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

A ban in Michigan’s prison system on certain technology-related books can create added hurdles for people struggling to navigate society after getting out of prison, said Michigan State University criminal justice professor Jennifer Cobbina. (Shutterstock image)

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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Kathi Geukes
Thu, 07/18/2019 - 9:16am

Seriously? How are inmates supposed to stay occupied if they can't study what they are interested in? How are they supposed to learn a skill or hopefully get gainfully employed once they get out of they can't study about what they need to know about that job?? This is some seriously flawed bullcrap!! Give them the tools they need to stay OUT of prison!!!!!

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 10:28am

It sounds like the system is setting them up for failure and wants repeat customers.

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 9:38am

The state administered criminal punishment system needs to be decentralized, basically, reassigned to counties.

Counties have been allowed to dump their problem individuals on the state in ever increasing numbers for decades. The sentencing by county judges is long. Local alternatives to incarceration are not developed or expanded.

Counties are happy to do this since they don't have the funds to deal with criminals nor the motivation. Their solution, in creasing numbers, is to dump their criminals on the state.

It would be a radical change, but we need to reverse the dumping system.

Counties need
electronic monitoring of their criminals,
competent parole and probation officers,
more authority given to parole and probation officers - particularly the authority to temporarily incarcerate violators,
random substance abuse testing for convicted criminals who are not incarcerated,
random home visits and searches of criminal's homes who are allowed to live at their home,
a county work camp for unemployed criminals who have not served their entire sentence,
much longer parole and probation sentences and much shorter incarceration periods,
work release options,
substance abuse treatment for their criminals,
classes that focus on the ways to reverse the track that led these folks to become criminals,
and classes that remedy their lack of employable skills.

All this would be expensive but not nearly as expensive as our current state corrections system that relies mostly on expensive prisons and generally produces poor results. We spend over $2 billion on state incarceration, more than we spend on higher education. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, a factor of 7 times that of most developed countries.

Michigan needs major criminal justice reform.

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 11:52am

There is already electronic monitoring of criminals, if a judge orders it. It is used primarily for alcohol and drug offenses as those who have committed more serious crimes tend to just cut them off. Competent paroles officers are not the problem, it is how few there actually are due to budget cuts to the corrections department over the years, and including your next point, the restrictions put upon them by the courts. There is already mandatory substance abuse testing already as a condition of parole. The only consequence for not doing it is going back to prison. Random home visits were specifically forbidden by the courts in the 1980's. Before the sentencing reform acts Congress and the states passed in the 90's, there used to be much shorter incarceration times. It got to the point it was a complete failure as recidivism rates were between 60 and 80% for serious crimes, and nearly 100% for lesser offenses. Substance abuse treatment is already provided by the state as part of the immediate health care in every situation, mandated by the courts. There are already classes taught in the prisons. All of the education they want, up to and including a Master's Degree for free. Many trade programs used to also be offered no longer are as they were cut back due to budget adjustments mandated by other court ordered programs and benefits.

Joe Abramajtys
Thu, 07/18/2019 - 10:38am

I am a former prison warden and don't understand why these tech books are banned. Prisoners work along side skilled trades staff to maintain the prison. Electronics classes are offered (or used to be) as part of vocational education. Any computers prisoners can access have no internet connections.

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 11:56am

The problem, as seen in other states, is the prisoners started running there own businesses, legal and otherwise, and hacking as there education advanced.

Jonah 4
Thu, 07/18/2019 - 2:57pm

As I read the list of books that are taboo in prisons all I could think is that the system is run by people who do not think through what they are doing--they just react to something imagined. Most likely these same thinkers would ban law books, the US Constitution, etc. , if they could get away with it. But...given the health problems that were ignored at the Women's Prison in Washtenaw County, it is easy to understand the lack of thinking in the Corrections Department's staff.

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 1:07am

"Many are cited as a “threat to the order and security of the institution.”" Ms. Beggin seems to have an agenda in writing this article and it is not about helping readers understand the whole of the issue. This article gives the impression that there should not be 1,100 books ban in our prisons, and more specifically that those related to technology should be the earliest to be removed from the ban list. She gives reason why, help prepare the inmates for returning to free society.
Where writing breaks down and becomes advocacy is when she does not address the criteria used in deciding what books are ban. Mentions, "Many are cited as a “threat to the order and security of the institution.”, but she does not explore how and why that is a concern.

It becomes apparent that she doesn't believe public security or prison security are valid concerns for anyone and makes the decision that readers should not be informed about it, and this is when Ms. Beggin moves from a reporter to an advocate, and Bridge moves from a news outlet to political activism.

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 9:52am

"It becomes apparent that she doesn't believe public security or prison security are valid concerns for anyone and makes the decision that readers should not be informed about it, and this is when Ms. Beggin moves from a reporter to an advocate, and Bridge moves from a news outlet to political activism."

Proving, one again, that conservatives are driven by carefully cultivated fear. The American prison system is a crime against humanity and a (lucrative) bandage over the festering wound of poverty and state-sanctioned violence.

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 10:33am

And you demotrate again your preoccupation with a political agenda and failed to listen to what is said. made no judgement about the issue, my comment was about the lack of reporting, that Ms. Beggin and the Bridge editor made no effort to help the reader understand why there is even a list of ban books/reading materials. Maybe if the reader had it explained where, when and why the list was established and if the reasoning was still applicable then the issue of the 'list' would be mute and the 'list' would fade of its own accord.
You on the other hand can only see whatever is written as political and somehow a means to attack or belittle people of a political philosophy that differs in some way from yours.
My purpose in writing the comment was to offer Ms. Beggin and Bridge a different perspective so they might lift their collective heads and wonder are they too focused on the path they are following and not considering.
On the issue of particular books, I would encourage anyone and everyone to read, to learn, to question so I don't like the banning of ideas to be talked about on campuses or the books people can read. But I would like to hear the reasoning/experience used to select books for the ban 'list.' In that way I can gain a better understanding and make a more informed choice [something Ms. Beggin and Bridge don't see as their role in providing this article].

Kristene Walton
Fri, 07/19/2019 - 11:11am

That's not Republican, You might want to look up The First Step Act.
The Senate package overhauls some of the mandatory sentencing guidelines that have been in place since 1994 legislation approved by Congress and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Trump made a point of mentioning that fact in his remarks Wednesday, adding that the Clinton-era guidelines "disproportionately hurt the African-American community." He also noted that several law enforcement organizations supported the effort, saying: "In many respects, we’re getting very much tougher on the truly bad criminals, which, unfortunately, there are many. But we’re treating people differently for different crimes."

Mon, 07/22/2019 - 4:15pm

Duane. MOOT as mute gives the sentence a whole other meaning.

Mon, 07/22/2019 - 4:17pm

Moot as mute gives that sentence a whole different meaning.