Texas State Prisons: You Can't Read The Color Purple but Mein Kampf Is Fine

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has steadily been banning books for decades, but the latest decision, to keep the book Wolf Boys out of state prison circulation because of a single page the TDCJ found offensive, has caused a lot of double takes.

This month, the TDCJ powers-that-be looked over the book by Dan Slater, which tells the story of two teenagers who end up joining the Zetas cartel and then land in state prison, right here in Texas. Any book not included on the list of approved reading material gets kicked to this committee, and if the committee finds the book problematic it is banned, and that's that.

This time, the committee opted to keep the book out because of two sentences:

"Mario 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."

Yep, that's it. 

TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark told the Guardian the offending passage got the book booted because it told prisoners how to smuggle illegal drugs. Have they never watched TV? 

States have been censoring books that go to prisons for ages, but there are some guidelines to how it's done. In 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court concluded prisons could only censor publications when the decision is tied to prison issues (such as the potential for starting a riot or making a weapon) and when the reasoning behind the censorship is "legitimate and neutral." Anything else violates the First Amendment rights of the publishers and the prisoners, as the Texas Civil Rights Project noted in its report on TDCJ banned books published in 2011. 

In Texas, the guidelines are pretty simple: prisoners can only receive books from publishers or bookstores, to prevent people smuggling other illicit items in with the books. 

Books that "contain contraband", that tell people how to make weapons, drugs or explosives, that are written to incite a prison riot or has sexually explicit images may be kept out of state prisons. Also, books that explain how to set up "criminal schemes" or that may interfere with a prisoner's rehabilitation are off limits to prisoners, according to the state guidelines.

These rules sound reasonable enough, but in practice, they're so loose that Texas has ended up with a very long list of books that are not allowed in its prison system. In addition to Slater's new book, Gustave Flaubert, Tom Wolfe, Langston Hughes, Gore Vidal, Flannery O'Connor, Sinclair Lewis and Thomas More are all on the "no fly" reading list. 

Anything from a little nudity on the cover — it doesn't matter how classy — to racially charged language or scenes that are just too sexy can get a book flagged. The books are reviewed by prison mail clerks and if a book is not on a master list of approved reading material, the mail clerk looks the book over and decides, based on the aforementioned guidelines, whether it should be given to the prisoner or not.

If the clerk decides not to send the book through, the prisoner can appeal to the Director's Review Committee. (Magazines go to the Mail System Coordinators Panel.)  Should the board sign off on the book, it goes on the approved reading list. If they don't, the book is banned to all state prisoners — there are more than 140,000 of them in Texas — permanently. 

And there are definitely some loopholes in the system. Prisoners can't read Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, but they can get copies of Mein Kampf, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project. An edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets has been banned because of a nude painting on the cover, but David Duke's My Awakening is just fine. Prisoners can't read Dante's Inferno, Salmon Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, or Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, but they can get copies of Che Guevara's Guerrilla Warfare, according to the report.  

And the list just keeps on growing. When the Texas Civil Rights Project study came out in 2011, there were about 11,800 books on the list. Now, there are more than 15,000 books that state prisoners are not allowed to read. 
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray