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An open bible
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Prisons all over the United States are withholding books from prisoners, but not because they contain contraband. Books are becoming harder to receive based on their content.

This is the case in my Virginia prison, Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, which is the state’s largest female prison. It is also the case across the nation, with state prisons now banning more than 50,000 books, according to The Marshall Project.

In Virginia prisons, people can only receive books mailed in from an approved book vendor or directly from publishers. Books must also pass contraband searches and not be on the state’s current list of banned titles for prisons, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections. Books can be banned for a number of reasons, including promoting violence or disorder, posing a threat to security, or containing nudity.

With rules like these in place, plenty of books that would generally be considered benign have been banned in my state, while books that could actually be considered threatening are still allowed.

Looking at the national picture, only seven states have explicitly banned Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” — with Virginia being one of them. Ohio hasn’t banned “Mein Kampf,” but has banned several computing guides, according to The Marshall Project.

In Virginia, we are not allowed to read “World of Warcraft” books because the VDOC believes it emphasizes “depictions or promotions of violence, disorder, insurrection, terrorist, or criminal activity.” We are also not allowed to read “1001 Photographs You Must See in Your Lifetime,” a book that features a “selection of the greatest still images … from the medium’s earliest days to the present.”

That book was denied for the same reasons as the “World of Warcraft” books. Multiple books that help people learn foreign languages have also been banned because they contain “material written or communicated in code or in a language other than English or Spanish,” according to VDOC policy.

When I’ve had books denied during the initial screening process, prison staff have brought me a sheet of paper that lists the titles of the books. The sheet has a long checklist of potential reasons books can be denied.

In the past, I have requested a review of the rejections. I haven’t been informed of what happens during those reviews, but eventually I’ve received a written notice on the outcome of that review — whether I am allowed to receive the book or whether it has been denied. If the book is denied, it goes on our prison’s banned book list and is unavailable to anyone in the future.

Most women at my prison are so upset by the initial rejection that they don’t even seek a review for their book. Over my 14 years in prison, I believe the VDOC, and my prison in particular, has gotten stricter about what books they allow inside. By my observation, Fluvanna is not following the same procedures they had in recent years, and is now searching for reasons to deny books that should be allowed.

Over the past year I have had several books denied and therefore banned by my facility. I am currently in the process of appealing these decisions. The first was “The Battered Woman Syndrome.” A prison investigator denied the book on the basis that it promoted violence.

In actuality, the book, written by an authority in the field, is an important resource because so many of us here have experienced abuse. In the U.S., it’s estimated that at least half of women in prison experienced physical or sexual abuse before becoming incarcerated.

The second book that got denied was “Counseling for Women.” I was told it was denied on the grounds that “you can't counsel in prison,” but I haven’t been able to find that explanation in state policy. Peer-to-peer classes and training are encouraged by staff and they use them as part of our reentry preparation for prisoners who are about to be released.

Finally, “Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms” was recently denied for promoting violence. I wanted to order the book because I have read it before and found that it outlined alternative justice pathways. I thought it provided an informative take on how our criminal legal system can be changed for the better. I wanted to donate this to our library for others to enjoy.

In fact, just last year I was able to receive a copy of this book without any problems. That seems to suggest that there has been a tightening of restrictions by the administration since then.

Other women in my facility have also voiced concerns about books they could not receive. Contemporary or Western romance novels have been denied because of sexual content. Several women have had the contemporary romance novel “Lotus” denied because the book contained the word “intercourse.”

The ban on books is all the more ridiculous because we still have access to TV channels, many of which air violent programs. None of us are acting them out. Books and TV programs are entertainment, and just because we read a story or see a television show depicting dangerous behavior doesn’t mean we will mimic that behavior.

According to the prisons’ standards, the state should ban the Bible, which includes stories of incest, murder, sex, violence and much more.

In our depressing and oppressive environment, books serve as a mental escape. While reading, we can be somewhere else, and this brings solace to many of us.

I read “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Survival, Learning, and Coming of Age in Prison” by Reginald Dwayne Betts a few months ago. Betts was arrested at 16 for carjacking and sentenced to nine years in a Virginia prison. In his book he shares that he would read any and all types of books to keep his mind busy while incarcerated. (Editor’s note: Betts is a member of Global Forum Online’s board of advisors.)

After incarceration, Betts went on to earn a degree from Yale Law School and became a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. He recently started a nonprofit called Freedom Reads where he supplies books to jails and prisons that don't have libraries.

Books don't promote violence. They keep us motivated to stay alive and decide what we want to do with our lives. Prison offers little for us to do. Books are an important way for us to dream about what we can become once we are free again.

Books provide ways out of prison through our minds. They keep us sane and safe, unlike the ceaseless violence and noise that surrounds us on a daily basis. Books provide ways to stimulate us intellectually and emotionally, and they can evoke hope when we feel swallowed by the prison walls. For many, books provide our only outlet to freedom.

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Donna Hockman is a mother of two grown children as well as a grandmother. She is incarcerated in Virginia.