Opinion: Should Prisons Ban Books?

The world has a long and grueling history of wanting to ban books. For one reason or another, different books have been dubbed offensive, inappropriate or explicit, leading to their attempted removal from select bookshelves across the globe. Although plenty of books are challenged by individuals or groups of people seeking to eradicate further diffusion of given books, very few end up being banned.

Prisons, in contrast, have a history of censoring and banning far more books than the general public. This, of course, makes sense; books which even remotely encourage ideas of violence, dissent or escape can trigger actions among prisoners. Moreover, since written works can be distributed so easily, these ideas could potentially be triggered in the masses.

Attempted censorship proves that language, both verbal and written, is a powerful tool, and it has been recognized as such for centuries. Intermingled with the history of slavery in the United States is the existence of language restriction among the slave population, allowing white slave owners to assert more power over a group of slaves by depriving them of language and education.

Aboard slave ships moving from Africa to America, slaves were strategically surrounded by others who did not speak their same language in order to minimize their ability to conspire with one another and revolt. Once they reached America, slaves were deprived of the opportunity to have an education, rendering most unable to read or write. Not affording slaves the opportunity to gain the tool of literacy allowed slave owners to prevent conspiracies leading to mass protests among the slave community.

The similarities between slaves and prisoners go no further than incarceration, but the motives behind banning books in prisons can be explained by history and the deep-rooted connection between language and power. This explains the motives behind New York’s latest ban on books in their state prisons. Thus far, only six book companies have been approved by the state to sell books to prisons, and the books they are permitted to sell are extremely limited.

New Jersey and Texas recently implemented similar policies and updated the books banned in their prisons as well. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “The Color Purple” are two titles among 10,000 which prisoners will no longer be able to read in Texas.

While prohibiting books which incite dangerous situations or rebellion is fair, where can the line be drawn? Will reading “A Charlie Brown Christmas” truly motivate prisoners to formulate escape plans, cause harm to other inmates or protest? The answer, clearly, is no. A children’s book will not instill these attitudes.

In fact, barring prisoners from reading novels could end with a result far from the desired effect. Forbidding prisoners from reading these novels has the potential to inhibit a feeling of isolation and frustration among inmates, leading them to desire rebellion or escape.

If banning books has the potential for a negative outcome, allowing prisoners to continue reading diligently certainly has the potential for a positive one. For example, John Healy once lived a life filled to the brim with heavy drinking and petty crimes. He was jailed for a time, but the ability to read books opened his eyes during his time in jail. His 1988 memoir “The Grass Arena” accounts his transition from his troubled past to successful present situation. Healy claims that books put life into perspective for readers, allowing them to understand their actions and the magnitude of their impact on others. He credits reading for paving his path toward success.

Healy is not alone in believing that reading changed his life. Reginald Dwayne Betts and Michelle Jones share similar stories. Both were incarcerated for crimes of different degrees but claim that reading while behind bars allowed them to turn their lives around for the better. These three success stories are just a handful in a pool full of comparable tales. In fact, studies found that inmates who underwent correctional education while behind bars, and thus had access to reading, had a 43 percent lower chance of lapsing back into criminal patterns after being released from prison.

Knowledge is power, and language is a key component of knowledge. Attempting to restrict language by banning reading is logical – limiting language lessens the chance for upheaval and conspiracies. Not all books, however, contain themes which incite violence. Many paint a bigger picture of humanity, love and treatment of others. By limiting the availability of these powerful messages in federal and state institutions, prisoners are deprived of not only the chance to learn but the chance to turn their lives around for the better.

Photo by Jordan Revenaugh

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