NEW YORK —The nearly 150,000 inmates in Texas prisons are barred from using Facebook, possessing cellphones, and receiving snacks in the mail. They are also prohibited from reading the pop-up edition of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “The Color Purple,” and the 1908 Sears, Roebuck catalog.
The publications are among the 10,000 titles banned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a list that includes bestsellers like “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “A Time to Kill” and even obscure works, such as the “MapQuest Road Atlas.” Not banned: “Mein Kampf” by Adolf Hitler and books by white nationalists, including David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard.
Security at the roughly 50 state prisons across Texas extends beyond barbed-wire fences and cell-by-cell searches to include the careful reading of every book and magazine sent to inmates. The reviews are conducted not by guards but rather by mailroom staff members, who skim the pages looking for graphic sexual content and material that could help inmates make a weapon, plot an escape, or stir disorder.
“If the book does not violate the uniform offender correspondence policy, then offenders are allowed to have it,” said Jason Clark, a spokesman at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “Offenders have access to thousands of publications.”
More than 248,000 titles are on the approved list, which was published by The Dallas Morning News in November. It extends to all genres, from self-help to mysteries and how-to guides to romance.
It also includes 20 books by the humor writer Dave Barry. But one of his books, “All the Dave Barry You Could Ever Want,” a compilation of four books, was banned. It includes “criminal schemes,” another no-no, the corrections department said.
Barry, a longtime columnist at The Miami Herald, was baffled by the decision.
“I can’t imagine why the Texas Department of Criminal Justice would ban them, unless they’re worried that the inmates would overpower the guards using fart jokes,” Barry said in an e-mail.
Another South Florida writer, Carl Hiaasen, has several books on the approved list, but one of his novels, “Double Whammy,” was outlawed. A thriller with dark humor, “Double Whammy” is about a private detective who investigates a suspected cheater in bass fishing tournaments.
Inmates are prohibited from reading it, the department said, because it contains information about manufacturing explosives.
“Maybe the folks in the Department of Corrections mailroom are devout bass fishermen, and they feel insulted by the satiric tone of the novel,” Hiaasen said in an e-mail. “In any case, I get enough letters from inmates to know they enjoy humorous books.”
He added: “It’s difficult to imagine how ‘Double Whammy’ would spark an uprising. I confess to feeling flattered that I made the Texas list.”
For inmates, reading is not only a form of escapism but also an opportunity to improve their chances of assimilating back into society after their release, reports about literacy in prison have found. In general, inmates suffer from illiteracy or struggle to read at rates far greater than the rest of the population, according to a 1994 study of inmates in federal and state prisons.
“To block access to ‘Where’s Waldo’ on the one hand, and Shakespeare on the other, doesn’t preserve order,” said James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association. “It preserves ignorance and imprisonment. All too often, prison censorship, in addition to being an arbitrary abuse of authority, denies the incarcerated the chance to get out of jail and stay out.”
Federal courts have upheld the right of prisons to censor books. Still, the lists of approved and banned books in Texas prison have surprises. Many controversial books are allowed. They include “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis, about a serial-killing Manhattan businessman, and “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov.
But the pop-up edition of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is prohibited (could hide contraband inside it), as is “The Color Purple,” the 1983 novel that won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award (incest). As for that 1908 Sears, Roebuck catalog, it includes information on weapons.
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