When author Silja Talvi approached Lou Johnson about sharing her experiences behind bars, Johnson was happy to participate. Talvi, an investigative journalist by profession, was writing a book about incarcerated women, and wanted them to tell their stories in order to bring the abuse and trauma that was so common to women in the prison system out of the shadows. Johnson could not wait to read a copy of the final book and see her own story in black and white. She had described the degradation and anguish of having been denied meals after breaking basic rules like talking in line, being denied adequate medical care, and being required to perform hideous jobs in prison. She ordered Talvi’s book as soon as it was on the market.
As it turns out, Johnson never did read her own account, not to mention the stories that hundreds of other women contributed, because the book was censored due to a passage that was determined to be harmful to the rehabilitation of offenders because it encouraged deviant sexual behavior. An examination of the prison system indicates that it was one of hundreds—perhaps even thousands of works that have been banned for multiple reasons, including:
- Text that could encourage sexually deviant actions;
- Directions to make drugs, weapons, or bombs;
- Content relating to prison escapes;
- Material that might provoke strikes, riots, or gang violence;
- Sexually explicit material.
Like many book bans in schools and libraries across the country, sometimes a book is targeted due to a single passage taken out of context, resulting in the removal of an entire book from an approved list. Materials that address topics that are particularly relevant to many behind bars become off-limits, such as those dealing with issues of race, poverty, and gender identity. Even books written by prominent authors and Pulitzer Prize winners have been excluded from prison libraries, including books by Sinclair Lewis, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Alice Walker. Books about civil rights, critical of the prison system, or addressing crime are frequently out of reach for prisoners, meaning Black and LGBTQ authors are winnowed out. Prohibitions even exist on books about tattoos, maps, survival guides, computer programming, and magazines that contain undesirable advertising.
Some states allow only books sent by the publisher. Others forbid family and friends from sending reading materials to inmates. Some states allow particular bookstores to send books, while others allow approved vendors only. The explanation often given for this is that prison security is simply trying to control contraband from coming into its walls through books. Just how much in the way of illegal substances is coming from books is never actually defined, nor is the impact of book bans on controlling the input of these substances clear. And because there is very little transparency with such policies, details of how and when books are banned is often difficult to fully understand. What we do know is that in California, the bans are inconsistent because they are often at the discretion of a particular entity.
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