Dept. of Editorial Justice

We’re With the Banned

A discovery that Houstonia is prohibited in Texas jails illuminates the often-arbitrary rules governing what prisoners can—or can’t—read.

By Lonna Dawson November 3, 2015 Published in the November 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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A subscriber recently called our attention to a piece of disturbing information. The man, who requested anonymity, had attempted to send Houstonia to his incarcerated son. But a Texas state prison had rejected our humble magazine’s mix of hometown humor and sporadic sophistication—and it hurt, we admit. Did Houstonia really belong in the company of banned titles like Big Spankkable Asses and The Erection Collection? We were determined to find out. 

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice answered our question quickly enough: our reader’s son was incarcerated at LeBlanc Unit, a TDCJ Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility with highly stringent rules governing which books and publications are permissible. In addition to the institution-wide regulations maintained by TDCJ, substance abuse facilities allow only reading materials deemed supportive of rehabilitation, with exceptions made for some novels and classic literature. Yet our reader’s experience was that no books got through. For example, he had also tried to send his son March, Congressman John Lewis’s 2013 account of his struggle for human rights, and it was a no-go. 

The Texas state prison system as a whole is more lenient, but no matter a book’s destination, it’s going to be a crapshoot. TDCJ agency-wide policy sets standards, banning titles it argues could incite violence or criminal machinations—including certain racial content or escape plans—as well as material that might impede an offender’s rehabilitation, such as sexual content. But in practice, the decision to accept or reject books sent to prisoners falls to the discretion of mailroom personnel, making it a highly subjective process. 

In 2011, the Texas Civil Rights Project released a report about “bizarre” and “arbitrary” decision-making in Texas prison mailrooms. Having analyzed a list of 12,000 books banned in the state, the group confirmed that while it includes quite a few titles that would make many of us blush, it restricts content by some of the world’s most popular and respected authors, including Stephen King and Toni Morrison. (Mein Kampf, meanwhile, is apparently a-okay.) The TCRP report offered several reasons offenders should be able to read material of their choosing, within “reasonable limits,” among them building knowledge, mental acuity, improved writing skills and vocabulary—all of which, the organization says, correlate to lower recidivism rates and employment preparedness.

Seep Varma, a board member of Treatment Communities of America and executive vice president of Stay N’ Out, an organization that supports substance-abusing adults within the criminal justice system, says it’s not unusual for prisons like LeBlanc to place “global restrictions” on publications that are about “street culture and drug and alcohol use,” but facilities across the country vary widely, and Texas’s policy as a whole “does sound extreme.” “Within the purview of what we’ve seen nationally, there are different protocols,” Varma said, adding that the rules at LeBlanc “wouldn’t shock or alarm me.” Still, regarding the connection between such a wide-reaching ban and substance abuse treatment, Varma was clear: “I don’t know what it has to do with the rehabilitation of the person.”

The subscriber who alerted us to the ban on Houstonia didn’t know, either. But he did know that his son was frustrated and bored, constantly watching TV (which is allowed, by the way) and in need of mental stimulation. Over the phone, the son reported that religious books were getting through. So the reader sent his son Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, which chronicles one man’s spiritual journey during the time of Buddha. The 1922 work is a certified classic, written by a Nobel Prize laureate, with a religious theme. It had to be a sure thing.

The mailroom rejected it.

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