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Texas Department of Criminal Justice accused of censorship over book vendor policy

A returned package sent from Seattle-based Books to Prisoners to an inmate in Texas. A name and address have been covered for privacy.
Joan Ross
Books to Prisoners
A returned package sent from Seattle-based Books to Prisoners to an inmate in Texas. A name and address have been covered for privacy.

Prison book programs have been sending free books to Texas prisons for years, but recently, they've been told they're no longer allowed to under a policy they say they've never heard of before.

Two nonprofit prison book programs say the Texas Department of Criminal Justice quietly implemented a new book vendor approval policy — leaving them and the incarcerated Texans they send books to in limbo.

The sudden change affected organizations like the Inside Books Project in Austin, which has sent books to thousands of incarcerated people in Texas for a quarter century.

A spokesperson for Inside Books said he first noticed a book package bounced back on Sept. 21.

"I went to the post office to pick up our mail and one of our boxes of packages that we had sent to a unit had been returned and stamped 'no longer approved vendor' on the box," he said. "We've been doing this for 25 years and we've never had a problem."

The organization said they contacted a TDCJ representative, who told them they'd have to reapply for vendor status, but gave no reason why.

Now the nonprofit — which sends out hundreds of books a week — has to put the operation on pause to reapply. The spokesperson asked not to be named out of fear of interfering with the application process.

"We get people that write for information on, like, legal resources. People who need health resources," he said. "There's people that are trying to learn different trades so they can get jobs when they get out, things like that. And people also just want, you know, books to read to pass the time and for their mental health."

TDCJ did not return requests for comment about the policy Thursday.

The nationwide controversy over banned books and censorship in schools extends into the prison system, too. More than 9,000 books are banned in Texas prisons, according to data from The Marshall Project.

TDCJ's inmate correspondence rules state the department can reject content that depicts sexual behavior that violates the law, including "rape, incest, sex with a minor, bestiality, necrophilia or bondage" or contains sexually explicit images.

The nonprofit PEN America raised concerns about the policy in a press release Tuesday. While there's no clear commonality between the vendors rejected based on the books they send, Moira Marquis, a senior manager for PEN America's Freewrite Project, said the "blanket censorship" that comes with requiring a list of approved vendors is concerning.

"This is a violation of publishers' and distributors' First Amendment rights," Marquis said. "You can't just artificially decide that certain people are allowed to distribute literature and other people are not allowed to for no criteria."

Marquis said in other states, similar restrictive policies have been implemented as a way to cut down on contraband. The Columbia Missourian reported last month Missouri's Department of Corrections has now banned prisoners from receiving books from friends or family.

A department spokesperson told the newspaper prison officials had found book and magazine pages soaked with drugs including methamphetamine and fentanyl.

The Texas Tribune reported TDCJ prisons across the state went on lockdown in September to sweep for contraband in response to drug-related violence.

But independent bookstores and prison book programs are not to blame for any influx of contraband prisons may be dealing with, said Andy Chan, secretary of the Seattle-based Books to Prisoners.

"It's just hard to fathom, given that there is so little evidence — so little evidence — to suggest that we are part of a contraband problem that any state would want to restrict access to educational or vocational materials," Chan said.

Books to Prisoners has received rejected book packages from the Wainwright Unit in Lovelady, the Clements Unit in Amarillo and the Murray Unit in Gatesville, he said.

Chan, who's been with the nonprofit since 1994, said Texas is one of the largest sources of Book to Prisoners' requests for materials.

He said he hopes TDCJ will get back to the organization with some clarification on how it can continue serving Texans.

"We actually produced a book in which we have a bunch of letters from people saying how life-changing getting a book can be," he said. "I mean, even getting a single book can be incredibly life-changing, can change someone's direction."

Got a tip? Email Toluwani Osibamowo at tosibamowo@kera.org. You can follow Toluwani on Twitter @tosibamowo.

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Toluwani Osibamowo