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How Literature by Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Sojourner Truth Ended Up on Texas Prisons’ ‘Banned Books’ List

prisoner-reading-1Books authored by literary legends like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Sojourner Truth and even William Shakespeare all have one thing in common — they’re all on the Texas Criminal Justice department’s extensive list of banned books in state prisons.

Last week marked the beginning of Banned Books Week, an annual celebration shedding light on book censorship in schools, libraries, bookstores, and now prisons.

According to a 2011 report by the Texas Civil Rights Project discussing banned books in the Texas Prison System, the state’s nearly 150,000 inmates are barred from feasting their eyes upon roughly 15,000 books written by the aforementioned authors and others like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Al Sharpton and Richard Wright.

“The Texas Department of Criminal Justice arbitrarily censors books and magazines sent to Texas prisoners,” the report reads. “Though cultivating literacy has obvious rehabilitative benefits, the TDCJ prevents prisoners from reading many books, including works by award-winning authors, literary classics, and books about civil rights and prison conditions. In violation of prisoners’ First Amendment rights, TDCJ prohibits the simple pleasure of reading important books.”

Ironically, literature containing racist and discriminatory themes — such as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf or newspaper opinion pieces written by former KKK leader David Duke — are deemed OK and available for prisoners to read. So what determines whether a book is safe enough to line the shelves of a Texas prison library?

According to Slate, the TDCJ can ban books that contain material about “criminal schemes,” books that contain smuggled contraband (like drugs stashed inside the front cover) and books that contain information about how to manufacture drugs, explosives or weapons.

Books containing sexually explicit images or ones deemed to be “detrimental to offenders’ rehabilitation” by promoting “deviant criminal sexual behavior” are also prohibited. That’s how a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets with a “Renaissance-era painting of a nude Cupid sitting in a woman’s lap” wounded up on the banned list, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project report.

Lastly, Texas prisons can prohibit books that are determined to have been written “solely for the purpose” of encouraging the dismantle of the prison system through riots, strikes or gang activity, Slate reports. This broad criteria for censoring literature is essentially what allows prisons to ban any book about civil rights that uses the n-word. Hence, this is why books by Baldwin, Hughes, Stowe, Truth and Wright aren’t allowed.

Members of the Texas Civil Rights Project argued that while the TDCJ has the right to censor books that pose a legitimate threat to prison security, some of its criteria for censorship are far-reaching and violate inmates’ right to read.

“TDCJ is censoring even extremely innocuous material,” their report reads. “This censorship violates long-established constitutional law.”

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