The Michigan Department of Corrections has banned the use of dictionaries in Spanish and Swahili in the state’s prisons, claiming that the books present a security threat, National Public Radio (NPR) said.
“If certain prisoners all decided to learn a very obscure language, they would be able to then speak freely in front of staff and others about introducing contraband or assaulting another prisoner,” said Chris Gautz, the spokesperson for the department. A 1989 Supreme Court ruling allowed prisons to ban any book in the interest of safety.
A Freedom of Information Act request obtained by NPR revealed that the prison has banned seven books in both Spanish and Swahili since last year. Whenever prison staff could not find a translation of a book, then the book went on the banned-books list. Spanish is the second most-spoken language in American households, NPR said.
Rodolfo Rodriguez, an incarcerated person at Michigan’s Lakeland Correctional Facility, felt offended by the policy. For Rodriguez, who grew up speaking Spanish, reading books in his native language has helped him learn to communicate in English.
Rodriguez said, “One feels like they are telling you that pure Spanish is worthless, that you don’t need to learn because you’ll just stay here.” Rodriguez added that because he could not speak or write well in English, he has had a hard time navigating the legal process from prison. He said that incarcerated persons deserved a right to educate themselves in their native language.
Kwesi Osundar, an incarcerated person in Chippewa Correctional Facility in northern Michigan, has filed grievances over the policy. Born in Detroit and curious about his African roots, Osundar had requested books in Swahili since 2009. He said that his grievances “never went anywhere,” and that the process to seek administrative remedies produced no relief.
Prison spokesperson Gautz said that the issue of banned books did not come up a lot. “If we were to start seeing requests, and the need to have something be reviewed along these lines, we could certainly be open to that,” Gautz said.