Reading Material in Prison

Over the years I have sent Steve books and subscriptions to magazines (all of which are required to be mailed from a bookstore or the publisher), and have printed and mailed him all sorts of articles (some because they describe legal issues pertinent to his case, and others just because I thought he might find them interesting). After he’s read a book, Steve gives it to the prison library, which rebinds the paperbacks as hardbacks, and then allows other inmates to check them out.

That isn’t to say that everything is wonderful and easy regarding providing material for inmates to read. The TDCJ does have a number of restrictions on what can be made available to them. Here’s their official policy, as outlined in the General Information Guide for Families of Offenders.

“Newspapers, magazines, and books may be mailed directly to offenders only by the publisher, publication supplier, or bookstore; subject to review and rejection in accordance with the correspondence rules.”

Rejection can be for a variety of reasons. Books, magazines, or letters can’t contain any “sexually explicit images.” They detail exactly what that includes or doesn’t include on page 3 of TDCJ’s Board Policy document on correspondence rules.

Packages arriving or leaving the prison are checked for contraband or violations of board policy, with one exception: Envelopes to lawyers and members of the media can be sealed before the inmate mails them. Envelopes arriving from lawyers or the media to an inmate are checked by a mailroom employee for contraband, but it’s done in the presence of the inmate, and the contents aren’t read by the employee. All other mail or packages are searched and can be read. The book or magazine can be rejected if the contents contain contraband or comments that violate certain policies. For example: threats, plans for escape or for some “future criminal activity,” graphic images of sexual behavior, along with a few other rules [page 9-10 of the board policy].

Rejections have happened to Steve a couple of times. TDCJ maintains a list of banned books which they have already determined violate board policy, and one of books that have been approved. If a banned book arrives it is automatically rejected. If a book isn’t on either list, the mailroom employee is supposed to read the book and determine which list it should be on.

If the item isn’t already banned or approved, they decide, usually by skimming through it, whether the inmate will receive it or not. What that usually means is that someone who probably isn’t qualified to make such a judgment (who may not have the literary skills, or even perhaps has a grudge against the intended inmate) gets to decide whether everyone in the entire prison system reads certain material. Countless books have been rejected because they contain something offensive (like racial epithets), but some extremely racist books, like Hitler’s Mein Kampf and David Dukes’ My Awakening have been allowed. Books critical of the prison system are also usually rejected, which means Steve won’t get to read the final version of my book unless he is paroled or his conviction is overturned (neither is an immediate possibility).

Years ago, after he was incarcerated, I gave Steve a subscription to one of his favorite magazines, Texas Monthly. In November 2015, the magazine published an article by Michael Hall called “The Outcast.” It was about the difficulty that Greg Torti, a convicted sex offender, faced once he was released from prison (even though he had been innocent of the crime he was convicted for). A remarkable, deeply human story, it related so directly to Steve’s situation (or at least to the situation I hope he will someday face, a return to society) that I wanted to know what he thought of the article.

He never got to see it. That issue of the magazine was rejected because, in the article, Mr. Torti talked about being raped when he was a child. That meant that no inmate in any of TDCJ’s prisons read that article or anything else in that issue. With magazines, TDCJ bans the entire issue, not just the article.

I also tried to send Steve a copy of the book Shantaram. I heard about it in an interview with actress, Shailene Woodley. I got the book for myself and loved it. It was rejected by the TDCJ when I ordered a copy for Steve because there’s a description of a prison break in it. Oddly, Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption is on the approved list even though the whole point of the story is about breaking out of prison. It seems to be a massively arbitrary system.

There have been several good articles about TDCJ’s policy for banning books. Here are a few. The one from The Dallas Morning News also has links to TDCJ’S lists of approved and banned books.

The Dallas Morning News   Slate Magazine   The New York Times   Austin-American Statesman   Texas Monthly   The Washington Post

If you’ve had any interesting experiences trying to keep a loved one in prison entertained, I would love to hear about them.

Michael Sirois

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