BY J.S. SLAYMAKER
To some extent, anything that Texas prisoners are permitted to read, possess, or receive through the mail has always been censored, if not denied outright. Books like “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” which provides detailed instructions in bomb making, drug manufacturing and sabotage, among other things, have always been considered threats “to the order and security of the institution” and outlawed. Yet book denials have never been so extreme as they are at this time.
TDC’s policy prior to 1995 or thereabouts was that if more than four pages needed to be removed, the book would be denied. By 1997, however, this policy was reduced to two pages and by 1999 it was reduced again – to zero pages. TDC decided that if any pages from a book were deemed to need clipping then that book would be denied.
Around the time of the Y2K scare, the Director’s Review Committee (DRC) in Huntsville developed a list of books that were given the status of Approved, Denied, or Not Listed. Until 2006, even with this new wrinkle, inmates were still given the option to appeal any book or package that was denied at the unit level. After 2006, however, inmates were denied the right to appeal the books or packages listed as Denied by the DRC (and usually further listed as contraband).
Oodles of books then found themselves to be on the DRC’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum and were therefore not only denied by prison mailrooms, but were removed from prison library shelves as well. David Lindsey’s novel “Mercy” was one such book. It was denied by the DRC in 1999 because of an alleged gang rape scene. But there is no gang rape scene. There is a single paragraph in which one of the book’s characters mentions that she had been gang raped. In Alice Sebold’s novel, “The Lovely Bones,” however, there is actually a scene where a 14-year old girl is raped and murdered. It is not an overly explicit scene, but the scene does exist all the same. And this book is approved by the DRC.
In 2008, as the mailroom was bringing me a denial for Robert Parker’s novel, “Double Deuce,” cited for racial language, I inquired as to how I could get a copy of the DRC’s list. The mailroom clerk told me that there was no such list. I just had to write the mailroom to see if the book was allowed. I replied that if there was no list, what exactly were they using to determine that I couldn’t have this book? I received no answer, and was looked at as if it was me who was the asshole.
The DRC’s Index, however, is extensive. Maybe one in fifty books inquired about is Not Listed, meaning that it is appealable if denied at the unit level. So far, I haven’t yet caught the unit mailroom lying about the status of any book I’ve asked about (sometimes I backdoor it with a letter to the DRC), but that’s not to say that they won’t lie. Their system for approving or denying books is as secret as the high rites of the Illuminati. It is implausible to think that someone or someone is actually reading these books, searching their pages for nasty words or pictures. I mean, we would be talking about a system-wide department within the prison system that is being paid to sit on its collective ass all day and read. The whole idea is ridiculous.
Their usual reasons for denial are pretty standard: racial language, sexually explicit images, sexually explicit images of a child, or sexual behavior involving a child. Superficially these reasons sound legitimate. But TDC, like most every other state or federal institution, becomes so zealously rigid in the application of rules as to render those rules meaningless, even silly.
Racial language is one of those soft taco phrases we see so much these days in which so much bullshit is wrapped up with a little lettuce and cheese of truth. Most every other author in 2014 writing popular fiction can be cited for this. And really, who does TDC think it’s kidding? Do they really think that we’ve never heard a derogatory term before or that if read one we’ll not know how to deal with it? This is not kindergarten.
In May of 2013, the unit where I am denied Elmore Leonard’s novel, “Pagan Babies,” citing racial language. This put the book on the DRC’s Denied list. It was un-appealable. In June of the same year, they denied his novels, “Valdez is Coming” and “The Big Bounce” for the same reason. Again, the DRC had these books on its Denied list and they were therefore un-appealable.
I’ve had more books, from art books to calendars to diaries, denied for sexually explicit images than I have fingers to count. This, of course, usually pertains to illustrations or photographs. In May of 2010 I had, at the unit level, a medical textbook concerning infectious granulomatous diseases denied for sexually explicit images. The unit mailroom was not concerned that this was a medical textbook, only that there was a (OMG!) naked body between its covers. It was, however, not listed with the DRC and therefore appealable. In June of 2010 the unit’s decision was overturned. The book was initially denied for two pages said to contain the forbidden images. When I finally received the book, I looked up those pages. One showed a close up of a woman with elephantiasis of the vulva. The other showed a photo of a man with some kind of drippy dick.
If this is the kind of thing that’s gilding your lily, brother, then there’s just no stopping you.
Sexually explicit images of a child should be pretty self-explanatory. But, of course, it’s not. In November of 2010, at the unit level, I was denied that month’s issue of Men’s Health magazine for this reason. What could it have been except a cutesy picture of some kid’s butt…like the old Coppertone ads? I mean, this is Men’s Health we’re talking about. The DRC upheld the unit’s decision.
Memoirs can be tricky. In June of 2011, I had Mary Karr’s memoir, “The Liar’s Club,” denied at the unit level because she writes of being molested as a young girl. I appealed to the DRC, but the unit’s decision was upheld. In September 2011, Jaycee Duggard’s memoir, “A Stolen Life,” was denied for the same reason. I had, however, inquired of its DRC status in August and was told that it was Not Listed. Yet by the time I received the book it had already been Denied. Un-appealable.
All of these books were denied, they said, for security reasons. Another meaningless phrase. Inmates in TDC have read whatever books they wanted to for years with no ill effects. No more than the ones the prison system itself inflicts on them. So why the change? What is TDC hoping to accomplish by doing this? Do they really feel that by censoring our reading material they can somehow make us into more moral prisoners? Or is it more sinister than that? Are these just the initial stages that precede a day when they are finally able to steal the very last of our personal liberties – the liberty to think what we want?
While serving time for burglary, J.S. Slaymaker assaulted two guards and received an additional 170 years in prison.
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J.S. Slaymaker #634548
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Gatesville, Texas 76597