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Banned Books in Prison

There’s a news article about prison libraries that makes me wonder what stance the ALA would take on the matter.

In almost all ways it’s an exemplary tale of how New York city libraries are trying to provide library service to the local prison populations. This is a great thing to do unless the goal of prison is merely to provide prisoners with unrelieved misery.

And given the amount of time prisoners have on their hands, reading is a popular activity. The main problem is a lack of books and service.

For example, at the prison the Brooklyn Public Library is working with, the “library” consists of a cart that can hold 2-300 books, which is wheeled around like the meal and medicine carts.

That at least implies that reading material is as essential to life as food and medicine, which I suspect many librarians would agree with. However, a wheeled cart is hardly like a decently stocked library that prisoners can browse. It’s even worse than a bookmobile.

The libraries also would like book donations, since the prisons don’t have a budget for books. Although if you donate you should “contact the library system first to make sure you send something they need.” That set of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu I have lying around probably wouldn’t make the cut, as much as I’d be willing to part with it.

But some donations are simply not allowed. “Writing about gang terminology or signs, guides to fashioning weapons and the like are verboten.”

Here is where I expect the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom to take a stand, at least if they want to be consistent. All information should be made available to all people, according to them, whether it’s Internet porn in the children’s section of libraries or anything else.

After all, if the potential harm of exposure to certain material is irrelevant, which apparently what the ALA thinks, then letting prisoners read about gang terminology or guides to fashioning weapons shouldn’t be stopped.

Another point to consider on this book ban is just how many books are there that could be banned. Searching Amazon I found one book about making prison weapons, and that was an ebook.

Unfortunately for prisoners who rely on books rather than fellow prisoners or common sense to fashion their weapons, the ebook revolution hasn’t made it to prisons.

I did find a couple of books on gang terminology, although I’m assuming gang members in prison wouldn’t enjoy much of Gang Slang. It looks like a fun book, but here’s the opening of the blurb: “Are you a nob, on a one-way ride? Perhaps you’re a mechanic, or a standover man? Do you have brown kotchel or do you go mumping?”

Something tells me that contemporary New York prisoners don’t take nobs on one way rides, although I’ll admit my knowledge of New York City gangs is limited to the film The Warriors, and that movie, while extremely realistic for its time, is now rather dated.

So it looks like this might be a book ban for books that probably don’t exist. Nonetheless, a book ban it is. And we know the OIF is opposed to banning books, because banning books is censorship.

Thus, the prisons are practicing censorship against the prison population, and that’s the sort of censorship up with which the OIF should not put!

So, OIF, are you going to take a stand on this? Be true to your principles? Chastise those New York City librarians for participating in this book ban?

If porn for children is okay, why not Gang Slang for prisoners? What, aren’t prisoners people, too?

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Comments

  1. Laura S. says:

    I’m not sure how the ALA would respond to this but I can quote the Freedom to Read Statement that they have on their website: “Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary citizen, by exercising critical judgment, will accept the good and reject the bad. The censors, public and private, assume that they should determine what is good and what is bad for their fellow citizens.”— The Freedom to Read Statement

    Please note that it says “the ordinary citizen”. I would venture that prisoners do not qualify as “ordinary citizens” because other rights are taken away. Are we going to be up in arms about prisoners not getting every single book they want when we’ve taken away their most basic of rights? They essentially belong to the state while in prison and, whether you like it or not, they do not have control over where they sleep, what they eat, and what they read.
    What libraries are doing is trying to expand services where they can. There are a great deal of books that CAN be made available to prisoners and there are librarians doing great work making that available.
    To your point about there not being many books on gang signs or making prison weapons, you may need to think more like a librarian. While I’m sure the books you mentioned would be banned, what is more concerning to the warden and C.O.s is novels that glorify violence or feature a character who is in prison and fashioning a weapon, possibly giving an unsafe idea or even clear directions to a violent prisoner.
    On a related note, I know that other types of books are banned in most prisons. Pop-up books or other books that facilitate the hiding of contraband are strictly not allowed. Glad for the discussion, keep listening, keep learning.