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Librarians despise censorship. How can prison librarians handle that? It’s complicated.

The banning of “The New Jim Crow” in New Jersey prisons shows how messy censorship can be.

(Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Last week, officials at the American Civil Liberties Union made public a letter they had written to the New Jersey Department of Corrections, accusing the department of violating inmates’ rights: Several prisons were refusing to allow inmates access to the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. Restricting prisoners from reading about injustices in the U.S. prison system struck many as a shocking and ironic overreach. And the state apparently agreed. After being challenged by the ACLU, the department decided to reinstate the book and vowed to review restriction policies for prison libraries.

This was hardly the first time prison library censorship has drawn criticism. At the end of 2017, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice came under fire when it was discovered that the prison system banned such books as “The Color Purple” and a collection of Shakespearean sonnets, while inmates were free to read Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” And this month, news that New York’s state prison system is restricting what books an inmate may receive through the mail to a handful of claptrap titles generated instant outrage.

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But the decision to censor “The New Jim Crow” is a good example of the complicated, and at times arbitrary, censorship of materials in prisons and of the difficult position it puts librarians in, a position I became familiar with during my time as a prison librarian.

There is nothing more contentious for librarians than censorship. The right to read is considered a right guaranteed to all citizens, and the American Library Association has enshrined the core principles of that right in the Library Bill of Rights and in its Professional Code of Ethics. Of the six articles in the Library Bill of Rights, the first four pertain solely to censorship and access to information. Article III of the Professional Code of Ethics demands that libraries challenge censorship.

It may shock many librarians to know that prison librarians partake in the censoring process and that they are not compromising their ethical ideals. ALA states in the Professional Code of Ethics that its principles are “broad statements to guide ethical decision-making” and “do not dictate conduct to cover particular situations.” I can say that working in a prison library is most definitely a particular situation.

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Prison libraries are busy hubs where inmates can research case law, state and federal codes, and rules of court, thanks to a Supreme Court decision that mandates inmate access to legal resource material. They are also centers of recreation, allowing inmates time to check out fiction and nonfiction books, watch movies, peruse magazines and newspapers and listen to music. The inmates entitled to legal material, but as far as determining access to everything else? That’s tricky.

Each prison system has its own rules for determining whether inmates can access a publication in the library or through material sent in the mail from friends and family. Censorship starts in the mailroom, where books are screened for restricted content as described in a state’s code. Books suspected of being in violation are sent to a committee, which can place the material on a restricted list. Books, music and magazines are restricted for many reasons, including some obvious ones: advice on weapon-making, escaping confinements and making alcohol. Others are less obvious, such as material on mental manipulation and control techniques, including “The 48 Laws of Power” and “The Art of Seduction” by Robert Greene.

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When I began working as a prison librarian, I had no idea that books were restricted. But I quickly encountered censorship and just as quickly began to understand why it exists in this setting.

My prison library was small and served about 2,000 inmates. They loved visiting the library. The most popular nonfiction topic was self-help, and I cannot count how many times an inmate requested “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The most popular fiction genre was sci-fi and fantasy, followed by mystery. “The Monster Hunter” and Percy Jackson books were popular, and so was anything by Patricia Cornwell. Inmates considered it a privilege to visit the library, and none of them wanted to mess up their chance at coming on their housing unit’s library days.

I had a lot of duties as a prison librarian: I did legal research, notarized documents, obtained books, answered inmate mail, hired and trained inmate workers, ordered magazines and newspapers, responded to fights, ran reports and surveys, taught workshops and biweekly résumé classes, organized the collection, and coordinated interlibrary loan processing. I interacted daily with hundreds of inmates, who would sometimes wait more than half an hour in line to ask me a question. Some of my favorites:

“I need to know how to be a legal squatter.”

“I need an obituary, but I don’t know the person’s name or if they’re dead.”

“Can you get me a book on deboning animals?”

“What’s the gestation time for a field mouse?” (I’m 99 percent sure the inmate had a pet mouse.)

“Can you get me reports on respiratory illness caused from pigeon poop?”

“Hypothetically, if you committed BLANK crime, what’s the statute of limitations? Remember, I’m asking hypothetically.”

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I saw firsthand how the library played a role in the rehabilitation process. I had an inmate worker who wanted to get his GED, so I obtained some GED math-prep books from the prison’s school for him. One day he walked up to me and said: “Mr. Hart! I’ve figured it out! I’ve been doing math my whole life: I was doing it when I was selling drugs. I didn’t realize it until now.” That same inmate came up to me a couple of months later and thanked me for a poem I had hung at the reference desk. It was a quote from Mother Teresa. I had made copies of it available, and he had taken one and had hung it in his cell. He said that the night before, he and his cellmate were going to fight, but then he saw the poem and decided not to.

I saw the library change the lives of inmates for the better. An indirect effect that a prison library has on prisoners is keeping them entertained so they don’t get into confrontations with one another and the staff. Idle hands cause mischief, and keeping a book in those hands kept inmates out of trouble.

And even though censorship is against my profession’s core standards of conduct, I quickly realized that I can ethically censor materials by having good faith in the material review process and by being willing to meet the information needs of inmates by other means. The restricted material list maintained by a prison system is mainly there to highlight material that a librarian may not realize is dangerous. For example, I had someone request a book on tai chi. To me, tai chi is innocuous, but it is, in fact, a martial art. The restricted material list is supposed to protect inmates and staff members from dangerous information. Anything that incites violence toward others, instructs readers on the making or procuring of drugs or weapons, or describes graphic sexual encounters are all restricted.

And even though I do not believe in censorship, it was obvious to me that a book about drugs, fighting or weapons did not belong in a prison setting. It wasn’t about censorship but the reality of what a prison is.

The downside of censorship in prisons is that material can be restricted for only one occurrence of a code violation, even if the book is a well-known and meritorious work. Will some material that shouldn’t be restricted wind up on a list of unapproved material? Yes. Is that terrible? Yes. Can situations like the ones mentioned above be avoided by more careful review of material and application of code? Yes. The controversy isn’t that we allow censorship but that a book like “The New Jim Crow” that does not pose a threat to prison security can land on the restricted list. But the list is not permanent. Public pressure that comes from controversial restrictions will only encourage the refinement of how prisons choose what materials to keep from inmates.

Prison librarians are still librarians. They have the responsibility to respectfully raise their concerns when it appears that an item has been wrongfully restricted. While keeping an open mind and being willing to hear the reasons why a material was restricted, librarians can be a helpful countercheck on the process. If an opposing voice had been heard, what happened in New Jersey might have been avoided.