hoping to build it into a platinum sombrero via close reading but :effort:.

                • ajay

                  And does Bill Hicks really count as coming from a superior social class? Because of his privileged upbringing in swanky Valdosta, GA?

                • Origami Isopod

                  Hicks might not have come from a “superior social class,” but he sure as fuck perpetuated classism (as well as sexism and homophobia) in his routines.

      • PohranicniStraze

        People in prison have more time on their hands, and fewer other entertainment options.

        You should see the letters that come out of the prisons. Many of them are works of art, the whole envelope covered with very intricate drawings. It’s amazing (and a little sad) that so many people apparently discover their talents when they have nothing else to do.

        Regarding point two, I don’t know any stats, but our Half Price Books chains here in Fort Worth do very brisk business.

    • mikeSchilling

      You heard about the guy who was arrested for trying to smuggle books into Texas? He got off, because no one could prove they were books.

    • John Revolta

      Well I heard there used to be a building in Dallas where they kept a lot of schoolbooks but it was a long time ago so I dunno.

      (You can actually go up in that sucker now’days, up to the sixth floor and look out the window down onto Dealy Plaza. Gave me a really creepy feeling.)

      • yet_another_lawyer

        They even put a white x where JFK was shot! You can drive over it on your way out. Creepy.

        (The JFK museum is also essentially a hagiography, but that’s basically to be expected…)

  • Perhaps they should spend their time learning the ins and outs of concrete (in reference to Orange is the New Black).

  • Halloween Jack

    Former public librarian here, not surprised; when people make the case for banning books, either for the general public or in cases like this, they usually cite things such as hardcore porn or how-to books on committing crimes, but it always ends up being someone’s personal peeve list.

  • Crusty

    Half serious thought here- is it possible that some of the Nazi stuff stays approved because of the strength of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang? I don’t know how high up this list is made- guard who needs to survive every day or the governor?

    • dl

      I assume that books are added to the list as they are sent to the prison and deemed unacceptable. I assume the reason Mein Kampf etc are not on the list is because no one has been dumb enough to send that to a prisoner, not because the prison administration approves the message. There are plenty of good arguments against over-censoring, but it’s a disservice to mix those with click-baity claims like “but Mein Kampf is OK! Stupid racist Texas!”

      If my assumptions are wrong about how this works, I am happy to be corrected

    • SamInMpls

      That was my thought as well after reading this from a Texas Tribune piece from 2011:

      TDCJ officials say the purpose of the book review is to ensure publications don’t “incite tensions” in the prison system. “It’s not a matter of picking books we like and don’t like,” said agency spokeswoman Michelle Lyons. “It’s a matter of maintaining a safe environment.”

      This report from the Texas Civil Rights Project documents practices that could support that conclusion. However, the report doesn’t itself make that claim.

      For example, the “sexually explicit images” justification was used on books like Guns, Germs and Steel and We Were Soldiers Once… And Young but magazines like FHM 100 Sexiest Women in the World, Swimsuit International, Swimwear Illustrated, Bachelor’s Beat, Bikini, Bikini Girls, and Hombre.

      The report calls out a pattern where the TDCJ applies standards in a way that is arbitrary and illogical but in some cases appears to be quite intentional. It allows them to very easily censor books that are critical of prison conditions or discussions of civil rights.

      My impression, especially after reading about the hostility the TDCJ has towards self-help books, is that while the rules are written so that both Mein Kaumpf and any of the bikini magazines could be added to the banned list, they likely aren’t because they fit into the TDCJ’s idea of what fits with their idea of inmate reading material.

  • EliHawk

    I have to say, I’d totally watch a prison break movie revolving around Bob Dole.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Flight of the One-Armed Bandits

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