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Michigan Prisons Ban 1,000 Books, Most Would Be Considered Harmless

by Jo Ellen Nott 

After a review of public records from Michigan, online magazine and video channel Motherboard found that the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has restricted prisoner access to at least 1,000 books between 1998 and April 2022. Michigan is not alone in banning titles from its prisons, of course. Florida holds the dubious honor of banning the most titles for its prisoners – 54,000 so far. [See: PLN, January 1, 2023, online.]

That prisoners benefit from reading while incarcerated cannot be argued. Books offer education, distraction, inspiration and even skills that can aid in re-introduction to society. Books are also a “kind of pressure-release valve for incarcerated people,” according to Keri Blakinger of The Marshall Project. 

Blakinger spent two years in prison on a drug charge and speaks from experience about the manufactured scarcity that prisoners live under: the lack of temperature control, nutritional food, hygiene items, movement, and personal space. That scarcity creates tension for prisoners. Blakinger believes restricting access to books adds to the tension and makes the jail or prison more dangerous.  

According to Motherboard, the banned titles in Michigan range from classic literature and contemporary fiction to commercial driver’s license manuals, foreign language learning guides and books about computer coding. Even Dungeons & Dragons rule books are banned. Among the 1,000 titles on the list can be found Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, as well as informational books with titles like Grant Writing for Dummies, How Computers Work, How to Start A Trucking Company and German in 32 Lessons

The Michigan DOC restricted nearly half of the texts for being a “threat to the order and security of the institution.” Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney at the free speech and education group FIRE who originally filed the request for the banned titles, explained the loophole used by the DOC: “If they can just categorize anything and everything as a threat to order and security, they can pretty much limit anything they want to.”

Michigan is a difficult state to work with, says Andy Chan of the Seattle-based nonprofit Books to Prisoners. DOC requires that books sent to the prisons must come from “a small list of hand-picked vendors,” he said. “Nonprofit book distributors are not on that list and [we] often do not receive any sort of confirmation if a prisoner’s requested book was tossed out when it arrived.”

A spokesperson for DOC said that the department is in the process of updating its literature policy but did not specify whether it would review and then remove titles from its banned-books list.

Additional sources:  The Marshall Project, Vice 

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