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To Make Prisons ‘Safer,’ Some Are Banning . . . Books

There have long been policies in place to keep people in prison from reading materials that could encourage them to protest or escape, thereby threatening the general security of the prison. Federal courts have allowed prisons to censor books, and it’s common practice for states to keep lists of books they consider dangerous.

That makes sense, in theory. New York, for example, has long restricted books with maps as well as those with nudity. Yet a nudity ban means that art history, figure drawing and anatomy books are also banned. Meantime, the Texas Department of Criminal justice has a confounding list of 10,000 banned books that includes “Where’s Waldo? Santa Spectacular,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Freakonomics” and “The Color Purple.”

What’s clear is that in most states such policies are unclear, with people finding out if a book is not allowed only after it has been mailed, leading to frustration, wasted time and money.

“There needs to be transparency and accountability in the process which determines what materials are censored,” Amol Sinha, executive director of New Jersey’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter, wrote me in an email this week, after New Jersey came under fire when news broke that two prisons had banned Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” The New Jersey Department of Corrections has since lifted the ban.

“It’s really arbitrary what’s banned,” said Amy Peterson, who works with Books Through Bars collective, an organization that sends books to incarcerated people in 40 states free of charge. She estimates they send about 700 packages a month. Within the past year, a human figure drawing book was sent back for being pornographic, as was a history book featuring Nick Ut’s famous “Napalm Girl” photograph.

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