Sunday, October 9, 2011

Books for Prisoners: What's allowed and what's not?

The American Library Association asserts:
When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.
An article in The Huffington Post the current problem is a disconnect between what is constitutional and what prisons and wardens feel is allowable for inmates in terms of reading materials and access to information sources.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons regulations state that publications can only be rejected if they are found to be "detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity." That description is generally understood to include content such as explanations on how to make explosives, martial arts training manuals and books containing maps of the prison and its surrounding area. 
Yet according to a list compiled by the Prison Books Program, and seen by The Huffington Post, many correctional institutions censor materials far beyond these guidelines. Central Mississippi Correctional, for example, is stated as refusing to allow any books whose content includes anything legal, medical or contains violence, while Staunton Correctional in Virginia is claimed only to allow its inmates access to "non-fiction educational or spiritual books."
A 1980 US Supreme Court ruling states that "[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution," and that "a warden may not reject a publication 'solely because its content is religious, philosophical, political, social or sexual, or because its content is unpopular or repugnant.'"

Personally, I don't see books and access to general information as a problem, no matter what the crime committed.  I believe that there should be consequences for inmates depending on what they have done, but keeping them away from books and the internet should, again in my opinion, only be a short term punishment, like denying access to television for a child's misbehaviour.  Of course, this is me speaking from a restorative justice standpoint as opposed to a retributive justice model, such as is currently being utilized in North America.

In any case, I agree with the following guidelines from the American Library Association.  According to the ALA "these principles should guide all library services provided to prisoners:"
  • Collection management should be governed by written policy, mutually agreed upon by librarians and correctional agency administrators, in accordance with the Library Bill of Rights, its Interpretations, and other ALA intellectual freedom documents.
  • Correctional libraries should have written procedures for addressing challenges to library materials, including a policy-based description of the disqualifying features, in accordance with “Challenged Materials” and other relevant intellectual freedom documents.
  • Correctional librarians should select materials that reflect the demographic composition, information needs, interests, and diverse cultural values of the confined communities they serve.
  • Correctional librarians should be allowed to purchase materials that meet written selection criteria and provide for the multi-faceted needs of their populations without prior correctional agency review. They should be allowed to acquire materials from a wide range of sources in order to ensure a broad and diverse collection. Correctional librarians should not be limited to purchasing from a list of approved materials.
  • Age is not a reason for censorship. Incarcerated children and youth should have access to a wide range of fiction and nonfiction, as stated in “Free Access to Libraries for Minors."
  • Correctional librarians should make all reasonable efforts to provide sufficient materials to meet the information and recreational needs of prisoners who speak languages other than English.
  • Equitable access to information should be provided for persons with disabilities as outlined in “Services to People with Disabilities.”
  • Media or materials with non-traditional bindings should not be prohibited unless they present an actual compelling and imminent risk to safety and security.
  • Material with sexual content should not be banned unless it violates state and federal law.
  • Correctional libraries should provide access to computers and the Internet.

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