by Dylan Jeffrey
Society isn’t being done any favors keeping literature out of the hands of incarcerated people.
Prison is horrible, violent and degrading and stagnant. Really the only good thing about it is that there’s plenty of time for reading. Prison libraries are mostly mediocre, though; anyone with discerning tastes will need help from the streets to read something worthwhile. For years I’ve relied on family and friends to send me books, never taking for granted their immense generosity and compassion. Thanks to the hundreds of books they ordered for me, I’ve been able to retain my sanity and keep my head above the water.
During my first year of prison, I only had two books rejected by prison authorities. The first was because it had been sent from a small mom-and-pop bookstore instead of from one of the corporate chains. The second was a graphic novel denied because of a crude stick figure drawing of a man taking a piss at a urinal, which was considered “nudity” by the mailroom/property department. It was silly—the scribbling wasn’t remotely realistic looking, and meanwhile, I had to shower with actual naked men.
I’ve also had numerous issues of the New Yorker rejected due to nudity in the cartoons, always absurdly innocuous drawings, as well as various magazines such as Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, usually for so-called sexual content in the advertisements. Prose or narrative content is rarely an issue, as most prison staff are illiterate (I mean, they know how to read, but lack the patience for comprehension beyond anything longer than half a paragraph).
But, as far as books go, I never had too many problems. Until I arrived at Otero County Prison Facility (OCPF).
OCPF in Chaparral, New Mexico, is a shithole for-profit prison run by the Management and Training Corporation (MTC), and shortly after I arrived here, the warden decreed we could no longer receive books from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. This was chilling news, heartbreaking. Like, cue W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues.” Compared to other prisons I’d been to, OCPF already sucked bad. Literally the only good thing about this place was that we had PBS (Austin City Limits, Independent Lens, Masterpiece Theatre). And now we weren’t allowed to receive books anymore? This was my darkest hour.
The library here is about the size of a large closet, and we only have library call once a week. There are sixty-eight inmates per pod, and only ten people per pod are allowed to go. Ten people once a week. How insane is that? So we are really reliant on books from home. Most upsetting of all, when this new policy was announced, my favorite writer, Toni Morrison, had just put out a new book, God Help the Child, which I’d eagerly been looking forward to. Now how was I supposed to read it? I was depressed beyond measure.
Blessedly, I have a friend who is an author and university professor who deeply sympathizes with our plight. I gave her a list of titles I’d been wanting to read and, over the following months, she and her students began an industrious xeroxing campaign. In fifty-page installments, she sent me The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (which I loved—the last page made me cry with joy), Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace, Lady Susan by Jane Austen, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn, At Least We Can Apologize by Lee Ki-ho, and dozens of others—including God Help the Child by Toni Morrison! I’d been so distressed about the Morrison novel, I think I embarrassed my professor friend with my profuse gratitude.
Of course the mailroom eventually caught on, flagging the second installment of Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl. I argued that it wasn’t a book—not in form, not the actual object—but they weren’t having it. The jig was up. One of the mailroom staff even brought up copyright laws with an incredulous anger, though I’m fairly sure there isn’t a writer alive who wouldn’t be all for getting books into the hands of incarcerated people by any means necessary. Not that it mattered, for by then a couple of lawsuits against MTC settled the issue in our favor. Once again our people could order books for us. Problem solved. And once again our library had books worth reading, thanks to all the new donations. Anytime you unearth a genuine gem in a prison library, I guarantee it was donated by an incarcerated person. How else to explain something like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 or The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt on the shelves? Once more, it was smooth sailing for us voracious readers. Until about a year ago—May 2022, to be exact.
Once again a memo was posted stating we were no longer allowed to receive books from any vendors. Once again, doomed to despair, our life raft scuttled. In Auden’s words: “Stop all the clocks. … Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.” Why, Lord, why?!
At the time the memo was posted, I was midway through an Evelyn Waugh kick, just about to ask my people for Brideshead Revisited. I’d also just discovered Walter Tevis and wanted to explore his entire oeuvre. And David Sedaris had two new books coming out; I always order his books promptly upon release. Goddamn it. To add insult to injury, they also took away our PBS and replaced it with Fox News. Seriously. No more Austin City Limits, no more Independent Lens or Masterpiece Theatre. First they came for our books—then they came for our Downton Abbey. Let me reiterate: they took away PBS and put Fox News in its spot. It can’t have been an accident. These people are mean, if not downright evil.
Every year on my birthday, I get a Ruth Rendell mystery. At Christmas, the newest T. C. Boyle. Not last year. Probably not this year, either. It’s all utter despondency now.
The weird thing is, this matter was already settled by lawsuits. Just look at the settlement agreements for Prison Legal News v. Management and Training Corporation, et al. and Human Rights Defense Center v. Management and Training Corporation, et al. Had MTC and OCPF forgotten about this, or did they simply not give a shit? See also Sorrels v. McKee and Crofton v. Roe for two other cases that weighed in favor of letting incarcerated people receive books. Then there’s the New Mexico Department of Corrections policy which says, as of April 8, 2022, “Books and magazines will be accepted and delivered to inmates if they are received directly from the publisher or vendor.” Perhaps the policy has changed since then—not that OCPF has ever cared about following DOC policies one way or another. I tried to see if I could arrange for books to be shipped directly to the library from a corporate chain vendor, but was told by a deputy warden that “the warden said he don’t want no books donated to the library.” I’m at a loss. You’d think they’d want to encourage us to read.
I’ve always considered myself the ideal convict. I’m nonviolent, not involved with drugs or gang business. All I do is lie on my bunk and devour books all day long. What could be easier for these guards to deal with than that? For that matter, what’s more educational than book learnin’? You’d think they would at least adhere to the pretense that they care about rehabilitation. One of my favorite propaganda slogans here, painted on the hallway wall, declares: “MTC—Preparing Offenders for Reentry.” Yes, preparing us by denying us access to literature. Preparing us by subjecting the population to endless Jerry Springer reruns while we play card games and dominoes. Or one can always just stare at the concrete floor if one so chooses. Honestly, I don’t know why they don’t just administer lobotomies upon our arrival. “Preparing Offenders for Reentry Back into Prison,” that slogan should say. Or maybe “Recidivism—Now More Than Ever!” As everyone knows, MTC profits from these bunks staying full, so why should they want to foster our release?
I’ll never understand the mindset of someone who’d ban books, who’d deny books from the most needy. We don’t know for certain why they’re doing this, but can only assume it’s drugs. For the last ten years, we haven’t been allowed to receive postcards or birthday cards due to fear of drugs. And some facilities don’t allow magazines or newspaper subscriptions because of drugs. Which is tragic and dumb. Not allowing grandma to send a Christmas card hasn’t stopped drugs from flooding into the prison. In this last year that they’ve stopped us from receiving books, there have been more drugs in here than ever. There are dudes who stay high twenty-four hours a day, and obviously Barnes & Noble has nothing to do with it.
Postcards and books aren’t the problem. Most drugs enter prison at visits or from the corrections officers. Everyone knows this, except for the people who are keeping us from reading, it seems. Maybe if they read more, they’d know this. For it’s painfully obvious that these people, the ones responsible for these rules, are nonreaders. Whether it’s the wardens, the property managers, the education directors, gang intelligence, or the state contract monitor, whenever I attempt to reason with them, it’s obvious how little importance they place on literature. To them, books are frivolous time wasters, mere entertainment to keep us occupied, nothing more, and one book is just as good as any other. You get the sense they’ve never read a book for pleasure and it’s always tempting to ask, “What’s your favorite book?” or “Who’s your favorite author? What’s the last book you read?” The response would doubtless be a blank stare.
“You can never be wise unless you love reading,” Dr. Johnson is quoted as saying in James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. How could these people possibly know the true worth of a great book? Yet they are the ones in charge of making sure we’re neither instructed nor delighted by any literary works of our own choosing. The purpose of OCPF is to impede knowledge and induce feelings of anguish. I should note that religious books from Christian booksellers are still allowed. Which seems … unfair. I mean, what if art is my religion?
Meanwhile, I continue compiling lists of books I hope to get when this injustice is eventually rectified. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh, The Overstory by Richard Powers, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Corregidora by Gayl Jones, Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie, History of Bones by John Lurie, Liarmouth by John Waters, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (the 2013 Sarah Ruden translation), the new Joy Williams novel, the new George Saunders collection, the new book by Amber Ruffin, the new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, and on and on. A friend recently recommended the author Jeff VanderMeer, who’s already on my list. I’m dying to check him out, but how am I going to do that now? As for the misdirected fears about drugs, the irony is that it’s very tempting now to ask a C.O. if they could smuggle in some decent reading material. I can just see the conversation as I offer money to the guard. “What? No, I don’t want drugs! I want some Edith Wharton novels. Oh—and the new Ottessa Moshfegh!”
We’ve got an interlibrary loan (ILL) program at OCPF, but it was out of commission for several months because no one trained the new librarian on how to use it. As I was bemoaning the lack of viable options in our library to the warden, she excitedly told me that the ILL was up and running again. Cool. But we’re only allowed one book a month, and it’s got to be nonfiction. And paperback only. Of all the ILLs I order, I receive about half of them, usually because my requests are only available in hardcover. As are most nonfiction books, I’ve found. Many, such as Face It by Debbie Harry, Liner Notes by Loudon Wainwright III, Robert S. Bader’s Four of the Three Musketeers (a Marx Brothers biography), Giant of the Senate by Al Franken, and The Cinema of Norman Mailer, have never been issued in paperback editions.
When I told this to the state contract monitor, she suggested, “You just need to read different books.” Ah. I simply need to order books on subjects I’m uninterested in—and hope they’re available in paperback. Books about World War II submarines or Peruvian rug weaving maybe. Geezis. Irritatingly, inmates taking college classes are issued huge hardcover textbooks which they have in the pod for months, but we’re not allowed to have a hardback ILL for a day or two (I mean, we send them back as soon as we’re done with them, and I can easily knock one of those down in a single sitting if it’s engaging enough). Despite this hardcover issue, the ILL program is a good thing and I’ve only had a small handful of my requests rejected at other facilities, all due to nudity—a Frida Kahlo biography, a Ralph Steadman art book, The Atrocity Exhibition by J. G. Ballard, and a book of Ellen von Unwerth photography. Do you know how insulting it is to be fifty years old and treated like an elementary school kid from Florida or Texas? But, in general, the ILL program is aces.
As for receiving books from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, I went ahead and had my dad send me a book from Amazon, and had my mom order a couple of books from Barnes & Noble. The facility returned these books without even alerting me that I’d received property (which is itself illegal). I then filed an informal complaint, and a grievance, and appealed the grievance to the Department of Corrections in Santa Fe. A few of us have been going through this process, accumulating all the paperwork and documents of proof for the eventual class-action lawsuit. It’s a pain in the ass but should eventually pay off, especially as all the legwork has already been done with those previous cases.
Meanwhile, the warden advises me to put in requests to the library for the monthly book purchase. Ha. In the six years I’ve been here, the library has never bought a single title that I’ve requested. Indeed, the only books they ever purchase are Young Adult fantasy series and mainstream crime thrillers by the likes of James Patterson and Lee Child. They actually keep buying the same Patterson and Child books, for as these books get weathered and torn up, the library replaces them with new copies every few months. That’s all they ever purchase.
I can read three to four books a week, easily. When I told the warden this, she rolled her eyes at me. I’m not sure if it was in disbelief, like I was lying or exaggerating, or if she simply thought me a greedy fool. Either way, the library offers little solace.
For this last year I’ve been subsisting solely on rereading books that I’d previously donated during the good old days: Antkind by Charlie Kaufman, Barkskins by Annie Proulx, Child of God and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, various Paul Theroux travel books, Et Tu Babe and The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner. … The library still doesn’t have that Toni Morrison novel, nor her penultimate masterpiece, Home. I would gladly have them donated if I could.
There’s that cliche about how you’ll never be lonely so long as you’ve got a good book. It’s so true. I can’t even imagine how bleak my prison sentence would’ve been without the company of Gustave Flaubert and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Donald Barthelme and Angela Carter, Elena Ferrante, Chuck Klosterman, Deb Olin Unferth, John Irving, Martin Amis, and countless others. I’m so glad there will never be a shortage of great books and authors waiting to be discovered. As I keep making my lists of books I’m unable to read, I can only urge you folks out there to please contact your senators and governors and legislators. Society isn’t being done any favors keeping literature out of the hands of incarcerated people.
While it isn’t a great film or anything, the last line of Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog never fails to move me. One of the characters is a magician (and drunkard) with a traveling circus. Someone mentions how the audience always loves his magic tricks. “Love ’em?” he responds. “They need ’em, like the air they breathe.”
Art, in all its forms, whether music or literature or cinema, is magic. Or as close to magic as we’ll ever know. And indeed, we in here need it like the air we breathe.
This essay originally appeared in Inquest on October 17, 2023. The original can be found at https://inquest.org/the-surreal-prison-censorship-regime/
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