Censorship of books in US prisons and schools ‘widespread’ – report to UN

Free-speech organisations find US government is ‘failing to protect the rights of its most vulnerable citizens’ as popular books – including Shakespeare – are banned from institutions

There is “widespread censorship” of books in US prisons, according to a report submitted to a UN human rights review, which details the banning of works about artists from Botticelli to Van Gogh from Texan state prisons for containing “sexually explicit images”.

The report from two free-speech organisations, the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship and the Copenhagen-based Freemuse, to the United Nation’s (UN) Universal Periodic Review states that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) lists 11,851 titles banned from its facilities. These range from the “ostensibly reasonable”, such as How to Create a New Identity, Essential Throwing and Grappling Techniques, and Art & Design of Custom Fixed Blades, to what it describes as “the telling”, including Write it in Arabic, and the “bizarre” (Arrival of the Gods: Revealing the Alien Landing Sites at Nazca was banned for reasons of “homosexuality”).

Prisoners in Texas are entitled to be mailed books and magazines, but the titles are checked on arrival against a “master list” of acceptable works. If they do not appear on the list, then it is the decision of the post-room officer as to whether they are objectionable.

“Of the 11,851 total blocked titles, 7,061 were blocked for ‘deviant sexual behaviour’ and 543 for sexually explicit images,” says the report, naming artists including Caravaggio, Cézanne, Dallí, Picasso, Raphael, Rembrandt and Renoir among those whose works have been kept out of Texas state prisons.

“Anthologies on Greco-Roman art, the pre-Raphaelites, impressionism, Mexican muralists, pop surrealism, graffiti art, art deco, art nouveau and the National Museum of Women in the Arts are banned for the same reason, as are numerous textbooks on pencil drawing, watercolour, oil painting, photography, graphic design, architecture and anatomy for artists,” states the submission, with prohibited literary works by Gustav Flaubert, Langston Hughes, Flannery O’Connor, George Orwell, Ovid, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, John Updike, Shakespeare and Alice Walker also on the banned list.

“To survey the list of works banned by the TDCJ is to appreciate the dangers of the broad discretionary powers granted to prison officials under the concept of legitimate penological interest,” says the report.

The UN’s Universal Periodic Review is a review of the human rights records of all UN member states. As well as prisoners, the NCAC and Freemuse’s joint submission to the review also claims the US is failing to protect the right to read of children in public education. Citing titles including Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the report says “hundreds” of books are challenged and banned in America’s schools and libraries every year, with objections centring around moral and religious reasons.

Svetlana Mintcheva, director of programmes for the NCAC, said the US federal government could do “much more” to prevent this. “A good start would be a ‘key policy letter’ by the secretary of education encouraging school districts to adopt formal review policies to ensure greater transparency in their enforcement,” she said.

The report states that the US is “failing to abide by its international commitments to protect fully the fundamental rights of some of its most vulnerable citizens” – prisoners and children – and that “this failure diminishes vital artistic and creative freedoms that are both integral to the dignity of the person and instrumental to the enjoyment and defense of a culture of human rights”, the two organisations make a number of recommendations. These include a call for the attorney general and Offices of the US Attorneys to “investigate violations of incarcerated citizens’ artistic freedoms”, and a call for the Obama administration to “submit for ratification the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides in Article 31(2) for ‘the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life’”.

“The right to read and to experience art is protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds ‘in the form of art’,” said Ole Reitov, executive director of Freemuse. “The US must honour its obligations to its vulnerable citizens under the care of state institutions.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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