Uncovered by the Human Rights Defense Center, unpublished lists from Kansas and Illinois reveal books prison officials deem “dangerous” or “illicit.” My graphic novel teaching inmates to reflect before writing grievances is on their lists.
They are grand lists, I must say! Two hundred, four hundred! The security of those prisons must be indeed fragile since officials worry that “Ficton Workshop,” “Mapping Your Future: a guide to successful reentry,” and cookbooks are a threat. Not to mention, ahem, my graphic novel.
This censorship is worrying for all sorts of reasons. First, the choices are hidden from both the inmates and the public, so we don’t know what books that we buy and send in and acceptable. Second, there’s no coherence between units or within systems, or state-wide or nation-wide systems. It’s chaos.
Third, the lists are suspiciously filled with African American titles. Apparently any autobiography or biography of an African American sends chills through the reviewers. Many of these books trace a life similar to many of the lives of prisoners–because the books describe the background, the imprisonment, and then the life change. How can those books be considered threatening? One of the best Young Adult novels, Hole in my Life, describes Jack Gantos’ early mistakes, his treatment in the prison, and his success afterwards as a fiction writer and award winner. That is inspiring–not enticing toward his earlier errors.
Or how about The Black Church in the African American Experience. Or the Cambridge Companion to African American Novels. I see a trend here, don’t you?
These officials operate in secret; their ‘publication committees’ never seem to meet with literature authorities or psychologists. They probably never ever see the book or magazine. Surely if anyone had opened my graphic novel, she would have noted that 1/2 of it is an admonition to inmates to stop writing frivolous grievances, to avoid retribution, to write clearly, to follow rules, to be respectful. But nope! Banned. Then the lists are not made public until a group like the HRDC forces them to reveal through an Open Records Request. Most of us, authors and friends of inmates, can’t qualify as a party to an Open Records Request.
Only when the public begins to acknowledge that we need transparent oversight of prison authorities–rather than mute acceptance–will citizens Inside have the few privileges that publications can offer. Aren’t we all dedicated to education? Don’t we know the majority of these people will return to our society, and should perhaps have been allowed to read a cookbook before they get here?