Book Banning Behind Bars
When Lou Johnson was approached by an investigative journalist named Silja Talvi about sharing her experiences behind bars, she was happy to participate. Talvi was writing a book, and wanted women who were experiencing incarceration to tell their stories in order to shine a light on the abuse and trauma that was so common to women in the prison system. So when the book went to print, Johnson couldn’t wait to read a copy and see her own story in black and white. She’d detailed the humiliation and angst of being denied meals after small rules infractions, of being deprived of sufficient medical care, and of being forced to perform horrendous jobs in the prison. She ordered Talvi’s book as soon as it was on the market.
Unfortunately, Johnson was unable to read her own account or those of hundreds of other women, because the book had been censored due to an aberrant passage that was deemed harmful to the rehabilitation of offenders in that it encouraged deviant behavior. An examination of the prison system indicates that it was one of hundreds of titles that has been banned for reasons across the spectrum, including:
- Presenting escape scenarios;
- Having material that might incite a strike or riot, or gang violence;
- Including sexually explicit material;
- Providing instructions to make weapons, bombs, or drugs;
- Encouraging sexually deviant actions.
As in the case of so many book bans, sometimes a single passage was targeted out of context in order to remove an entire book from the approved list, thereby leading to the ban of numerous materials dealing with topics salient to many behind bars. Books addressing issues of race, poverty, and sex, even those written by Pulitzer Prize winning writers, have been out of reach to prisoners, including books by Norman Mailer, John Updike, Sinclair Lewis, and Alice Walker. Books relating to civil rights, books critical of the prison system, and books addressing crime are often inaccessible to people behind bars, but the list of materials that are censored goes well beyond that. Prohibitions often exist on survival guides, maps, and magazines that contain undesirable advertising.
Some states allow only books sent by the publisher. Some forbid friends and family from sending reading materials. Still others allow particular bookstores to send books. Approved vendors are designated in some areas, including Nevada. The explanation is often that prison security is trying to control contraband from coming in through books, but just how much in the way of illegal substances is coming from books is never really pinned down. And the truth is, there is very little transparency with these policies, so the details of how and when books are banned is often difficult to fully understand. What we do know in Nevada is that the bans are inconsistent, and security issues that are not truly connected to the materials have received legal challenges over the years. It seems materials addressing legal issues in prison and giving prisoners the tools to address them are often at issue.
Constitutional rights do not evaporate when someone goes to prison—at least they shouldn’t. At Lobo Law our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys believe everyone deserves a fair shake, and we’ve built our reputation on fighting for the rights of our clients. Schedule a confidential consultation in our Las Vegas office today.