What should prisoners read? Not Cosmo, Ohio says


Inmates in Ohio prisons have been denied reading materials — from the Men’s Fitness Exercise Bible to computer programming textbooks and a World War II memoir — under rules meant to ban any publications that pose a threat to safety and security.

In addition to prison libraries and books available to prisoners through education classes, incarcerated individuals can receive books and magazines through the mail from family and friends or as a subscription from a publisher. Each title is reviewed to ensure that it doesn’t violate administrative rules banning any material, “deemed to be detrimental to, or to pose a threat to the rehabilitation of inmates; the security of the institution; or, the good order or discipline of the institution.”

Examples of materials that are not allowed include: sexually explicit material, depictions of violence, material describing or promoting homosexual activity in the institution, depictions or instructions for making weapons or for escaping incarceration, and any promotion of illegal drug use.

RELATED: Ohio prisons fighting drones that traffic drugs

On a list of more than 850 books, magazines and other printed material screened by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s Publications Screening Committee since late 2013, about three-quarters were denied delivery to the inmate under those rules.

But an examination of the list by this newspaper revealed a lot of inconsistency and publications being banned where the subject matter didn’t fall under those categories.

Single issues of mainstream magazines such as GQ, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Fitness, Popular Mechanics, Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and Psychology Today have been confiscated, sometimes because of a single article about sexuality or a racy photo.

“We would argue that it should be a very small list of books that are kept away, only those books that might disrupt the prison system and create some kind of safety concern,” said Mike Brickner, senior policy director for the ACLU of Ohio, which advocates for prisoner rights. “Otherwise prisoners should have access to a wide range of books and ideas that ultimately will help to benefit them and the prison environment.”

Access ‘incredibly important’

Several prisons in New Jersey drew the ire of the ACLU earlier this month for banning the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” The award-winning bestseller by Michelle Alexander, argues that the U.S. criminal justice system amounts to “a contemporary system of racial control.”

New Jersey’s prison rules are similar to Ohio’s, banning books that pose a safety risk or are overly sexual in nature. After the ACLU sent a letter arguing that banning Alexander’s book was a First Amendment violation, the prisons reversed their decision and said they intend take a look at the entire banned book list.

There have been no recent complaints against Ohio prisons restricting access to publications about criminal justice or the prison system, Brickner said. The list of screened books shows many such titles permitted, including a memoir by one of the men accused in the Lucasville prison riots. But others were denied, such as the former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley’s “The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison.”

RELATED: Lebanon most violent prison in Ohio, study finds

Beyond access to information and ideas being a fundamental right, civil rights advocates argue there are many benefits to allowing a broad flow of publications to inmates.

“It’s incredibly important for a prisoner’s own rehabilitation, that they can read books that can help them learn a job skill or help them better understand the world, or help their own personal development,” Brickner said.

Ohio prisons have denied prisoners access to some computer coding books, including LINUX study guides. Administrative rules ban any material that is “written in code.”

ODRC officials refused to answer questions about how learning computer coding, a potential job skill, would pose a risk to the safety of other inmates.

Another big benefit? Fending off boredom, which can lead to misbehavior inside prisons.

“These facilities can be very tedious places to be,” Brickner said. “Prisoners that are not feeling engaged and stimulated, that often leads to more problems at a facility, where prisoners get restless and have more negative interactions with each other or with corrections officers.

RELATED: Serious staff assaults reach high in Ohio prisons

Studies have shown that depriving people of intellectual and creative outlets can increase violent behavior, while offering opportunities for literacy training, arts programs and education have been shown to improve behavior in prisons and reduce recidivism, according to the ACLU.

In response to questions about why certain publications were banned, ODRC said only that they offer a variety of educational opportunities.

“The Ohio Central School System provides academic education from non-reader to completion of a GED or high school diploma. This curriculum includes reading, writing, functional literacy as well as the rest of the subjects needed to pass a GED or complete the requirements for a high school diploma in Ohio,” spokesman Grant Doepel said in an email.

He said the prisons also offer technology programs including electronics/computer repair, C-tech network cabling - fiber optic and copper based applications, as well as web design.

Inconsistency unexplained

The list of screened books shows a great deal of inconsistency in which types of publications are denied or allowed.

Kim Kardashian’s book of selfie pictures was banned, allegedly for depicting or graphically describing genitalia in a state of arousal. But a book containing 200 plus images of nude women posing in an artistic drawing guide book was allowed.

Books by horror writer Clyde Barker have been allowed, but a graphic novel based on Stephen King’s sci-fi series “The Dark Tower” was banned.

RELATED: Violence surges at Dayton’s female prison, report says

The popular genre of true crime biographies and memoirs was even more hit or miss. For example, “A Piece of Cake,” former prostitute Cupcake Brown’s bestselling and critically-acclaimed memoir about her journey out of addiction and homelessness to become a successful lawyer was banned. But “Black Widow: The true story of Griselda Blanco” Hillary Dunn’s biography about one of the most notorious female drug traffickers and killers in history was permitted.

In some cases, books one and three of a series would be allowed, but not book two.

‘Black people might want to read’

Paul Wright spent 17 years in the Washington state prison system for first-degree murder after he shot and killed a cocaine dealer he was attempting to rob.

While there, he wanted to fill time by exploring his interests in Marxism and communism, but was denied access to books he’d requested. So he started a prison legal newsletter and successfully sued numerous times challenging censorship of reading materials.

He’s now written multiple books on the topic and runs the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit that has sued several Ohio facilities over prisoner access to books and magazines, including a recent settlement with the Greene County Jail.

“They really ascribe a much more powerful role to the printed word than it actually has,” he said of prison officials he’s challenged. There’s no evidence that reading a book with violent scenes causes violence within prisons or that reading sexually explicit material poses a safety threat, Wright said.

The kinds of materials that are banned, he argues, are ones that don’t fit the white, evangelical morality of those in charge of the prison systems.

Many of the banned titles in Ohio fall into the genre of “Urban Life” fiction — although some titles in that category have been allowed.

RELATED: Why are so many Ohioans in prison? The state is trying to find out

The genre, sometimes called street fiction or gansta lit, features drugs, violence, sex and and the realities of street life in urban America. The characters are often African-American or Latino, and the genre is popular.

“In some of our stores around the country, urban fiction not only outsells classics by black authors such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, but also popular genre fiction by authors such as Nora Roberts or John Grisham,” said Sessalee Hensley, fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble to The Guardian in 2011.

The popularity of the genre stems from its mirroring of real life for many African Americans, author Teri Woods said in the same Guardian story, but the genre is often pushed to a back corner in bookstores and not seen as mainstream fiction by white critics.

The genre also appears to be banned in prisons more than others that might also include gun violence and crime as themes. A James Patterson novel that begins with a violent shooting was screened and permitted, according to the ODRC records.

ODRC officials did not respond to questions about whether race or religious morals played a role in decisions about excluding books. The department’s policy states, “No printed material shall be excluded solely on the basis of its appeal to a particular ethnic, racial, or religious audience.”

Other titles related to black culture that have been excluded from Ohio prisons include Hip Hop Weekly and XXL.

‘Subjective beliefs’

When questioned about inconsistencies in enforcing their own rules, the state declined to respond other than to say that books are initially screened at each facility’s mail room. If a book is determined to be objectionable, the inmate is notified and given a chance to appeal.

The appeal is considered by the Publications Screening Committee. The list provided to this newspaper only contains books that body reviewed, not all books denied to inmates by mail room staff.

“It’s sort of up to the subjective beliefs of whoever is reviewing that particular book,” Brickner said.

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