Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Prison Legal News sues TDCJ over book censorship

I just received this press release via email:
Prison Legal News – For Immediate Release

November 4, 2009


Corpus Christi, TX – Prison Legal News (PLN), a non-profit monthly publication that reports on criminal justice-related issues, filed suit today in federal district court against Brad Livingston, Executive Director of the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), and other TDCJ officials.

According to PLN’s complaint, TDCJ has inappropriately censored books sent to Texas state prisoners. One of the censored books was Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, by Silja J.A. Talvi. Ms. Talvi is an accomplished journalist and award-winning author. Her book on incarcerated women was described by one reviewer as a "comprehensive and passionately argued indictment of the inhumane treatment of female prisoners ... the sort of shocking expose too seldom seen in these media days of so much celebrity fluff." Two other Texas prisoners also were not allowed to receive Women Behind Bars after placing book orders with PLN.

PLN contends that the censorship of Women Behind Bars, which was upheld by senior prison officials, was improper. Further, the TDCJ did not notify PLN of the censorship decision which would have provided PLN an opportunity to respond and contest that decision.

TDCJ staff also censored another book ordered from PLN, The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime, by Joel Dyer, on the basis that the book mentions "rape." In fact, as PLN explains in its federal complaint, Perpetual Prisoner Machine "quotes from a 1968 Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office investigation into sexual assault in prison, and describes crimes committed against prisoners." Again, the TDCJ did not notify PLN of this censorship.

"It is a sad commentary when government officials censor books sent to prisoners – particularly books that deal with prisoners’ rights and conditions in our nation’s prisons," stated PLN editor Paul Wright. "Apparently, the TDCJ prefers that prisoners remain uninformed about issues that directly affect them. We believe this is a poor rationale for censorship."

"For decades, Texas prisoners have had the right to read most books while they are incarcerated," said Scott Medlock, Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s Prisoners’ Rights Program. "If there is anything everyone should be able to agree on, it’s that encouraging prisoners to read is a good thing."

PLN is seeking compensatory, punitive and nominal damages plus declaratory and injunctive relief for violation of its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as attorney fees and costs.

The case is Prison Legal News v. Livingston, U.S. District Court (S.D. Texas, Corpus Christi Division), Case No. 2:09-cv-00296. PLN is ably represented by Scott Medlock with the Texas Civil Rights Project and by HRDC general counsel Daniel E. Manville in Ferndale, Michigan.

Prison Legal News (PLN), founded in 1990 and based in Seattle, Washington, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. PLN publishes a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has almost 7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website ( that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents. PLN is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center.


Anonymous said...

I hope this lawsuit goes forward and is successful. TDCJ bans books for no known reasons. They are just loopy when comes to the books the deny to inmates. Plus they refuse to return books. I've ordered a few books for my wife that were then denied to her. However, no one at TDCJ can tell me what happens to book. I pay Amazon, the someone within TDCJ essentially steals the book from me. They won't return the to Amazon, they won't give me the book when I visit. I'm sure they ending up in someone's personal library at MY expense. My favorite one so far is they denied Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. They told my wife it was "racist." What moron came to that conclusion? If anything, the tenor of the book is anti-racist.

I support Prison Legal News wholeheartedly in this lawsuit. Banning books in general has always rubbed me the wrong way. To me, it just shows a fear of knowledge. And everyone knows, an educated inmate is a dangerous inmate. I'm sure TDCJ would prefer to keep them stupid and docile.

On a brighter note, my wife should out on parole by the end of February. She is currently enrolled in the "Changes" program dictated as a condition of release.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Anon, the atty in this case asked me to see if you'd contact him with more information about your Fried Green Tomatoes story. Contact Scott Medlock, if you care to, at

Soronel Haetir said...

I am surprised that PLN would have standing here. I would expect the prisoners to have some limited right to receive material, but would not expect anyone to have have a free-standing right to send material to prisoners.

Charlie O said...


I posted that first comment with my name, I don't know how it ended up Anonymous. I'll certainly contact Mr. Medlock.

Hook Em Horns said...

Who at TDCJ actually bans the books? Who reads them? This sounds to me like typical Texas bureaucracy and is both unnecessary and pointless.

Anonymous said...

They censored my son's magazine, car and driver magazine that I paid for. I never did get it back. This is not the first time that this has happened to my son. I ordered a history channel magazine for him also. He received the magazine for about 3 months and after that he stopped getting them. I paid for a years subscription.

sunray's wench said...

Anon @ 8.15 ~ I suspect that happens far more often than actual books being denied. It is certainly our experience that magazines more randomly go "missing" while the publishers are still sending them.

It is a strange kind of rehab that TDCJ practices where it restricts access to materials that would broaden an inmate's overall outlook and encourage different social experiences in favour of bland and/or religious biased material.

Anonymous said...

I have been sending a friend the Repairman Jack series by F. Paul Wilson and they all made the “approved” list except for one.

The Haunted Air. Why you ask?

Because out of 532 pages, the author had the silly notion that he could use the “N” word once, in context by a character who will get theirs in the end.

The entire book, because of the single use of an offensive word that one would never, of course, hear used while walking through any prison in the US, was banned as racist.

I've sent and had history texts questioned until I made a point of calling and stating that the books in question were textbooks used in classrooms. I guess it all depends on which idiot gets stuck with reading duty over at Huntsville on any given day or if you manage to catch a more literate and enlightened reader in the mailroom.

Jennie said...

I just had the following book denied.

Jesse James: The Man and his Machines

Since my friend wants to be a welder I thought it would be a good one.

Nope, has a picture of a tattoo somewhere in the book which has woman's breasts.

However, graphci romance books can be sent.

TDCJ EX said...

PLN would not on it's own send anything to a prisoner in TDCJ . Some one who is not incarcerated would have to order the books from PLN and have them shipped to that person . TDCJ prisoners can request a person on their visiting list order the book Unlike most prisoners families PLN apparently has the resources to bring a lawsuit against TDCJ They also will not face retaliation for doing so .

Why is it some people think or take some pleasure in making the lives of those we incarcerate living hell DO they think it will lead to productive citizens on release ? They are seriously mistaken .

What is allowed in as far as mail goes is determined by what is called MAIL SYSTEM COORDINATORS PANEL (MSCP) in addition each warden has a say in what can and cannot be received . to make things more confusing for prisoners and their families.

It is best any one wishing to send a book to a TDCJ Prisoner all that units mail room and speak to the mail room supervisor If you send in a “banned” book it will not be returned to you but destroyed unless the prisoner agrees to pay for the book being returned you will not be informed by TDCJ you sent a “banned “ book and given the opportunity to ask it be sent to you at your expense never mind TDCJs . There is not a list available to the public listing banned books . That should raise a few questions in itself . At least let those who choose to send a prisoner in TDCJ a book know if it is allowed or not . Or is the lists going to once again cause trouble for TDCJ ?

Magazines going missing those usually end up in the hands of a guard for some “unknown” reason
On thing people seem to forget is that with all the lawsuits TDCJ has to fight it is costing probably billions in tax money that could be better spent or not taxed at all . If TDCJ would simply let pole do their time and dole out additional punishment as they see fit . Apparently they are not frivolous courts are willing to hear them .

You can read the complaint here It contains TDCJ bizarre reasons for banning the books .

Con-Care said...

Yes, there is a monthly list of the books banned. (Get from the Mail Coordinator) It's a hoot to read. Any N word of course rules the book unacceptable. (Think Huckleberry Finn.) But, to me, worst of all is the denial of scholarly and medical books regarding criminal behavior stiudies, therapy treatments, and other issues that could help x cons understand themselves and why they are where they are. Answers to the old question, "What's a nice guy like you doin' in a place like this? " ~jcc

Anonymous said...

My son has repeatedly been denied Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Newsweek and other magazines. Mostt recently a calendar with no staples or metal on it was denied without reason.
That is not all. Project RIO recently rounded up all of them and REQUIRED them to provide dates of birth, social security numbers and drivers license numbers and now have written families requesting certified copies of birth certificates. They wrote requiring family to pay for these forms. Though the inmate will not remain in Texas and has served full time, they are requiring this information under threat of discipline.
They violated federal law when they require prisoners to work without compensation. Yet they say they will give "good time" in exchange for the work time. NO WAY WILL ANY PRISONER GET OUT ON GOOD TIME!!!! So how is not paying them different than not paying them but giving them good time that is worthless. My son is currently at 180% of his sentence.

Anonymous said...

I guess the one employee who can read is too busy to actually go through every book and magazine that isn't stolen by the staff.

Anonymous said...

Dear Grits, I worked for them for several years. I left by choice. I hope PLN is successful in this. Everyone has a right to be informed. God bless and God speed to PLN and their attorneys.