When Mark Melvin asked his friend to order him a Pulitzer Prize-winning history book, he didn't expect to have to file a lawsuit in order to read it.
But Melvin is currently in jail, and the book in question, "Slavery By Another Name" by Douglas A Blackmon, was returned to its sender by officials at the Kilby Correctional Facility near Montgomery, AL who allegedly claimed it to be "a security threat."
His case highlights the arbitrary censorship faced every day by America's prisoners at the hands of over-zealous officials, who deprive prisoners of access to thousands of books, magazines and newspapers.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons regulations state that publications can only be rejected if they are found to be "detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity." That description is generally understood to include content such as explanations on how to make explosives, martial arts training manuals and books containing maps of the prison and its surrounding area.
Yet according to a list compiled by the Prison Books Program, and seen by The Huffington Post, many correctional institutions censor materials far beyond these guidelines. Central Mississippi Correctional, for example, is stated as refusing to allow any books whose content includes anything legal, medical or contains violence, while Staunton Correctional in Virginia is claimed only to allow its inmates access to "non-fiction educational or spiritual books."
The Prison Books Program, a volunteer-run organization that has been sending books to prisoners across the country since 1972, claims that other institutions sometimes refuse to allow prisoners to receive any books at all.
In separate rulings in the 1980s, the US Supreme Court stated that "[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution," and that "a warden may not reject a publication 'solely because its content is religious, philosophical, political, social or sexual, or because its content is unpopular or repugnant.'"
However, a report by the Texas Civil Rights Project earlier this year found that the prison system had made "arbitrary, unreasonable, and astonishing decisions, as well as regular inconsistencies, largely because material is twisted entirely out of context."
"Prisoners do not shed all their constitutional rights at the prison gates," continued the report. "Rather than unlawfully censor books, [The Texas Department of Criminal Justice] should encourage prisoners to read."
In most states, the decision to ban a book is usually taken by the mailroom staff within each institution. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is unique in that it maintains a statewide database of banned books, to which titles are continuously being added by mailroom staff in prisons across the state. Among more than 12,000 titles currently banned from Texas prisons are works by George Orwell, William Shakespeare, Norman Mailer, John Grisham and James Patterson, as well as books by two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Elsewhere, similar restrictions have been reported by prisoner support groups. Although appeal processes do exist, they often rely on the prisoner being able to form an intelligent defense of a book that he has not been allowed to see. More than 85% of appeals in Texas are denied.
"As long as prison has been here, they've always insisted on the power of censorship," says Wilbert Rideau, speaking to The Huffington Post on the telephone from his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Rideau is a former death-row inmate whose book "In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance" recently won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Non Fiction.
In 1970, Rideau sued the sheriff and warden of a prison in Louisiana for refusing to give him access to books and educational materials. During a court recess, the sheriff and warden put him on a plane and sent him to a jail across the state. The sheriff there then granted him uncensored access to printed material.
"I don't believe there's any need to censor anything short of a publication that teaches a guy how to make an explosive, or how to put a weapon together," says Rideau today.
"What they've done to Melvin, they have done throughout history. Authorities exercise censorship to prevent inmates from having access to certain things they think are inflammatory or they just simply don't like."
Mark Melvin's lawsuit is currently making its way through the Alabama court system. Unless it and others can ensure that federal guidelines are more closely adhered to, reading material in prisons will continue to exist only at the whim of those who wish to restrict it.
The arbitrary nature of such decisions can, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project, "discourage inmates from picking up any book… If there is any activity prisons should encourage during incarceration, it is reading."The Alabama Department of Corrections declined to comment for this story. Thanks to Pam Boiros from the Prison Book Program, Gary Fine from Prisoner Express and Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative who provided research for this story. To see the latest additions to the Texas prison literature database, including works by Chuck Palahniuk and Salman Rushdie, click here (Word document).
Correction: Wilbert Rideau's 1970 lawsuit was against the sheriff and warden of East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, not the prison itself. He was subsequently sent to a jail across the state, in which the sheriff granted him uncensored access to printed materials. The original piece contained minor factual errors, which have been corrected.