Books like The Color Purple, Brokeback Mountain and Precious are examples of literature often deemed unsuitable to underage readers. But they have been banned to thousands of adults who happen to be Texas prison inmates.
According to the Austin-American Statesman, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice considers those books a bad influence on its inmates because of ‘sexually explicit images.’ In practice, that label has served to deny prisoners access to a wide range of material, from tattoo photographs and massage manuals to swimsuit catalogues and Esquire cartoons. In some banned books, reviewers found nothing more explicit than drawings of female breasts.
The TDCJ criteria for objectionable writing include typical taboos like sadomasochism, rape and incest. With images, the ban is much more dramatic, allowing no nudity beyond bare buttocks. Reviewers enforce that code so strictly that even paintings by Caravaggio and Rembrandt have been banned for depicting naked children – though exceptions can be made when a child has wings, marking it as ‘a legitimate cherub.’
Is it any wonder that such a sex-starved prison population should reach higher levels or recidivism than their counterparts in less restrictive penal systems, like Canada or Britain? Draconian state laws in Southern US prisons deny convicts perfectly healthy means to relieve their frustration and blow off steam (as well as the ‘rehabilitation’ that prison employees bring up so often in the Statesman article).
Initiatives limiting access to morally controversial material are always based on vague and poorly phrased rules, invariably leading to inconsistent discrimination. The Houston Press points out that Naughty Bedtime Stories was banned, with sequel Naughtier Bedtime Stories being accepted. Not as outrageous, though, as holding issues of Time and Esquire for ‘racially inflammatory’ content while allowing The Hitler We Loved and Why, by the White Power Press.
Further complications await convicts subject to the legal maze of American state laws. While federal prison regulations allow prisoners to ‘review [banned] material for purposes of filing an appeal,’ no such provision exists in Texan law. The resulting Catch-22 denies the most affected parties any say in the matter.
Tight leashes produce angry dogs. Until authorities acknowledge that simple truth, US prisons will continue to be the pressure cookers they’ve been for most of the past century. I am reminded of Rita Cadillac, the Brazilian singer and adult actress nicknamed ‘godmother of the inmates’ for performing very suggestive song-and-dance numbers in Brazilian prisons, including the notorious 8,000-inmate Carandiru Penitentiary.
Prison entertainment is a solid investment in safety. As reported by the Brazilian media over the years, not only was Cadillac never endangered, but the days leading up to her shows yielded sharp decreases in violent incidents. The closest thing in puritanical America was Johnny Cash’s performances at San Quentin and Folsom prisons, where inmates were courteous enough to hold their cheers according to instructions from the recording crew.
Britain, meanwhile, has seen some recent controversy over local convicts’ relative freedom to read criminal memoirs and extremist literature. But no new policies to curtail that freedom have materialized so far. Apparently, none was needed: lower crime rates were one of the few achievements the Labor government gloated over during this election.
Perhaps British citizens needn’t worry about local jailbirds’ easier access to Tunnel Digging for Dummies, as the Boston Globe put it. Judging from the absence of spectacular jailbreaks in recent UK history, freedom and tolerance are still a better bet than repression.