What does Annie Proulx’s tale of the romance between two cowboys Brokeback Mountain have in common with Jenna Bush’s non-fiction book about a teenage single mother with HIV ? They’ve both been banned in Texas jails, along with books by John Grisham, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Alice Walker.
An exhaustive analysis by the Austin American Statesman of five years’-worth of publications whose rejection as unsuitable was appealed by inmates found a host of bestselling and classic titles had been banned from the state’s prisons. Books by Nobel laureates Pablo Neruda and Andre Gide, collections of paintings by Picasso and Michelangelo, and bestsellers by James Patterson, Carl Hiaasen and Hunter S Thompson have all failed to pass the prisons’ censors.
Titles have been rejected over security concerns, for containing descriptions of criminal schemes, drugs or weapons manufacturing, for being racially insensitive, for potentially aiding escape, and for conceivably giving inmates an advantage over officers (How to Be An Ass-Whipping Boxer, and – perhaps less obviously – Draw Fight Scenes Like a Pro). The Elements of Persuasion: Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Faster and Win More Business was rejected in December, the American Statesman reported, because censors feared it “could be used to persuade others”.
The most common reason for banning titles was sex, whether in images or words, with a total ban on pictures of naked children. Tammy Shelby, who works at the prison agency’s Mail System Coordinators Panel, which receives books for review if inmates choose to appeal over a ban, told the magazine that in order to separate art from child porn, reviewers check for wings. If a naked child has clearly visible wings, it is a legitimate cherub and the book can stay. No wings? It must go. According to the magazine, “if he is naked, the baby Jesus would be denied.”
Critics have warned that the restrictions will have an impact on inmates’ literacy, but a prison official told the Austin American Statesman that the restrictions were for the good of guards and inmates, and that “what may not be judged inflammatory in the public at large can be inflammatory in prison”.