Sunday, October 3, 2010

Libraries in Prisons: Should Certain Types of Reading Material Be Restricted?

I was recently reading an article about inmates in prisons and the choice of books they should be allowed to have in the prison libraries--particular those containing violence, murder and sex in them. I thought this was interesting and could be an interesting discussion to wrap up Banned Books Week.

The issue was brought up in a Connecticut jail where inmates have access to all kinds of reading material, including true crime books and other fiction books with murder and violence in them, without restrictions that are based on the criminal history of each inmate. Recently, the reading material that a serial killer on trial read, behind bars, was called into question and has brought this issue to light on a larger scale.

Books mentioned that were available in some prison libraries were:

In Cold Blood -- "true story of two parolees who broke into a respected Kansas family's home and, finding no money, killed the parents and two of their children"
If You Really Loved Me -- "real-life manipulation of a 14-year-old into murdering her mother"
Along Came A Spider -- "novel about a psychopath who kidnaps and kills children of prominent people"
The Night Stalker -- "about the crimes of serial killer Richard Ramirez."

Most prison libraries have no sort of restrictions on what types of books are in them. They have to have a variety of materials in them and have to record their inventory. They do have bans on what types of books can be sent IN to the library and they have restricted books for being sexually explicit, encouraging violence and those explaining how to construct weapons. There is no governing body that gives guidelines to prison libraries and each is different in what they allow.

What those who think choices of reading material should be regulated argue:

-  That there are so many other books out there and inmates don't need to  be reading things with violence and murder in it.
- It could plant these ideas in the head of the inmate--like in the case of the inmate in Connecticut who committed a murder similar to the one from In Cold Blood which he read whilst in prison.

What those who don't think choices of reading material should be regulated argue:

- "It's another case of politicians scapegoating expression as the cause of serious violent crime"

- That a book should not be banned just based on the fact that it contains violence or sex as "no one has ever stated that reading violent materials causes anybody to commit a crime. Somebody that is moved to commit a crime has much more going on in their lives than simply having read a few comic books or a novel or 'In Cold Blood."

- "Even those individuals that a lawful society chooses to imprison permanently," it states, "deserve access to information, to literature, and to a window on the world."

There doesn't seem to be a definitive correlation between books read by these people and the crimes they commit. Some will say there isn't while others will bring up past crimes that were in fact inspired by what a criminal read in a book--such as two crimes that were said to be inspired by Stephen King's Rage and John Fowles book called The Collector.

So, fellow bookworms, what do you think? Do you think that these types of books should be banned from prison libraries? Do you think that there is a link between some of these crimes and books that could be cause for their removal? Should there be a governing body that gives uniform restrictions upon the books in prison libraries?


  1. The only books I can understand being banned in prisons would be instruction books for creating weapons, drugs, etc. Otherwise a person won't commit a crime just because they read something violent in a book. I could see banning certain books from inmates as a form of punishment for bad behavior, but not general bans.

  2. I think that unless the books are literally how-to guides on things prisoners are not allowed to do (make weapons, tunnel out of prison...) they should be allowed. Censorship is censorship, even if we can feel morally superior to the people who are the victims of the censorship.

  3. This is a really interesting topic, Jamie!! I've never thought about censorship in prisons.

    I agree with Red and Emma. The only books that should be banned from a prison are 'how-to' books that tell the reader how to escape from jail, make weapons, make drugs , etc. While reading a book may give you an 'idea' for something...that doesn't mean you should carry that idea out yourself. Lots of people have read In Cold Bold and haven't murdered anyone.

  4. I tend to be in agreement with all of you ladies! I think that clearly books with "how-to's" and stuff like that should be a no-no.

    I would really love to hear more about these cases where the criminals were inspired by these books..especially the guy in Connecticut who read In Cold Blood while he was in prison.

    I wonder if these people are thinking that inmates who are going to be released should be the ones not able to read these types of books? I mean, an immate who is serving a life sentence can read about it all he wants but can't carry it out. Even so, with an inmate who will be released, he could read the book at any point in time and if he is that messed up he/she could probably think up think up these things on their own.

    I'm just very interested in all this now!

  5. Hmm... I don't like the idea of scapegoating and blaming what people do on the books they read. If someone murders someone it isn't because of a book they read, it is because they are unstable and have issues. Plus, I tend to agree with the commenters above, seems silly to ban anything unless it is a how-to on escaping from jail or something!

  6. If you're going to ban books containing crime from prison libraries, you first must ban prisoners from access to other prisoners. They learn from each other.

  7. Books don't kill people, people kill people. Banning a book because you think it might give someone "bad thoughts" is absurd.

  8. Laura-- That is a good point! They DEFINITELY learn from each other!

    Marie-- AGREED! There is something wrong inherently within the person to allow them to be inspired by a book like that.

  9. I also completely agree with Red and Emma. Obviously we don't want books in the prisons teaching inmates how to make weapons, or escape or something of that nature. I can almost see both sides on this though...while there is the right to freedom of speech (which I think includes the right to reading whatever you want), I also am able to make the connection that prison is a PUNISHMENT. I think that criminals who really committed violent/heinous crimes need to be punished, and I can understand not allowing them to read books at all (not banning specific books, but banning them in general).

    I also agree that just because you read books about serial killers doesn't mean that you will go out and kill people too. If that were the case, with all the murder mystery books I've read, I would be writing you this from inside the prison!

    Anyway -- GREAT post. I've honestly never taken the time to think about this.

    Happy Reading,

  10. Unless the prisoners are also banned to do ANYTHING else (watch television, use computers, talk to people), reading books will not make them do bad things. And I do believe this true for everyone who is of sound mind, not just prisoners!!!

  11. No, no, no. As seems to be the general consensus, I agree that only how-to books should be banned. Well, that and anything with a lot of sex in it. But you can't blame books for someone's crimes, that's just ridiculous.

    As for banning ALL books in prison? Goodness no! Yes, prison is supposed to be punishment, but it is also supposed to be rehabilitating, and reading is such a positive thing. Anything that could further the education of someone, or even just encourage them to read more, should never be banned. Ban something like television for prisoners, not books. Heck, even start mandatory book clubs for inmates! We as readers know what a big impact reading a great book can have on people.

  12. This is a really interesting topic and discussion. I think I'm pretty much in line with everyone else who has commented.

    Jamie - That's a really interesting question, whether they're talking about banning these books from all inmates, or just those who will be released. Also, would someone go through and match each inmate's history against a list of which books contain themes that would be inappropriate??

  13. The present state of prisons back here in the Philippines is almost inhumane. Think Prison Break season 3. Books are practically unheard of in prisons. But in the case of books being brought inside prisons, I think it is just appropriate to ban violence-themed novels since it is bound to worsen the minds of the inmates. Self-help books and even biographies of people who may be a source of inspiration for the inmates might be very helpful.

  14. Wow, that's a fascinating topic! Personally, I would be concerned with nonfiction books about bomb-making or weaponry, but fiction is a slippery slope. Remember that John Lennon's assassin (David Mark Chapman) was reading The Catcher in the Rye. Does that mean we ban it, too? Where is the line drawn and who makes that decision? IMO, it should be decided on a case-by-case basis between the prison's administration and a criminal psychologist. It would be costly but government's use of budget money is another issue :oD

  15. I think a ban against the how-to kind would be obvious...beyond that it gets quite gray. If you banned books with violence in them, you'd likely be banning ones with a good message as well as the bad.

  16. Personally I don't think inmates should have jack shit in person. They're there because they broke the law. They shouldn't get privileges like reading or a college education. They threw that opportunity the second they committed a crime.

    As it is, I think it depends on the definition of prison. If it's used as a method of rehabilitation, then no, murderers should not read books about murder. Just like alcoholics shouldn't go to bars and druggies shouldn't associate with their old friends. That stuff can trigger. That trigger then needs to be removed before it does for the sake of rehabilitation.

    If prison is nothing more than a time out, a holding pen for criminals where they sit in the corner and while away their time in there, let them read whatever they want. Their minds are already demented. I bought a book is going to push them over the edge of they're already in for rape and murder.

  17. I'm a little late to the party, but I love this topic!

    I actually live in CT and as I'm studying criminal behavior and such I've visited the jails before. Let me say first off, no matter what those guys read true crime wise, they won't try it because someone's already tried and been caught. Some people mistake all criminals for being stupid, but they aren't as senseless as people on the outside think.

    Also, if we take away reading priveleges for inmates it hurts them in the long run. Yes, certain materials need to be censored, and we have the legal right to do so for the safety of inmates and employees of the institutions, but when it comes down to it you can't take everything away.

    Someone had also mentioned televisions in prisons. They cost a small fortune behind bars. Let inmates have a damn book to read. There's actually quite a few books in the cells that you spot when you walk down the block, cetainly more than I ever expected to see. why take away seomthing that's so beneficial, something a lot of these guys didn't do before landing themselves in jail?

    I say do as we've done. The murderer on trial isn't going anywhere anytime soon and neither is the guy who helped him. (Believe it or not there's already a book written about the crime they committed) Filter out the materials that we need too, and leave the rest for the inmates to read.

  18. "Poor reading skills are endemic in the prison population."

    This from a study funded by NEA in 2007.

  19. Oooh great topic, Jamie! I agree with those who have said that how-to books should be banned, but I agree that novels with crimes, violence, drug use, and sex should not be banned. In response to your question about differentiating between prisoners who are going to be released as opposed to those who are serving life sentences, well, if they're going to be released, they would have access to those books once they got out, anyway. You can't impose a life-long censor on certain books for only a handful of people.

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