I’m with the Banned
I suppose I should be proud. My publishing career is starting out at the same place Wally Lamb reached mid-career.
The Connecticut Department of Correction’s Media Review Board banned my book, a poetry anthology entitled Up the River Anthology. The Media Review Board is a motley gathering of seventeen correctional employees – captains in charge of discipline, counselors, librarians, school principals, mail sorters, a secretary and a staff attorney. It took twenty-one years for the Media Review Board to ban She’s Come Undone, Wally’s first novel. And getting the board to bite Wally’s hand took him fifteen years of volunteering for the Department of Corrections, driving every other week to this prison to teach a three-hour writing seminar to inmates like me. All I had to do to invite the big bad ban on my book was write it.
In deciding what publications it will allow into Connecticut’s cell blocks, the Media Review Board justifies banning a piece of writing for one of two reasons. Either the material is too “sexually explicit,” like the scene where She’s Come Undone’s teenage heroine Dolores Price undergoes a sexual assault by her family’s trusted tenant, or the publication “threatens safety and security” in the state’s correctional facilities.
The second reason is a tad more protean than a standard of sexual explicitness since it seems to apply to every word critical of criminal justice or corrections. Almost all of the Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights’ newsletters bear the big red “X” of banishment. So do the July 22, 2013 issue of the New Yorker magazine and the August 2013 issue of GQ magazine. I can’t say why these periodicals threaten safety and security because I’m unable to read them.
One of the biggest prison shockers isn’t what’s prohibited, but what’s allowed. My book isn’t allowed in but the the Media Review Board has approved pages 1 through 52 and pages 54 forward of Prick magazine because these pages are neither sexually explicit nor threatening to safety and security; only page 53 does that and they ripped it out. The Board ordered mailroom sorters to rip a diaper rash ointment ad out of a parenting magazine because it constituted borderline porn with the baby’s bare ass prominently displayed.
Among the tomes approved by the Media Review Board are what the inmates call “urban books” – self-published stories written in ebonics and focusing on drug-dealing and doggie-style sex. Amid the commotion caused by a Code Purple, a cryptic message over the prison’s radios that an inmate tried to hang herself with a lime sherbet-colored sheet, I am left, Prick in hand, guessing why certain written materials threaten safety and security and others don’t.
Censorship always glosses itself in that sadistic paternalism that underlies most oppression. According to department directives, the Media Review Board claims to ban content that threatens the safety and security to “staff, other inmates or the public, facility order or discipline or rehabilitation” but really they just restrict anything that tells the Department’s secrets. Notice who’s first on their list of people to protect.
Trying to place the ban in some type of historical context is hard. The whole Up the River debacle seems way too Bradbury-esque for me. The only limit keeping the Media Review Board from boiling up to Fahrenheit 451 levels of censorship is the their own safety and security policy of not allowing lighters or matches to sit around waiting to eat books in flame. It would smack of McCarthyism if any of the board members would come out and, as the inmates say, represent, admitting why they’re banning my book; Joseph McCarthy definitely wore the shirt in the book-banning game because he admitted what he was going after. Instead, the Media Review Board hides.
What the Media Review Board’s doing reminds me of the Comstock law. Passed in 1873 and named for Anthony Comstock, a controversial reformer who crusaded for its passage, the law prohibits the mailing of indecent materials or of information about birth control or abortion. For about 85 years, postal officials used the Comstock Law, sometimes very loosely, to censor mail. If post office inspectors decided a book, picture, or other item of mail was indecent, they seized all copies and refused to deliver them.
The Comstock Law is still on the books – not banned ones – amazingly enough. It’s just that the postal service never uses it because the Supreme Court has placed constitutional limits on censorship and they know that everyone will bitch if they avail themselves of the law. Whether they use the law or not, censoring written works remains legal in this country, even in 2013, and we act like stifling voices is inbuilt in administrative procedure. Like the Comstock postal service, the Media Review Board is duly authorized to censor books. Duly authorized, improperly rationalized.
Although the Media Review Board eventually overturned its ban on Wally’s She’s Come Undone, I think the real reason for the novel’s banishment was that the heroine’s attack – while fictional – had the potential to trigger flashbacks among the almost 95% of female prisoners who are the victims of sexual abuse and the almost 75% of male inmates who have experienced the same. Reading She’s Come Undone might remind prisoners how little the Department of Correction does to treat the root cause of their misbehavior and how likely they are to reoffend.
While the DOC might be able to prevent me from buying and reading banned content of other publications, I wrote Up the River. I can’t buy my own book or even read it (not even galley proofs or approval of cover art) but I know what it says. Like most published prisoner poetry, Up the River Anthology is hardly a literary coup. It’s an anthology of poems inspired by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection of 250 poems, epitaphs of fictional residents of a small town, Spoon River, that are their secret thoughts. There’s no copy of it here, so I don’t know if it was ever considered for a ban. In Up the River, the reader hears the spilled secrets of all the participants in a small town called criminal prosecution, from the police who make the arrest, to the defendant who becomes an inmate, all the way through to the probation officer who provides final release from the system.
I have the poems saved on a 3.5 inch floppy disk that stored them when I wrote them on a 1999 Gateway desktop. I scroll through and wonder if it’s the cop poem that alarms the Board when he says:
Ramrod sergeants and captains
Order us “Enforce!”
The secret of law?
We bend it, of course
Maybe it’s the Warden poem that refers to human warehousing in its last stanza:
banker stuffs the single slip
of numbers 33-04-45
into his silk shirt’s pocket
the combination to the human safe
Or one of three correction officer poems that says, in part:
“Secure all your doors!”
He calls the girls whores.
Of course, I’ll challenge the Media Review Board’s pronouncement, but appealing any decision is next to impossible when you can’t discern how or why it was made.
As I fight my banishment battle, Wally may need to gear up for another one as it remains undecided whether the Media Review Board will build a dam around his new novel, We Are Water, and not let it flow inside York Correctional. The students in Wally’s class have been listening to chapters since 2011 so we know what it says. We Are Water’s darker theme – childhood sexual abuse and how it rears its head in adult victims’ lives through crime – hits much closer to home than Delores Price’s hellacious introduction to adult sexuality. Even with her ban undone, Delores Price never entered prison as a perp because, despite her childhood trauma, she never entered a life of crime. But the members of the Oh family, the characters in We Are Water, enter lives of crime in a number of different ways because of unresolved trauma. In that respect, Wally’s characters are a lot like his students in the prison. Either way, Wally’s most prominent lesson in We Are Water is the same as what he teaches his students in the prison: the secrets must be washed out of us for our thoughts and behavior to improve.
The same rule applies to DOC. They banned Up the River because it lets their secrets out. For all inmates’ sakes, I hope that the Media Review Board swallows hard and overturns its ban if only for the reason of showing inmates that they can achieve something even while they remain behind bars and bans. If the Media Review Board doesn’t overturn the ban, it will be because they see the Department of Correction’s – and the entire criminal justice system’s – rehabilitative failures appear all too clearly in the River’s reflection.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Up the River was approved for entry into Connecticut’s correctional facilities, effective March 4, 2014, by the Media Review Board Committee with a statement that “No information contained in this publication presented a concern for the safety and security of the institution, staff or inmates.”
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MAY 9 – 15, 2016
It was a week of revelations.
The Washington Free Beacon revealed that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has received in excess of $75K in political donations from Department of Justice employees. The Department of Justice is the agency that will ultimately decide whether Hillary is charged with any crime related to her secret email server. While this story might not seem to relate to justice reform initially, it does have implications for presidential platforms. How can a candidate like Hillary ethically develop a position on criminal policy when it might harm or help her personally? On the other hand, how can a candidate create a knowledgeable platform about criminal justice policy if he or she hasn’t been at the wrong end of criminal case caption? A presidential candidate who’s interfaced with criminal investigation is both qualified and disqualified at the same time to create such policy.
Prison population growth is relatively stable but jail growth is growing. The reason? Cash bail. A study released this week by the Prison Policy Initiative showed that people in jail are actually poorer than people in prison. Accused persons have been increasingly held in pretrial detention even though they are legally (and perhaps factually) innocent. Any attempt at prison reform must include the front end of how and whether courts set cash bonds.
Then the Tampa Bay Times revealed that, despite the fact that Walmart employs security guards, Walmart stores get more police protection than anyone else, sometimes generating 63 incidents per day for law enforcement response. Even the local police departments admit that the cost of Walmart security has been shifted to taxpayers. There must be a trade-off with public safety away from Walmart stores if this is happening.