Banned Book Week, which started on Sunday, reminds us that no one sets out to write a banned book. But as long as speech threatens those in power, censorship, even in a country that espouses one of the most expansive free-speech regimes in the world, remains inevitable. Given that book banning still exists, I probably should’ve known that my own book would be banned in precisely the place it originated.
Three years ago I began exchanging letters with Gabriel Cardona, a 30-year-old American who’s serving life in a Texas prison for crimes committed when he was a teen assassin for a Mexican drug cartel. During our correspondence I sent Gabriel many books. He favored histories by Candice Millard and Stephen Ambrose, such as The River of Doubt and Undaunted Courage, and cited the memoirs of Barack Obama as proof that a book really could change the world.
A year into our letter writing, I sent him Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. It’s a landmark of underworld reporting and the basis for the film Goodfellas. I was thinking of books that were similar to the book I hoped to write: an intimate work of narrative nonfiction that revealed the lives of boys who, like Gabriel, became cartel foot soldiers in Mexico and the United States. Wiseguy, the story of a workaday gangster in New York, is an exemplar of the genre.
When Wiseguy arrived, however, Gabriel’s prison, which is part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, denied him the book. Wiseguy, it turns out, is one of nearly 15,000 titles on TDCJ’s list of banned books, prohibited because it allegedly contains material about “criminal schemes” related to smuggling and jury tampering. Last month, prior to the publication of my book Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel, TDCJ banned it on the same basis. In banning the book, TDCJ cited Page 124, which describes a drug smuggler who “purchased pickup trucks from which he removed panels and lights. The trick was packing the drugs in a part of the vehicle where the body wouldn’t lose its hollow sound when slapped.”
“Criminal schemes” are one of TDCJ’s six grounds for banning a book. Of TDCJ’s other five grounds, two are indisputably sound: books that contain contraband, such as drugs tucked inside the cover; and books that contain information about how to manufacture drugs, explosives, or other weapons. The next two grounds are harder to justify: books that contain sexually explicit images; and books determined to be “detrimental to offenders’ rehabilitation” by encouraging “deviant criminal sexual behavior.” The sixth and broadest ground—a prohibition against books determined to have been written “solely for the purpose” of achieving the breakdown of prisons through strikes, riots, or gang activity—permits the prison to ban pretty much any book about civil rights that uses the word “nigger.” Tragically, it has been used repeatedly for just that purpose.
According to a report issued by the Texas Civil Rights Project in 2011, the mailroom officer at each TDCJ prison checks all incoming books against a master list of books that are already deemed acceptable. If the publication is on the list, the prisoner receives it. If it’s not on the list, the mailroom officer, who may or may not have a high school diploma, decides if the book has objectionable content. If a prisoner appeals a decision made in the mailroom, the appeal goes to TDCJ’s headquarters in Huntsville, Texas. The Texas Civil Rights Project found that while the spirit of the book-banning policy attempts to allow officials latitude in balancing the prisoner’s access to literary material with security, “a consequence of this discretion is many arbitrary, unreasonable, and astonishing decisions, as well as regular inconsistencies, largely because material is twisted entirely out of context.”
Books that are critical of the prison system, for instance, tend to fare poorly, even if written by Nobel Prize nominees, such as Sister Helen Prejean or Harvard Law School professors like Charles Ogletree. In Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, journalist Silja Talvi interviewed TDCJ prisoners, many of whom criticized the prison system. But TDCJ banned Talvi’s book for depicting “sex with a minor,” which the TDCJ said threatened rehabilitation by encouraging “deviant sexual behavior.”
TDCJ takes it easier on fiction: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, both of which describe a character’s sexual attraction to children, are not censored. TDCJ bans many nonfiction titles that address the problem of sexual assault in prison but doesn’t censor Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, which contains a vivid scene of prison rape: “They bent him over a gear-box and one of them held a Phillips screwdriver to his temple while they gave him the business.”
If these distinctions seem arbitrary, TDCJ appears to use a laser-like “magic word” test to censor dozens of books about civil rights. Kevin Boyle’s The Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age won the National Book Award. But Boyle’s book—about a black doctor accused of murdering someone who attacked his home—was banned for “racial content” invoked when TDCJ determines that a book was written “solely for the purpose” of achieving “the breakdown of prisons” through strikes, riots, or gang activity. The offending line? Early in the book, Boyle describes a gathering mob: “Someone spotted three colored men trapped in traffic at Charlevoix and St. Clair Avenue, a block east of the bungalow. ‘There goes some niggers now,’ came the cries. ‘Lynch them! Kill them!’….”
TDCJ cites use of the N-word to justify banning dozens of books about race from authors as varied as Noam Chomsky, Langston Hughes, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Studs Terkel, Sojourner Truth, and Richard Wright. Yet, while classics such as H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about Texas high school football, and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, a history of Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers, have been banned for their discussions of race—i.e. use of the N-word—TDCJ permits prisoners to read many of the most racist books ever written, including Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf and David Duke’s My Awakening.
Given the manifold tales of border crime in Wolf Boys, I knew that the prohibition against material that contains “criminal schemes” was the most likely ground on which TDCJ might ban the book even though the smuggling schemes described are widely known among border agents and the criminal community. And this, of course, is the point: The tragic tale of Gabriel Cardona and his childhood friends reflects the experiences of thousands of kids living along the border, and scores of young inmates across the Texas prison system. But because that experience entails life in a criminal underworld, inmates cannot, perforce of TDCJ’s book-banning policy, read about what landed Gabriel and his associates in prison.
Because one of her subjects was abused as a child, the TDCJ prisoners that Silja Talvi interviewed for Women Behind Bars can’t read their own stories either.
“I personally find it shocking and disheartening,” Talvi told the Texas Civil Rights Project, “that a woman’s bravery in the re-telling of her own trauma—something she intended to be able to help other readers connect with and thereby recognize the very factors that may have led them to a path of criminality—has resulted in wholesale censorship of my book.”
Some regulations on literary material are logically related to prison security, such as instructions on how to make contraband or incite a riot. But TDCJ has let its book-banning policy go far beyond what is necessary, permitting uneducated mailroom officers and Huntsville administrators to censor speech on political grounds or simply block books from going to inmates that prison workers do not like. If what matters is balancing security with free speech and the rehabilitation of inmates, no policy could be more errant.