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AUSTIN — More than 10,000 books are banned from Texas prisons, but they might not be the ones you think.
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for fiction, is not allowed. Neither is Freakonomics, the 2005 bestseller that explained concepts such as cheating at school and parenting techniques using economic theory.
But Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, as well as his On National Socialism and World Relations, are both on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s list of approved books. Also allowed are two books by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke as well as James Battersby’s The Holy Book of Adolf Hitler, described on Amazon.com as “the Bible of neo-Nazism and of esoteric Hitlerism.”
Where’s Waldo? Santa Spectacular is banned. So is Homer Simpson’s Little Book of Laziness and Monty Python’s Big Red Book. A collection of Shakespearean sonnets is banned.
On the approved list? Satan’s Sorcery Volume I by Rev. Caesar 999 and 100 Great Poems of Love and Lust.
The Dallas Morning News requested a full list of the books Texas’ nearly 150,000 inmates can and cannot read in the state’s dozens of prisons. A total of 248,281 titles are on the approved list; another 10,073 are banned.
What gets banned?
According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s policies, a book, magazine or other publication can be banned because it contains:
Information on the manufacture of explosives, weapons and/or drugs.
“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,” like strikes or riots.
“Graphic presentations” of illegal sex acts, “such as rape, incest, sex with a minor, bestiality, necrophilia or bondage.”
Sexually explicit images. “Naked or partially covered buttocks” does not constitute reason for automatic disapproval. Staff review medical journals, reference materials, art books and other publications containing nudity on a case-by-case basis.
Information on criminal schemes or “how to avoid detection of criminal schemes.”
The book can also be banned for how it’s manufactured. If the binding, cover or other parts can be used to hide contraband, it won’t be allowed.
That’s why several pop-up books, such as Harry Potter Film Wizardry and The Amazing Spider-Man, were banned. Other children’s titles like Hello Kitty and the Homer Simpson book were put on the disapproved list because they had “uninspectable” covers or “multi-layer pages.”
Waldo may have stripes, but he’s a no-show in Texas prisons this Christmas because his book “contains stickers.”
Sexual content often lands a book on the banned list.
Many graphic novels and art books are prohibited for nudity or sexual images, including the Game of Thrones comic books and some titles from The Walking Dead. Monty Python’s books were also banned for this reason, as was an illustrated history of the Coen brothers movie The Big Lebowski.
The Big Book of Angels and the book of Shakespearean sonnets were banned for containing nude images of children.
“Sexually explicit image” is defined as a photograph or drawing showing the sex act from any vantage point, full frontal nudity or “the exposed female breast(s) with nipple(s) or areola(s).” This means a calendar of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders is OK, but “Penthouse Hottest Girls Since 1969,” not so much.
Erotic novels are only banned if the sexual behavior is unlawful. That’s why some of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades books are OK but Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, which includes a rape scene, is not (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is also banned for sexually explicit content).
Who decides what’s banned?
Mailroom staff at each prison are the first to review publications. They get to decide which books are banned and which approved. Inmates can appeal their decisions to a panel of prison administrators. If the panel agrees the publication doesn’t pass state guidelines, it goes on the banned list and the inmate can sue, pay for it to be sent to someone outside the prison system or allow it to be destroyed.
Several other states’ jails and prisons also prohibit books with similar content. The federal Bureau of Prisons has a far broader definition of what’s disapproved, banning anything found to be “detrimental to the security, discipline or good order of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity.”
The rules in Texas and elsewhere mean which books get banned is often arbitrary, said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at The Sentencing Project: “The reasons for banning books are subjective.”
ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke said inmates should have access to the same books we all do: “There is no excuse in our opinion for banning books in the prisons. None at all.
“There’s a lot of rights prisoners give up, but they shouldn’t have to give up that one,” Burke added. “Adolf Hitler and David Duke should be there just as much as Salman Rushdie and Alice Walker.
“It’s unjustified censorship.”
Maps are banned (including one on the Islamic Society of Greater Houston’s 2015 calendar) because they “could facilitate an escape,” according to Jason Clark, TDCJ deputy chief of staff. Some home improvement guides, like Basic Wiring, contain “instructions which cause security concerns.”
The Color Purple is banned because the story describes incest, Clark said. While Walker implies and the reader believes the main character is raped by her father, the reader learns later this is not the case. However, the book could still be banned for depicting rape.
Several authors can be found on both lists, including Rushdie, Stephen King and James Patterson. Some titles banned in other states — like the full Game of Thrones series or Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name — have been approved for reading in Texas prisons.
But Freakonomics, which contains sections discussing crime reduction after the advent of legal abortion and the working conditions of crack cocaine dealers, remains on the banned list.
Clark said Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s economic treatise ended up on there because it contains “racial content” that could be construed as being “written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption.”
But what about My Awakening — in which David Duke argues for racial segregation — or his Jewish Supremacism? What about Mein Kampf?
In explanation, Clark said Hitler’s Nazi thesis conforms to the state’s guidelines: “Mein Kampf is on the approved list because it does not violate our rules.”
Staff writer Stephanie Lamm contributed to this report.