Criminal Justice

Literary group accuses Texas prisons of censoring books incarcerated people can receive

Prison book programs have been sending free books to Texas prisons for years, but recently, they’ve been told they’re no longer allowed to under a Texas Department of Criminal Justice policy they say they’ve never heard of before.

A returned package sent from Seattle-based Books to Prisoners to an inmate in Texas. A name and address have been covered for privacy.
Joan Ross
A returned package sent from Seattle-based Books to Prisoners to an inmate in Texas. A name and address have been covered for privacy.

Two nonprofit prison book programs say the Texas Department of Criminal Justice quietly implemented a new book vendor approval policy — leaving them and the incarcerated Texans they send books to in limbo.

The sudden change affected organizations like the Inside Books Project in Austin, which has sent books to thousands of incarcerated people in Texas for a quarter century.

A spokesperson for Inside Books said he first noticed a book package bounced back on Sept. 21.

“I went to the post office to pick up our mail and one of our boxes of packages that we had sent to a unit had been returned and stamped ‘no longer approved vendor’ on the box,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for 25 years and we’ve never had a problem.”

The organization said they contacted a TDCJ representative, who told them they’d have to reapply for vendor status, but gave no reason why.

Now the nonprofit — which sends out hundreds of books a week — has to put the operation on pause to reapply. The spokesperson asked not to be named out of fear of interfering with the application process.

“We get people that write for information on, like, legal resources. People who need health resources,” he said. “There’s people that are trying to learn different trades so they can get jobs when they get out, things like that. And people also just want, you know, books to read to pass the time and for their mental health.”

TDCJ spokesperson Amanda Hernandez wrote in an email Friday the change was part of the department’s switch to digital mail effective Sept. 6. The switch was an effort to reduce contraband coming into Texas prisons during a statewide prison lockdown in September.

Only books, magazines and packages sent to inmates from “verified” publishing companies were exempt from sorting and scanning and a centralized location.

“During the lockdown, books and pamphlets provided by nonprofit organizations were unable to be scanned and were returned as they were not from a publishing company,” the email reads.

It’s not clear what publishers are considered “verified” under the department’s rules. Asked for a list of verified publishers, Hernandez said one did not exist, and there isn’t a process to become an approved vendor.

Hernandez wrote the organizations can resume sending packages to Texas prisons, where they’ll undergo a heightened inspection process.

The nonprofit PEN America raised concerns about the policy in a press release Tuesday. Moira Marquis, a senior manager for PEN America’s Freewrite Project, said the “blanket censorship” that comes with requiring a list of approved vendors is concerning.

“When you look at what they actually do by prohibiting independent bookstores, prison book programs and other smaller booksellers, and really just allowing big behemoths like Amazon to send books inside, they’re really engaging in censorship in a number of ways,” Marquis said.

The nationwide controversy over banned books and censorship in schools extends into the prison system, too. More than 9,000 books are banned in Texas prisons, according to data from The Marshall Project.

TDCJ’s inmate correspondence rules state the department can reject content that depicts sexual behavior that violates the law, including “rape, incest, sex with a minor, bestiality, necrophilia or bondage” or contains sexually explicit images.

Marquis said in other states, similar restrictive policies have been implemented as a way to cut down on contraband. The Columbia Missourian reported last month Missouri’s Department of Corrections has now banned prisoners from receiving books from friends or family.

A department spokesperson told the newspaper prison officials had found book and magazine pages soaked with drugs including methamphetamine and fentanyl.

But independent bookstores and prison book programs are not to blame for any influx of contraband prisons may be dealing with, said Andy Chan, secretary of the Seattle-based Books to Prisoners.

“It’s just hard to fathom, given that there is so little evidence — so little evidence — to suggest that we are part of a contraband problem that any state would want to restrict access to educational or vocational materials,” Chan said.

Books to Prisoners has received rejected book packages from the Wainwright Unit in Lovelady, the Clements Unit in Amarillo and the Murray Unit in Gatesville, he said.

Chan, who’s been with the nonprofit since 1994, said Texas is one of the largest sources of Book to Prisoners’ requests for materials.

He said he hopes TDCJ will get back to the organization with some clarification on how it can continue serving Texans.

“We actually produced a book in which we have a bunch of letters from people saying how life-changing getting a book can be,” he said. “I mean, even getting a single book can be incredibly life-changing, can change someone’s direction.”

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