Saturday, January 09, 2010

TDCJ: 'Freakonomics' too racially charged

Steven Levitt was surprised when TDCJ rejected his book "Superfreakonomics" on the grounds that it's "sole purpose" was to "Achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes, riots, or security threat group activity." Eric Dexheimer at the Austin Statesman followed up and determined that a mistake had been made: TDCJ meant to ban the book's predeessor, "Freakonomics," for the same reason, and confused the two books. Prison administrators, it turned out, were concerned about the use of the phrase "nigger" in several old quotations in an historical discussion of the Ku Klux Klan.

I read Freakonomics when it came out, but not the sequel; the idea that it might contribute to "the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption" is an awfully slim reed indeed.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good morning Grits,

Have you ever read the form they use for the denial of reading materials to inmates? It lists the reasons for denial as such.

Reasons for denial and site page number of objectionable material.

A. It contains contraband that cannot be removed.
B. It contains information regarding the manufacture of explosives, weapons or drugs.
C.It contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes, riots or security threat group activity.
D. A specific determination has been made that the publication is detrimental to offenders' rehabilitation, because it would encourage deviant criminal sexual behavior.
E. It contains material on the setting up and operation of criminal schemes or how to avoid detection of criminal schemes by lawful authorities charged with the responsibility for detecting such illegal activity; or
F. It contains sexually explicit images.

I recently received a couple of these. The first because the word “nigger” appeared once in nearly 400 pages. I'm sure if he were around to give an opinion, Mark Twain would have some interesting words on why one of his works is on the banned list at TDCJ.

The second denial, which arrived in the mail yesterday was for reason D. My first thought after reading the comments on the denial were “What rehabilitation?” The person in question is serving a life sentence on a first offense and has neither received any rehabilitation nor does there seem any planned for his future. I went back to the book and read the offending pages only to read that the offending act was not graphically written, but implied through it's absence. Yet steamy romances that depict pages of detailed rape scenes make their way in while the three “objectionable” pages in the novel I sent were described as if I had sent the collected works of the Marquis de Sade.

TDCJ regularly rejects anything and everything from National Geographic to college textbooks to mainstream novels from the NYT best sellers list based on the opinion of whomever in the mail room gets the assignment to review the book. They recently rejected clippings from The Onion which were contested and approved by another reviewer. Unfortunately, all too often when sending reading materials, you are at the mercy of a single reviewer, their sometimes limited education as well as their own personal biases and beliefs. I have heard of instances where books that would assist prisoners in their own legal appeals have been denied based on the vagueness of these reasons for denial. Given we are discussing TDCJ here, I wasn't surprised.

sunray's wench said...

TDCJ need to produce a list of what books will not be permitted along with specific reasons why, so that TDCJ can be seen for what they are. There is way too much individual bias within TDCJ, not just over readng material, but many other things. It is impossible to follow the rules when the rules are interpreted differently by each individual enforcing them.

Anonymous said...

Last year I sent a "Far Side" calendar that was rejected and never returned. Apparently the farm animals were cavoting erotically. A ribbon on a greeting card was deemed contraband. The inmate was called to the mailroom and asked if he wanted it mailed back. Back to the book issue, has anyone tried to donate books to a specific unit at TDCJ? I have and was told they all go to Huntsville and are distributed from there. However, they did not welcome this literary donation because they did not have the time to inspect the books for contraband.

Anonymous said...

Sunray's wench,

I would love to see them produce such a list. First of all, it would save on the phone calls to each individual mail-room to check on if a book is approved. It would save time for their staff who have to stop what they are doing and look up each book. Given the numbers of inmates who receive books, it would only be efficient to put the approved list which already exists on the TDCJ website. Exactly how hard could that be considering they already maintain it on their own computer system?

Of course it would make things easier for the friends and loved ones of the prisoners and we wouldn't want that, now would we? It would also open up a world of fun for authors and publishing houses who could then see why their product was rejected. I have to say I'm smiling big time here because knowing a few published authors, I can imagine their response to learning their works had been banned and for what reasons. The same would go for a number of magazines who would take offense at having their publications banned for some of the insipid reasons that are used. After phone calls to the mail rooms on a couple of units, I even wondered if the person I spoke to had enough English language skills to both read and understand the books I was sending.

Take the list of reasons for rejecting books and they can pretty much reject anything. Murder mysteries because they detail the method of crimes in reason E. Anything containing more than a chaste kiss because it could incite a little excitement in the reader in reason D. F is the bane of National Geographic and anything about art. C knocks out anything from history nonfiction to modern day novels including prison experiences. B kills off intrigue, espionage, and could with broad interpretation include your daily newspaper with articles on current topics like the Christmas bomber. And then there's reason A. Reason A, because they are not allowed to remove offending ads, take a marker to black out the lone exposed nipple in a magazine, particular passages or pages from books or articles from periodicals, allows them to reject anything they might find objectionable using B through E.

TDCJ has a vested interest in keeping inmates ignorant and uninformed as well as bored to sobs with a lack of even reading material to keep them occupied. Not only do they use the rejection process, but they also close down the prison libraries for months at a time. You would think that part of the “rehabilitation” effort would be the direct opposite of that goal. If just for a common sense reason, one would think that educating the inmates and promoting both reading and enhancing reading skills would be a major objective in that it would both improve the general environment as well as aid in keeping the inmates occupied. Let's not forget that it would have a profound effect on the quality of life inside and hopefully send a more educated and employable individual out into the world upon release. They will allow and organize religious instruction, but what about proper reading groups or encourage the donation of free reading materials? If one could convince a publishing house or local bookseller to donate remaindered books, you can be sure TDCJ would find a reason not to accept them.

sunray's wench said...

"Anything containing more than a chaste kiss because it could incite a little excitement in the reader in reason D. "


This is even more ridiculous given the nature of personal letters between husband and wife. I can assure you, there is more than just chaste kissing going on in ours sometimes!

Seriously though, TDCJ provides a public service yet it in no way acts as though it does. It may have a web site, but the technical equipment in the units would make an African school look positively modern. And now they have to cut their budget as well...

Charlie O said...

One of my objections to TDCJ's system of denying books to inmates is that they refuse to return to me or tell me what has become of the books that I sent to my wife. Over the past three years, I've probably spent $500+ with Amazon.com for books for my wife. In that time, three have been denied. One was Fannie Flagg's "Fried Green Tomatoes. They said it was racist. What TDCJ high school dropout moron came to that conclusion? If anything, the book is anti-racism.

Anyway, these were all hard bound book, paid for, by me at a cost of $16 - $25 each. I visit (from PA) the Lane Murray unit monthly. I have repeatedly asked for these books to be handed over to me. After all, I PAID FOR THEM. No one can tell me where the books are, or what became of them. As far as I can tell, the TDCJ staff pronounces a book "unsuitable" then proceeds to steal that book from me and my wife.

Thankfully, I have made my last visit to Lane Murray and no longer order books for my wife. She is too busy with her Changes class and the next time I'm in Gatesville, TX will be to pick her up. (Sometime next month).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Congrats Charlie, that's good news. And good luck.

Anonymous said...

I believe the next step would be an appeal to the Drector's Review Committee.

Retired 2004

sunray's wench said...

Retired 2004 ~ that doesn't help if the book has already disappeared.

Matthew Venhaus said...

I purchased 'Freakonomics' for my brother who is on a TDCJ unit and know for a fact that he was able to read it. The decisions are inconsistent even for the same title.

Congrats and good luck to Charlie's wife.

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