“How to Leave Prison Early” is not welcome in Florida prisons. The Department of Corrections has declared the how-to book on work release, parole and clemency off limits for the 96,000 inmates in state custody.
“It makes no sense. All it does is explain Florida law to help inmates and families understand their options and eligibility,” said the book’s author, Reggie Garcia, a Tallahassee clemency lawyer.
Garcia’s book is among the 20,000 publications banned by the Department of Corrections in what critics call a punitive interpretation of a 1987 court ruling that allows the state to restrict inmates’ First Amendment rights.
The courts allow prison officials to ban publications if it serves a “legitimate penological interest.” That interest is usually couched in terms of safety and security. Garcia’s book tripped the security alarm when he identified the inmate in a case he used as an example.
In one chapter, Garcia wrote about a deaf inmate who he identified by name. The rule states personal information about an inmate in the hands of another inmate presents a threat to security and the correctional system’s objectives.
“They cited some obscure administrative rule against naming inmates . . . (but) the ‘identifying information’ is on the DOC’s website so it is silly to block the book,” said Garcia.
He said he had asked the department to review and pre-clear the book before it was published, but the offer was declined.
Garcia isn’t left with much recourse. Florida’s restrictions on what inmates can read won a major victory in January when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a legal magazine’s challenge to one of the dozen reasons that can land a publication on DOC’s do not read list.
When the Tallahassee Democrat asked multiple questions about the policy, the Department of Corrections provided a current list of prohibited materials and relevant statutes and rules but declined further discussion.
Its Literature Review Committee meets twice a month to screen books and magazines. Subscriptions and book orders by prisoners and contributions from Books to Prisoners programs are reviewed in Tallahassee before they are distributed to the agency’s 143 facilities.
It was unclear who serves and how many members are on the committee. The DOC did not answer inquiries about the committee from the Tallahassee Democrat.
Officials can’t issue a blanket ban of publications by name. The Supreme Court requires them to examine each edition for inappropriate content. That is how some issues of “Field & Stream” and “Reader’s Digest” make it past the screeners while scores of others are tossed into the do-not-read bin.
Florida’s Admissible Reading Material Rule has 13 categories and another 11 subcategories that will get a publication barred from being read behind bars.
A large percentage of the prohibited material contain explicit sexual and or violent content. But critics complain that at times, officials take a sound premise rooted in maintaining order and extend it to an illogical conclusion.
The book ban list includes Shon Hopwood’s “Memoir of a Jailhouse Lawyer,” an account of how his hand-written court brief landed a cell mate a Supreme Court hearing; “Black Klansman,” detective Ron Stallworth’s story of going undercover to infiltrate the group; and Matt Groening’s, “The Simpson’s Rainy-Day Fun Book.”
Stephen Colbert’s “America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t” and “A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming – Mastering the Art of Oneironauts” are also not allowed to be read.
While Florida prison censors allowed the “Aryan Nation Catalog” and “The Kidnapping and Brainwashing of our Aryan Children,” they turned thumbs down on “Exotic Chickens: Coloring for Everyone, a Fun Anti-stress Coloring Book.”
Officials cite the need to maintain order for prohibiting the “Anti-Government Guidebook,” “Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of Race from 4,500 BC to 2000 AD,” and four different translations of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.”
But that’s the same reason cited for the ban on “Danish” a Complete Guide for Beginners,” the “Federal Prison Handbook” and the “Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms.”
Prisoners are allowed access to the “Complete Guide to Wild Edible Plants,” but the “Complete Guide to Football Betting,” is off limits.
When Westeros maps cross the line
Publishers, authors, and civil rights attorneys say the department uses its censorship authority in a self-serving manner that is offensive to First Amendment principles.
The rules list depictions of seven sexual activities that are not permitted. Any thing that “encourages or describes methods to escape” are forbidden. Manuals on how to brew alcohol beverages, manufacture drugs and fashion weapons are also prohibited.
But critics say the safety and security provision that allows those restrictions is vague. They suggest officials use it as a cover to target material based on editorial content.
The Human Rights Defense Center lost an appellate court challenge to an FDC ban on its newsletter Prison Legal News. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court opted not to take up the case, effectively upholding the ban.
The organization ran afoul of state rules which outlaw advertisements for three-way calling services, pen pals and products that can be purchased with postage stamps. In court, officials could not identify a single security incident the ads provoked.
Alex Friedman of the HRDC said Literature Review Committee decisions often seem arbitrary and absurd.
“If you read the First Amendment there is no footnote in there that says prisoners don’t get First Amendment rights,” said Friedman, who also serves as Prison Legal News’ managing editor. “We as publisher have First Amendment rights to send our publication to people to the same extent that people have First Amendment rights to read our publication.”
Florida is an outlier in how it uses the safety and security as a reason to ban publications. HRDC has won censorship cases in California, New York, Texas and Louisiana. Friedman said the group wins about 90 percent of the time when it sues a state in a First Amendment case.
“It is a game of roulette. Pretty much in any other state in the nation we would’ve won,” said Friedman. “Florida is much more conservative and much more punitive when it comes to civil rights.”
The First Amendment Foundation and The Florida Press Association were among groups that filed briefs in support of HRDC’s case. They argued at issue was more than the content of the advertisements and that the suit had long range implications for other publications and society.
“The vagueness of the challenged rule permits prison officials to impound any of these publications for putative noncompliance with the rule even if the actual basis for impoundment is officials’ disagreement with editorial content,” stated the brief signed by 18 organizations.
Friedman ramps up his court-room monotone delivery to a radio-talk show host level when the discussion turns to a ban on “The Game of Thrones Graphic Novel.” Volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4 are banned in Florida under a catch-all rule it poses a threat to the “… objectives of the correctional system.”
They contain maps of the mythical realm of Westeros, the reason why the books are banned in Washington and Maryland.
“And you would say that is insane. It is fictional. The place doesn’t even exist. And that is true. But they are maps. And maps are verboten,” said Friedman. “And you would say that makes no damn sense. And you would be right. That’s why lawsuits are necessary to rein in the unjustified censorship of materials people are able to read.”
Keeping inmates in the dark
A wide range of organizations from Americans for Prosperity to the American Society of News Editors and the Florida Press Association question whether a public good is being served with bans on books like “How to Leave Prison Early” and magazines such as Prison Legal News – which has reported about problems within the Department of Corrections.
In court briefs, they argue such materials help inmates in prison, where they lack legal assistance when caught in administrative procedures and prepare them for their eventual release. They see the publications as the fuel needed to forge a “sense of community around the law, learning and social action.”
Tallahassee civil rights attorney James Cook questions Florida’s prohibitions on legal self-help books like Daniel Manville’s “Disciplinary Self-help Litigation Manual.” He said he could only take a guess at why an analysis of case law would be barred from a government-run facility.
“The Florida Department of Corrections is a world all it’s own. It is a very kind of bunker mentality,” observed Cook.
Cook said censors who would ban books that explain due process don’t have “any concern or understanding about the First Amendment.”
“There are some pretty smart inmates and with the right legal resources they can prevail a surprising percentage of the time,” said Cook,
“I don’t think the (banned) list is much informed or concerned about the Bill of Rights. I think it is purely self-serving; it helps keep the prisoners from beating them,” said Cook.
Writer James Call can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @CallTallahassee
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