In Florida prisons, inmates can read E.L. James’ erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Gray,” but not Ron Stallworth’s memoir “Black Klansman,” about his undercover investigation of the KKK as the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police
For prison inmates, “The Art of Coloring Disney” is off limits, as is “Learn How to Draw Your Favorite Pixar Characters.” “Field & Stream” and other sportsman magazines are typically banned, as is, sometimes, “National Geographic.”
“Playboy” magazines are generally rejected, though state inmates might get their hands on some special editions, such as “Boating Beauties” or “Brown Eyed Girls.”
While literature lovers across the world say reading expands the mind, for inmates, the list of acceptable reading material only expands so far.
From 2012 through October of 2018, the Literature Review Committee (LRC) in the Department of Corrections rejected 7,114 of the 9,367 reading materials brought to its attention, or nearly 76 percent.
Books come to the LRC when mailroom staff feel the publication may violate one of the department’s rules. The material is then forwarded to the warden or assistant warden to decide whether or not to impound the material. Impounded material is then reviewed by the LRC.
“Each publication is reviewed and considered individually by the LRC,” said FDOC Press Secretary Patrick Manderfield. “While the criteria in (the Florida Administrative Code) is fixed, the individual committee member’s interpretations of that criteria may be subjective. Determinations to approve or deny specific publications are made by majority vote.”
The LRC consists of the chief of bureau of security operations, the chief of bureau of inmate grievances or appeals, and the chief of bureau of re-entry programs and education, or a designee of each position. The committee meets every two weeks and makes decisions on dozens of publications each meeting. Inmates can arrange to have rejected publications mailed out, or the material will be destroyed.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union took an interest in the censorship issue and advocated for a re-review process for certain books that have been banned in the past, focusing on “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander.
“To put individuals into this system and then not allow them to read and understand the history and what has caused this crisis we’re in today really seems inappropriate to me,” said Raymer Maguire, Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform manager for the ACLU of Florida. “The racial disparity and the racial history in America, but particularly the American criminal justice system, is something that if we don’t understand how we got here today, it seems unlikely we’re going to be able to fix it.”
Beginning with “The New Jim Crow,” the ACLU took a long, hard look at why certain books are banned by the FDOC.
“It’s to prevent violence; books that are sexual in nature; to prevent teaching individuals how to escape,” Maguire said. “But there were a lot of books that we didn’t think met those fairly reasonable criteria. There were books that would help individuals find employment on release. There were historical books about the KKK and Jim Crow and the history of criminal justice in America that were banned. We felt like the extensive list of books that were banned went beyond the scope of the DOC’s policy.”
Maguire said the ACLU believes a key to reducing recidivism is allowing inmates to self-improve through employment training and education services. Limiting the books they can read isn’t conducive to that process. One banned book on the list stood out to him in particular was about small business ideas.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Why would we not want to give individuals every tool they can to ensure they have gainful employment upon release?’” he said. “Limiting the access for individuals to material that could help them prepare for life on the outside — to me that is an unnecessary form of punishment when what our whole system should focus on is rehabilitation.”
Manderfield said the intent of the rules in regard to admissible reading material is to keep facilities safe.
“The Department’s highest priority is protecting the safety of staff and inmates,” he said. “In accordance with Florida law, publications are banned if they facilitate criminal activity or if they are determined to be detrimental to the security, order, or disciplinary or rehabilitative interests of our institutions.”
Inmates do not have access to the internet, though they can access books on tablets through corrections-related service provider JPay, which must adhere to the same rules.
Manderfield said DOC does not “capture individual incidents caused by publications,” but simply enforces the rule.
Examples of banned material include material which describes the process for brewing alcoholic beverages or manufacturing drugs and anything written in code or “in a manner that is not reasonably subject to interpretation by staff.”
Sexual material is banned, though there are exceptions, which Manderfield said would include “publications containing no images but acceptable written language.”
Any material that would aid in an escape attempt is banned, which accounts for the rejection of sportsman publications like “Field & Stream.”
“Outdoor hiking and survival guides are often banned for containing information that could be utilized during and after an escape,” Manderfield said.
Inmates’ reading material cannot depict, describe or encourage physical violence or disruptions. They cannot encourage or instruct in criminal activity. A final rule states simply that anything is prohibited which “otherwise presents a threat to the security, order or rehabilitative objectives of the correctional system or the safety of any person.”
It’s under this rule that most coloring books are banned, which Manderfield said is “due to their utilization by inmates for tattoo patterns.”
It’s under that final rule the LRC has explained its ban on certain issues of “The Militant,” a weekly Socialist newspaper published in New York City, which has 35 to 40 subscribers in Florida prisons. Editor John Studer said in the past few years, the prison system seems to be ramping up its impounding of the publication.
“They’ve impounded something like a dozen issues over the last couple years, far more than any other state prison system in the country,” he said. “We’ve challenged every one they’ve impounded ... They have reversed the majority of those, but they have upheld four of them.”
When the publication is rejected, Studer said the Department of Corrections doesn’t point to a certain article as the problem. He believes the rejections are the result of the paper’s political leanings, as more mainstream publications reporting the same stories are not banned.
Recently, several national organizations, including the ACLU and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) sent letters of support for “The Militant,” asking the FDOC to stop censoring the publication.
“Federal courts have repeatedly affirmed that prisoners have a First Amendment right to read, and publishers and others have a right to send them reading materials,” said Chris Finan, executive director of the NCAC. “While they have restricted those rights in the interest of security, it serves no penological purpose to block the free flow ideas that makes it possible for prisoners to consider a wide variety of viewpoints in forming their opinions.”
Though NCAC typically focuses its efforts more on rights of young people to access materials and the censorship of art, Finan said the coalition was happy to join in the cause fighting censorship in prison, where he said there’s been a lot of abuse and not enough guidance from the courts.
“When you open the door to censorship, there are always people who are ready to rush through and apply that power as widely as possible,” he said. “The court hasn’t given enough guidance to rein in those abuses. There are a lot of people in prison and it affects a lot of people and their rights.”
One publication is attempting to take its ongoing dispute with FDOC to the Supreme Court.
“Prison Legal News” has been consistently rejected in Florida prisons based on its advertising content. FDOC rules state permissible reading material cannot contain ads for three-way calling services, pen pal services, the purchase of products or services with postage stamps, or conducting a business or profession while incarcerated.
Editor Paul Wright, himself a former prisoner for 17 years in Washington state until his release in 2003, said the magazine has lost nearly all of its 400 paid subscribers in Florida because of what he believes is an overstep by prison officials.
“Prisoners aren’t able to have alcohol or credit cards or prescription medications, but other publications aren’t being censored for that,” he said.
Wright said the magazine provides information that would be useful to prisoners, such as reports on court rulings, medical and mental health care in jail and prison, excessive force and corruption.
“Pretty much anything to do with the criminal justice system is in Prison Legal News,” he said. “That’s why thousands of prisoners around the country subscribe to it and pay for it with their own money. That’s one reason prison and jail officials are so hostile toward us.”
He believes the official reasoning given by FDOC is pre-textual, while the real reason Prison Legal News is banned is because of “the hostility that Florida prison officials generally have toward anything that criticizes or critiques the criminal justice system and tells prisoners how to advocate for themselves.”
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined FDOC was justified in the banning the advertising content as a security concern and stated the options suggested by Prison Legal News as an alternative to banning them would not work.
“PLN proposed that the Department follow New York’s lead and simply attach to each issue of Prison Legal News a flyer reminding inmates not to use the prohibited services,” the court wrote. “Really? If all New York has to do to prevent inmate misconduct and crime is gently remind them not to misbehave, one wonders why that state’s prisons have fences and walls. Why not simply post signs reminding inmates not to escape? If New York wants to engage in a fantasy about convicted criminals behaving like model citizens while serving out their sentences, it is free to do so, but the Constitution does not require Florida to join New York in la-la-land.”
However, the court did direct DOC to issue notices to Prison Legal News giving a reason for each impoundment and an opportunity to be heard. Between November 2009 and December 2014, no notices were given for 26 out of 62 impounded issues, or 42 percent.
“With the power to impound ‘Prison Legal News’ comes the duty to inform PLN of the reasons for the impoundments,” the court states.
Wright is hoping the Supreme Court will find the lower court erred in upholding the censorship and will order a ruling in Prison Legal News’ favor.