GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Many people use books as an escape — to take their mind off their everyday stressors, both big and small. It would make sense that prison inmates would gravitate toward books when confined to a jail cell or a prison yard.
Virtually every prison system has a book program that is carefully crafted to ensure any potentially troubling pieces are left out.
In Michigan, the banned book list is crafted by the Department of Corrections. The restricted publications list as of April 2022 includes more than 1,200 items, including 1,000 books, 125 newspapers, magazines or articles, 55 games and 30 unclassified items like pamphlets.
Some books on the list are restricted for obvious reasons: books that showcase illegal sex acts or advocate for violence. But others, less so, like “Bookkeeping for Dummies” or “Web Design Demystified.”
MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz says it’s all about safety — for both the corrections officers and other inmates.
“The safety of our staff and the prisoners that are in our facilities is certainly priority No. 1,” Gautz told News 8.
Officer safety and maintaining order, according to a 1989 Supreme Court ruling, must be held above First Amendment rights for inmates.
“The warden may reject it ‘only if it is determined detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity,'” Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in the court opinion for Thornburg v. Abbott.
SUPPRESSING LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES?
Several inmate advocacy groups have asked why books on computer coding or learning a foreign language should be banned? Why oppress opportunities for inmates to prepare for success after they have served their sentence?
Adam Steinbaugh with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression told Vice News that there is no real way to hold those prison systems accountable.
“People in prisons have First Amendment rights, and there needs to be some scrutiny of the limitations that prison officials put on the materials that incarcerated people have access to,” Steinbaugh said. “If they can just categorize anything and everything as a threat to order and security, they can pretty much limit anything they want to.”
Michigan inmates told NPR last year that the current appeals process never yields any results.
“It’s just there because they have to give us some form of process to seek administrative remedies, but very seldom does anybody get any relief,” one inmate said.
Compared to other states, Michigan’s list is “somewhere in the middle,” according to Gautz.
“There are some states that have tens of thousands of books. There are some that have a couple hundred. We’re certainly in the middle of that. Every state does it a little bit differently,” Gautz said.
While some of the titles on the list may seem questionable, he said there are specific reasons they are included, and defended MDOC’s role in helping inmates better themselves for a brighter future beyond prison.
“We certainly have placed a great deal of value on education. We have programs and partnerships with a variety of post-secondary institutions to have prisoners be able to get associates or bachelor’s degrees while they are in prison,” Gautz said. “We are the single largest adult provider of basic education in the state, providing more (graduate equivalency degrees) than any other entity in the state.”
For many seemingly questionable titles, it comes down to how the books or articles could impact the inmates and the community there and potentially expose them to opportunities to commit more crimes.
Gautz noted that books involving taxes may be withheld to prevent white-collar criminals from trying to form fake business ventures or filing bogus tax returns even from behind bars.
“There are ways for those individuals who need that level of education, that can happen through our normal channels,” Gautz said. “But someone who is in prison for life. The only reason they may need a book to learn how to file business taxes might be for an illicit purpose because they wouldn’t be able to do that from behind bars.”
He continued: “Just having a general prisoner learning how to program a computer or electronics or something with locking mechanisms, things like that, we would not want prisoners to learn how to do. It’s not something that we would want every prisoner to be able to have a whole stack of books on how to wire a house or a commercial building. But somebody who is in our electrician program, absolutely they would have those materials provided to them. … But prisoners in for life or someone who has tried to escape multiple times, it’s not the kind of reading material we want sitting on their shelf at night.”
And for Dungeons and Dragons, it’s not the books the MDOC is worried about as much as the dice and the role-playing aspect of the game.
“Certain role-playing games or games in which groups of prisoners would gather together and declare someone to be a leader or show some fealty to one individual, then you get into gang territory, or you have prison gangs who may be masquerading as if they are playing a role-playing game,” Gautz said. “And sometimes there are dice or there are cards, and especially dice are not materials that we allow prisoners to have because they can use that for gambling or other purposes.”
MDOC SAYS CHANGES ARE COMING
While Gautz stands behind the need for a list, he believes there is room for improvement.
Currently, mail staffers at each prison facility review periodicals and publications as they are received. They flag certain things if they believe they would violate MDOC policy.
Andy Chan, with the nonprofit Books To Prisoners, explained to Vice News why that process is too subjective.
“There are different layers (of decision making) from the Department of Corrections down to the individual superintendents of the prison down to the mailroom sergeants and whoever happens to be working in the mailroom whenever a package comes in,” Chan said. “If they see something with what they have determined at whichever level is a threat to the good old order of the community, they can typically reject it.”
The MDOC is working to centralize that process with a new literary review committee. Those officials will handle requests and appeals going forward and review the current banned list to see if any publications should be reconsidered.
A centralized committee could present a clearer standard on what is and is not allowed and provide much-needed precedence to be used in arguing an appeal.
With the new committee, Gautz expects the list to shrink some in the coming years.
“There are certain books that are mainstays on every department’s list around the country. And I have no doubt would stay on the list. But there are certainly some around the margins,” Gautz told News 8. “In order to receive a book, they have to be new books anyway. So, ‘Internet for Dummies’ from 1994 is not one that you’re going to be able to buy (a new version) on Amazon. So, that’s an example of a book that could fall off the list.”
He continued: “The literary review committee, once it is established later this year, is going to be able to hopefully shrink that list down to just the essentials and then have a process going forward to make sure that items that do end up on that list will stand the test of time and need to be on that list for the safety of the individuals or the facility.”