Works from Langston Hughes, Shakespeare and Jon Stewart are prohibited in Texas prisons, but not Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
In honor of Banned Books Week, various publications took a closer look at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s list of 15,000 banned books. The state’s prison system, the largest in the U.S., has been repeatedly called out for censoring books sent to its prisoners for arbitrary reasons, with author and former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Slater calling the process a “national disgrace” in an essay for Slate.
Among the banned works of literature are sonnets from Shakespeare, poems by Langston Hughes, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s America (the Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, Friday Night Lights and It Can’t Happen Here, a novel by Sinclair Lewis which describes the fictional election of a fascist dictator in the U.S. But as the Washington Post reports, books that did make the cut include Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler and former KKK leader David Duke’s My Awakening: A Path to Racial Understanding.
Slater decided to speak out after his new book Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel was preemptively banned from the Texas penitentiary system ahead of its release because it involves “crime schemes.” It revolves around two American teens who end up working as assassins for Mexico’s most notorious drug cartel, the Zetas, and are later charged and sent to prison in Texas after being hunted down by a Mexican-born detective. A spokesman for the TDCJ said it was banned because it “contains information on how to conceal and smuggle illegal narcotics,” citing a two-sentence passage.
But other decisions seem much more questionable. Among the growing list of barred books are several that revolve around civil rights and the African-American experience, but that may contain the N-word, such as a novel about Jackie Robinson, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, the memoir of a former slave-turned-abolitionist, The Color Purple, and Lisa Belkin’s Show Me a Hero, which inspired an HBO miniseries of the same name chronicling an attempt to desegregate housing in Yonkers, in addition to Hughes’ poetry. Also on the list: Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Jenna Bush’s Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope and World War II: An Illustrated History of Crisis and Courage by Bob Dole. Certain books by popular authors like Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and James Patterson are also prohibited.
Slater is harshly critical of the process, which he became aware of when he began corresponding with one of the subjects from his novel, whom he later sent several books to. He accused the Texas prison system of “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.”
Deborah Caldwell Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association, which sponsors the annual Banned Books Week, called the issue “truly tragic.” Concerns about the process have been voiced ever since the Texas Civil Rights Project detailed how the TDCJ determines which books enter a prison in a 2011 report, noting that it “encourages its employees to quickly identify a reason to censor a book to avoid reading the rest of the book,” regardless of the larger context. A spokesman defended the verdict on Wolf Boys to The Guardian, but declined to directly comment on why books by Hitler and Duke are allowed.
Stewart’s America was released just before the 2004 presidential election as a parody of high school civics textbooks, complete with study guides, questions, and class exercises. Several Daily Show writers and correspondents contributed small articles, including Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms and Rob Corddry. The book was an immediate bestseller, and later won a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album for its audiobook version. Both Stewart and Colbert have written several successful satirical books since then.
However, it also sparked controversy upon its release due to the inclusion of doctored nude photographs of the Supreme Court justices, resulting in a ban from Wal-Mart and Mississippi public libraries. The depiction is also likely the cause of the ban from Texas prisons, who have also banned a collection of sonnets by Shakespeare due to nudity on the cover, as well as several sketches by Leonardo da Vinci.