The number of books being banned by Michigan’s prison system has seen a significant increase of late, according to a January Vice story, which describes the process by which a title is deemed inappropriate for prisoner consumption as “totally subjective.”
Attorney Adam Steinbaugh filed a public records request on behalf of FIRE, a free speech and education advocacy group. Steinbaugh believes Michigan is banning books without any system of checks and balances — a practice that needs to stop.
“People in prisons have First Amendment rights,” Steinbaugh said, “and there needs to be some scrutiny of the limitations that prison officials put on the materials that incarcerated people have access to.”
The requested documents revealed that about 1,000 books were restricted by the Michigan Department of Corrections between 1998 and April of last year, and that the rate at which books are being banned has seen a significant spike. More books were “blacklisted” in 2021 than in the ten previous years combined, Vice reported.
Michigan’s Department of Corrections has long had strict policies for incoming books, said Andy Chan, who volunteers with Books To Prisoners, a Seattle nonprofit offering free reading materials to prisoners nationwide.
“We have had an understanding since at least 2002, and possibly before then, that we cannot send books to most incarcerated people in Michigan,” Chan said.
The Michigan DOC permits prisoners to receive books only from a short list of approved online vendors. Books from nonprofit organizations like Chan’s are not allowed.
In addition, each prison’s warden has the authority to ban individual titles at their discretion and can do so for any number of reasons, including institutional “order and security,” which accounted for roughly half the books on the state’s blacklist, according to Vice.
Once a book is blacklisted at one institution, it automatically becomes banned at all 31 prisons statewide.
“If they can just categorize anything and everything as a threat to order and security, they can pretty much limit anything they want to,” Steinbaugh said.
Included on the state’s blacklist are popular mainstream fiction titles such as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
the Vice story said. Banned nonfiction books include instructional and informational texts, like Grant Writing for Dummies, How Computers Work, How to Start a Trucking Company, and German-language lessons.
“To people who are often in cages or in facilities that are among the most secure in the world, it sends the message that words and ideas are a threat to that security,” Steinbaugh said, “and as a free speech advocate that’s pretty hard to square because ideas can be powerful but they are not that immediately a threat to security and order.”
Michigan DOC Public Information Officer Chris Gautz said in an email to Motherboard that the DOC was updating its policies for incoming books, but offered no information on whether the list of banned books would be reviewed.