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Michigan prison inmates need job skills, but technology books are banned

How a book becomes banned in Michigan prisons

Each of the 1,100-plus books on the state’s Restricted Publication List got there after it was flagged by prison officials. Here’s the process:

  1. The book is reviewed when it arrives at prison to be delivered to a prisoner.
  2. Staff identifies content that violates MDOC policy, and rejects book.
  3. The prisoner can request a hearing on the rejection.
  4. A hearing upholds the rejection.
  5. The warden requests placement of book on the Restricted Publication List.
  6. The Correctional Facilities Administration Deputy Director/Designee agrees the book violates MDOC policy. 

Source: Michigan Department of Corrections

Inmates in Michigan state prisons who want to learn how to design a website, code a computer program or wire a house may find themselves a little light on reading material. 

At least 60 books related to computers, electronics and other technology are banned from state prisons for security reasons, according to a list of “restricted publications” Bridge obtained from the Michigan Department of Corrections. 

Many of those are introductory or basic technology guidebooks. Among them: “HTML Essentials,” “Programming in Pascal,” “Beginning JavaScript” and even titles like “How Computers Work,” “PCs for Dummies” and “Easy Computing for Seniors.” Some were placed on the list nearly two decades ago; others were added in the last few years. 

The technology-related books are just a small portion of the more than 1,100 publications banned from state prisons. Most are barred for sexually explicit content, advocating racist ideologies or instructing readers on DIY weaponry.

The list of banned material also includes acclaimed works of literature: 

  • “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley (depicts sexual acts between children)
  • “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Stieg Larsson (includes descriptions of sexual acts involving children; sadism and bondage)
  • “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov (threat to the order and security of the institution; depicts sexual acts involving minor children)
  • “The Lovely Bones,” Alice Sebold (threat to the order and security of the institution; depicts rape and murder of girl)
  • “Vanishing Acts,” Jodi Picoult (threat to the order and security of the institution; contains instructions to manufacture weapons and make alcohol) 

Among other books listed as security threats: 

  • “Stock Investing for Dummies,” Paul Mladjenovic (threat to the order and security of the institution; provides instruction on the commission of criminal activity)
  • “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu (threat to the order and security institution; describes war tactics)
  • “An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary,” E.A. Wallis Budge (threat to the order and security of the institution)
  • “Atlas of the World,” Oxford University Press (maps, threat to safety/security of institution)
  • “Bruce Lee: The Biography,” Robert Clouse (threat to the order and security of institution)
  • Instructionals on role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering (threat to the order and security of the institution; role play)

But the technology books are what leaves some prison experts perplexed. Banning them creates an additional barrier for inmates trying to reintegrate into society when they leave prison, said Jennifer Cobbina, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University and a specialist in prisoner re-entry. 

“If we’re going to teach prisoners how to do computer coding, we should probably allow the books that teach them to do that.”

— Chris Gautz, spokesman, Michigan Department of Corrections

When they come out of prison, “individuals feel overwhelmed, they feel intimidated, they feel insecure” trying to figure out technology, Cobbina said. 

“And there’s certainly a direct correlation with the ability to secure jobs. Everything’s on the Internet, from basic applications to securing employment, even accessing health care, filling out forms.”

See the full list of banned books

Some technology books are banned under a section of department policy that restricts publications that contain “specific information regarding the manufacture or operation of electronic security systems.” Many are cited as a “threat to the order and security of the institution.” 

Some banned books on computers and technology

 At least 60 books on computers, electronics or other technology are forbidden to inmates in Michigan prison facilities. They include: 

  • 1001 Computer Hints & Tips, by Reader’s Digest
  • Beginning JavaScript, by Paul Wilton
  • Build Your Own Website the Right Way Using HTML & CSS, by Ian Lloyd
  • Concise Encyclopedia of Engineering (McGraw-Hill)
  • Digital Electronics, by James Bignell and Robert Donovan
  • Electricity and Electronics for HVAC
  • Foundations of Electronics, Circuits & Devices, by Russell L. Meade
  • How Computers Work, by Ron White
  • How the Internet Works, by Dan Gookin
  • How to Do (Just About) Anything on the Internet, by Reader's Digest
  • HTML Essentials, by Steven E. Callihan
  • Internet for Dummies, by John Levine
  • Linux Programming Interface, by Michael Kerrisk
  • PCs for Dummies
  • Practical Internet, by Barbara Kasser
  • Residential Wiring, by Gary Rockis & Thomas E. Proctor

That policy stands in contrast with the state’s recent emphasis on improving jobs training for inmates, including the department’s Vocational Village skilled trades program (which includes electrician training) and recently-announced collaboration with the state’s professional licensing agency to increase the number of recently-released inmates in the skilled trades.

The irony isn’t lost on the Department of Corrections. It’s planning to review the list and remove books that don’t need to be there, spokesman Chris Gautz told Bridge.

When the books were first added to the list, Gautz said, there was probably a concern that inmates would teach themselves to hack into the department’s computer system, but that hasn’t happened. 

“I don’t know if that’s really a concern anymore,” he said. “We’re kind of going in the other direction where we’re actively looking at the ability to teach prisoners computer coding.” The banned technology books are “probably one of the first areas that we’re going to revisit. If we’re going to teach prisoners how to do computer coding, we should probably allow the books that teach them to do that.”

The department last reviewed policies on restricted material in 2017, Gautz said. Officials would need to change the policy to remove certain relevant books from the list, and they are now exploring other ways of doing a list review. 

Inmates have access to computer tablets for using educational programs or playing games, and library computers for searching law books, but they don’t have access to the Internet, Gautz said. 

Other things that may be up for reconsideration: Manuals for passing a truck driver’s test (banned in 2014 for providing “direction on operating semi-truck which a prisoner may use in an escape attempt”); books on how to start businesses and nonprofits (banned for containing forms that could help prisoners start fraudulent organizations); and books on installing heating and air conditioning units.

Making sure inmates have access to all the books they need to learn about computers, engineering and other technologies is just the first step in making sure they’re prepared for a rapidly-changing job market in which being technologically savvy is important, Cobbina of MSU said. 

“It will help if they have access to these books, but if [MDOC officials] really want to help individuals successfully integrate back into the community they have to have access to vocational skills,” such as how to operate machinery or install electrical wiring in a building, Cobbina said. 

The vocational training programs at facilities in Ionia and Jackson are a good start, she said. But those are only two of more than 30 state-run prisons that could improve services by starting skilled trades programs for inmates, which will help them get jobs when they’re released. 

“When they succeed, it only keeps everyday civilians safe,” Cobbina said. “Society is doing well when those who are incarcerated successfully enter back into the community.”

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