Books Banned in Texas Prisons

Some of the photography books banned by the Texas prison system.

When I heard about the list of over 10,000 books banned by the Texas prison system, I did a really quick scan of the list for photography books that I own. I found five books (photo above) and I am sure I missed some. And there are photography books on the banned list that I don’t have, including several National Geographic books and two more books by John Hedgecoe.

As I skimmed the list I began to draw some tentative conclusions. My first guess for the reason for banning some photography books is they have images of people who are not fully clothed. A glance at the list would indicate nudity is pretty much a no no. Many broad topic photography books have some nude photos in them. But that does not explain why Robert Caputo’s fine book on landscape photography is on the banned list. I looked through Caputo’s book again just to be sure I hadn’t missed something salacious. There are only a few photos of people in the book and they are all fully clothed. Go figure.

Nor does my “no-nudity” theory explain why non-photography books like Illustrated Stories from the Bible are banned (Adam and Eve?), or the Reader’s Digest book, Who’s Who in the Bible. Then again, maybe the Bible is a subversive book and Reader’s Digest is a suspicious organization.

Some broad categories of banned books make sense, like books on lock picking, or an FBI field manual. Road atlases are banned (presumably so prisoners can’t plan an escape route). But why is How to Land an A330 Airbus banned? Oh, I get it. As soon as you escape from prison you go steal an Airbus A330 for your getaway.

Other broad categories of books that show up with quite a bit of frequency on the banned list are books about artists Michelangelo, Leonard da Vinci, Caravaggio, Salvador Dali, and Frida Kahlo (who was a Communist). Even a coloring book on the Sistine Chapel is banned. Google these artists and see if you can figure out why prison inmates shouldn’t know about their lives or their work.

Despite the Texas ban on a long list of books devoted to the fine arts, in reality, the study of the arts in prison improves behavior in prison and reduces the chances a person will re-offend and return to prison once released.

Some books seem to be on the banned list to keep prisoners from getting violent, or escaping and getting away, like the aforementioned locksmith books. These banned books include survival guides, tourist guides, books about prisons, electrical wiring, radios, self defense, Bruce Lee, martial arts, guns, swords, make-it-yourself weapons, yoga, Tai Chi, and books about Batman (knowing how to be like Batman would really help in a prison escape).

Other categories of books that show up on the banned list with great frequency are about human sexuality, LGBTQ issues, books with gay, lesbian, or homosexuality in the titles, human anatomy textbooks, voodoo, witchcraft, tattoos, mythology, drugs and drug paraphernalia, books on crime, and ninjas.

Some books on the list are really puzzling, like A Charlie Brown Christmas by Charles Schulz, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, The Southern Living Gardening Guide (maybe it will inspire prisoners to dig), and the Family Medical Guide published by the American Medical Association.

Some banned books hit my funny bone, like Bobby Mercer’s How Do you Light A Fart? We certainly can’t have that going on in prison!

It seems unfair to ban the ever practical How to Defeat Your Own Clone because you never know when your clone might show up and try to do you in. Happens all the time. I’ve seen it on TV.

Lots of classics are banned, old and new. Dante’s Inferno, The Color Purple, Pillars of the Earth, and Water for Elephants to name a few. And then, of course, The Holy Bible published by Holman.

If you love to read, the odds are good you own some books that are banned by the Texas prison system.

After puzzling over the list and making my own observations, I went looking for the official reasons why books are banned.

Why are some books banned in prisons?  In Thornburgh v. Abbott, the U.S. Supreme Court held that prison officials can ban materials that are “detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution” or that “might facilitate criminal activity.”

This is what the Texas Department of Criminal Justice looks for when they ban books, magazines and other materials:

  • Information on the manufacture of explosives, weapons and/or drugs.
  • “Material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption,” like strikes or riots.
  • “Graphic presentations” of illegal sex acts, “such as rape, incest, sex with a minor, bestiality, necrophilia or bondage.”
  • Sexually explicit images. “Naked or partially covered buttocks” does not constitute reason for automatic disapproval. Staff review medical journals, reference materials, art books and other publications containing nudity on a case-by-case basis.
  • Information on criminal schemes or “how to avoid detection of criminal schemes.”

They also ban books based on the construction, like pop-up books that can be used to hide contraband. A Where’s Waldo book was banned because it has stickers. More on the reasons for banning books in this article.

Based on the above standards, I still don’t get the logic for banning many of the books on the Texas list.

An alphabetical scroll-down list of the banned books is in this article.


Ten Photography Books You Cannot Read in Texas Prisons

Why do Texas prisons ban ‘Freakonomics’ but not Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’?

Banned Books in the Texas Prison System

Texas bans 15,000 books from state prisons, including Dante’s “Inferno” and “The Color Purple”

Banned Books Lists in other prison systems

What Do Batman and The Onion Book of Known Knowledge Have in Common? Censorship, the ACLU, and Arizona Prisons.

The banning of books in prisons: ‘It’s like living in the dark ages’

The Impact of Prison Arts Programs on Inmate Attitudes and Behavior: A Quantitative Evaluation