Friday, September 07, 2007

TDCJ doesn't have master list of banned books; decisions what books to restrict apparently made on the fly

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has never before compiled a master list of books denied to prisoners, I was shocked to learn today when I received a partial response to a recent open records request to TDCJ.

I'd asked for the list after learning TDCJ had forbidden a death row inmate from reading a book because it quoted baseball great Jackie Robinson and boxing legend Jack Johnson discussing racial issues.

It turns out TDCJ has no such master list. Decisions about what books prisoners are allowed to read appear to be made on a completely ad hoc basis. There's no single place where someone can go look online or anywhere else to find out which books are banned and which ones are considered kosher.

TDCJ wants to charge me $84.40 to create a master list because programmers must write a new program for task, if you can imagine such a thing. I think it's worth it, so I'm going to fork over the money (I just got a small check from Google Adsense that will cover it), but if anybody would like to hit the PayPal button in the sidebar to help with the expense, feel free. I'm doing this for all of us.

I did receive a copy of TDCJ policies on publications, both before and after recent revisions. The book on sports history that included the inflammatory Jackie Robinson quote was barred because it contained "racial content," but I cannot find anything in TDCJ's past or present policies, see the old policy and the new one, that would justify barring books for any reason related to race.

I wonder how many other books are being banned that shouldn't be under TDCJ's rules? For $84.40, and a short wait longer, I suppose we'll soon find out.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

I just threw $10 in the hat. This list ought to interesting since they are now on a scramble to create such list. Thanks SH for the investiagtion.

steve said...

Just a thought, but don't each of the TDCJ facilities have a library? Just a longshot here, but I wonder if you could contact the librarians and ask them if they have a "banned books" list. It might save you 84 bucks.

That is, if they really have such a list. I have a feeling that by the smokescreen you're getting, they are having to compile one on the fly.

Anonymous said...

Just as I suspected, the banning of books probably depends upon someone in the mail room that cannot read!

Also note, there are more than 84 libraries. The Law libraries are required so prisoners can obtain information necessary to represent themselves and thus have access to "due process" and their constitutional rights.

I'm afraid to ask if there is a list of books required for these libraries and if it and the libraries shelves are kept up to date with current reference materials!

Anonymous said...

The law libraries are required by Ruiz to be kept current.

Anonymous said...

Right! What is the definition of current?. What books are required?

Who checks to be sure Ruiz is complied with?

Like I said, I'm afraid to ask because I'm pretty sure I will not like the answer.

sunray's wench said...

But every time we've had a book denied, we're told "it's not on the list"! If they have no list then they are lying. If they lie about simple things as books, doesnt it make anyone else wonder what other things they are lying about too?

Steve ~ its not down to the librarians, its down to the mailroom staff. When inmates go to the library, its not a case of wandering past the shelves and browsing; they have to request specific books at a window and the staff (trusty inmates) go and see if it's there. Dont ask me how anyone is supposed to know what is there and what isnt BEFORE they ask for it. Most books that inmates have access to have been sent in, via the mailroom, from the freeworld.

outspoken woman said...

So the "list" really doesn't exist, huh?? Very interesting since I have also been told one is out there and I have requested it on several occasions. Will hit the pay button for you Scott because I know you will publish the missing list as soon as is it created.

As for Ruiz and the ongoing reference to it. Yes, the unit libraries are required to have certain books available to inmates for legal reference. That does not mean they are all in compliance. The library staff finds ways to thwart the efforts of inmates, especially on certain high profile units. Ruiz was yesterday folks and we need a new one today.

As for banning books that have reference to racism. I find it amazing that our American history is banned. Trust me, inmates don't need reading material to live with racism... it is a part of the prison culture (unfortunately) and they live it everyday they are incarcerated.

Thanks, Scott, for your continued efforts to keep us educated.

The Abolishment Movement said...

I know of one book that is banned:
Texas Prisons, The Walls Came Tumbling Down by Steve J. Martin & Sheldon Ekland-Olson.
It's not just the prisons in Texas that ban books, from what I understand there are many books banned from Texas schools, and even the Harry Potter series were "Challenged".

The Abolishment Movement said...

Actualy, I remember when I was trying to get this same list, I recieved an email which can be viewed on an old blog of mine

http://journals.aol.com/lucidreeme/PrisonScrapbook/

Just scroll down to read it

Anonymous said...

TDCJ Facilities have two libraries; a Law Library and a Windham School District Library.

The Law Library contains extensive law reference material (better than most courts).

The Windham Library is similar to a public library with obvious modifications.

TDC/TDCJ had a committee (Director's Review Committee) known as the DRC. The DRC was composed of reluctant, temporarily assigned Wardens and Directors. I believe we met once a month. Each member had a vote and we voted on allowing or denyiing a publication, letter, news article, picture, etc., to an inmate. This was after someone in the unit mailrooms recommended denial to the offender. The majority of the items reviewed were denied (probably 99.9%).

As I recall the largest catagoriess of denials were obvious denials for porn, gangs, "how to" (make home made alcohol, zip guns, explosive devices), and threats.

A warden could not vote on any item that was refered from his, or her, unit's mail room. Most members of the DRC believed being tasked with the DRC was punishment or a pain in the posterior.

Retired 2004

Anonymous said...

Retired 2004 - Thanks for the information.

You didn't say how the materials arrived at the committee of Wardens. Did the offender have to make a special request? How long did the process take? I know there is intimidation and possible retallation if an offenrder does not accept the decision of the mail room "on the spot".

Did the committee have a list of prior rejections to "go by" or did each item receive an individual decision?

A 99.9% agreement with mail room recommdneations seems to indicate committee just rubber stamped whatever the mail room said.

This seems to be a dysfunctional process in need of some serious improvement.

Anonymous said...

Saying TDCJ Law Libraries have more reference materials than most courts doesn't give me a lot of comfort.

Most courts don't have any money for books these days and may not keep their libraries up to date. I feel sure they rely upon the internet more and more. Inmates do not have access to the internet!

Does anyone know who in TDCJ is responsible for the libraries and who makes sure reference materials are kept current?

Anonymous said...

Add "Field and Stream" to your list of books banned. Why, who knows? The list of banned books depends on who is working in the mail room that day and have no idea what the book contains.

Anonymous said...

To 10:21,

Written policy dictated to the inmates (who had access to these rules) what they could and could not receive. The inmate appeal process included the DRC. 99% of what we reviewed should have been denied automatically, by rule (there was no room for interpretation on the obvious). An example is a magazine with a scratch and sniff picture, loaded with obscene photographs.

Dysfunctional? No, we functioned; of the thousands I reviewed (Yes thousands), I thought only a few hundred deserved any review and only about one-hundred had merit.

I served on the committee several times. I was always happy when my term expired. After the growth of TDC units only wardens assigned to the "greater Huntsville area" (less than two hours traveling time from Huntsville) were required to be committee members.

The DRC was very staff intensive and cost a lot of money. The inmate had the right to appeal the decision and a lot of them did as they had plenty of time and nothing to lose.I wouldn't know why mail room employees would retaliate; they wouldn't have all the help in the mailroom if not for all the rules and appeals.

Retired 2004

Anonymous said...

To 10:27,

When I retired TDCJ was scheduled to spend a lot of money on computer subscribed law reference libraries. Inmates would have access to dummy terminals (those that they can only "read" from). The unit Law Librarian would have access to the internet.

I believe Carl Reynolds may have been over the law libraries at one time (I may be wrong). I lost track of all the chiefs. I know every unit I was assigned received at least one visit (inspection) a month from someone from Huntsville (TDCJ Headquarters).

Retired 2004

sunray's wench said...

Retired 2004 ~ can you tell us a little more about the criteria for refusal on a publication please? For example, one of John Grisham's books was denied to my husband; we werent given a specific reason, just that it was on the 'banned book list'. Now that we know no such list exists, it would be helpful to know how the decisions are made so that we can avoid making more work for the mailroom and DRC staff in future.

And if it is a book of some 700 pages, does that mean that one of the DRC members actually reads the book from cover to cover before a decision is made? If not, how can a decision be fairly reached, if none of you know for sure exactly what is in it?

I totally accept that books on how to escape and make bombs etc are not suitable for inmates. But when it comes to books that discuss racial issues, or sexual issues, what influences the DRCs decisions? Is the DRC made up of a mix of races and religious preferences, or is it all white, male, christian?

I am fascinated that yet again, a tiny group has such unregulated and unaccountable power over so many.

outlawsprincess said...

Hey scott, Just as soon as I catch up on all my bills and get my credit card back, I will be more than happy to hit the button. They need a master list, and if this is wahat it takes to get it then so be it. Thanks for evgerything you do.

Anonymous said...

Like TYC, TDCJ enforces and interprets all the rules differently at each unit. It is shocking that such a simple thing as a list of banned books does not exist. It would save a lot of problems for everyone if a list could be created and kept up to date. Then when there was a question, the publication could be reviewed and placed on the list or not, once and for all.

It is a huge waste of effort to make up rules on the fly and then have to deal with appeals. People who send books to offenders need to be able to see the "official" list on the internet.

This is so simple, it should have been done long ago and any effort will be rewarded with a more efficient effective process.

Thanks Grits, I hope your efforts on our behalf are a benefit to all concerned. To bad the State of Texas has so little money they have to charge for something like this.

Anonymous said...

Having appealed several mailroom decisions to Huntsville, my son finally gave up and gave in. With no advance warning of what is and isn't ok, the sender is out a lot of money. With constant new publishing, who of these folks can keep up with everything out there. Books by certain authors will pass one time, next time not.

Most interesting: 2 books puchased for him and denied ended up on the library shelves. And so it goes...

Anonymous said...

To All Who Question TDCJ's Policy concerning Offender's Mail:

Each Offender receives an "Offender Orientation Handbook" which outlines mail procedures.

You may view this publication by going to the official TDCJ Website. Click on "Offender Orientation Handbook" under the "General Information" tab.

This publication contains answers to many of your questions.

I always wondered why offenders requested certain publications, knowing the publication they had requested their family members order (and pay for), would be denied. The reason they gave,"I thought it might slip by the mailroom people".

Retired 2004

Helga Dill, Chair, TX CURE said...

I don't know who you requested the information from , but it does exist ! It is updated monthly and I will be glad to furnish it to individuals who ask. Just e-mail me at dill.c@tx.rr.com. and I will send you the latest list free of charge. I would like a donation for our fan project though that Scott is advertising ,thank you very much !

Anonymous said...

Scott,

I found this in the Offender Orientation Handbook...

"List of Disapproved Publications

A list of publications disapproved for receipt by offenders during the last two (2) months shall be conspicuously posted in appropriate places on each institution. The list shall be updated every month".

Just curious, but if the above is true and TDCJ is following their own procedures (haha!) then why aren't they able to provide a list?

sunray's wench said...

The Offender's Handbook was last updated in 2004. It is not as comprehensive as it might seem, even though it is not a small document, and does not allow for individual wardens or mailrooms' discretion. Retired 2004, these TDCJ people dont follow the Handbook guidelines much of the time, so it makes it very difficult for everyone else to.

Michael said...

As a former inmate who had a publication denied, I was told "honey, the Supreme Court ruling doesn't apply to Texas." This states it all.

Depending on who in the mailroom reads the publication will determine statewide if a ban should be implemented. Being a gay male, I was routinely denied magazines due to "homosexuality being against the law." While Lawrence v. Texas overturned the sodoMy laws, TDCJ still places itself above the Supreme Court's ruling.

To this day you cannot send a publication that depicts any form of homosexuality whether graphic or passive in nature. Simply, TDCJ needs only one person in a mailroom to deem the material unworthy for inmates, thus the publication (and letters too) are AGAINST THE LAW.