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

This week is Banned Books Week in America, and you probably think you know what to expect from the conversation — censorship in totalitarian regimes, religious objection to homosexual content in schools, controversy over sexually explicit literature in public libraries. But here are a few titles you might not expect to see on a “banned books” list:

  • Sketching Basics
  • Batman: Eye of the Beholder
  • Rand McNally Family World Atlas
  • E=MC2: Simple Physics
  • Acupressure for Emotional Healing
  • Arizona Wildlife Views
  • The Onion Book of Known Knowledge
  • Merck Manual of Medical Information: Home Edition
  • Mythology of Greece and Rome
  • Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons

For an interactive infographic featuring classic books once banned inside the United States, click here.

These and hundreds of other titles were banned in Arizona prisons just last year, the ACLU learned this summer through a public records request. They join the ranks of countless books, magazines, and other printed materials barred from prisons and jails across the country through processes that lack transparency and allow for dangerous levels of subjectivity – perhaps the most dramatic example being a South Carolina jail that effectively prevented prisoners from receiving all books, magazines, and newspapers except for the Bible, until challenged by the ACLU.

The First Amendment protects our right to access information and ideas, even while incarcerated. So how can this happen? The problem stems from an overbroad and poorly monitored federal regulation, upheld by the US Supreme Court in Thornburgh v. Abbott, allowing prison officials to censor material that is “detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution” or that “might facilitate criminal activity.” Such a regulation is understandable when you consider the potential risks of books that, say, instruct readers on the manufacture of weapons or methods of escape. But it’s hard to see how the above list of books could be placed in such a category.

Censorship decisions can also be inconsistent and even conflicting, not just between but even within systems and institutions. Last year in Arizona, for example, why was “Bowhunt America” allowed but “Crossbow Connection” excluded? Why allow “How to Draw Graffiti Style” but not “1000 Ideas for Graffiti and Street Art? The Complete Guide to Natural Home Remedies” but not “The Herbal Handbook”?

Such arbitrary and often overzealous censorship is unconstitutional. It’s also utterly illogical. Far from protecting the safety and security of institutions, censorship may actually make our prisons and our communities less safe. Depriving people of intellectual and creative outlets can increase violent behavior and encourage people to act out. On the other hand, literacy training, arts programming, and education have been shown to improve behavior in prison and reduce the likelihood that a person will reoffend once released.

The Obama Administration took a tremendous step earlier this summer when it announced a pilot program to reintroduce Pell Grants for postsecondary education behind bars. But while we continue to prohibit books like those listed above that allow individuals to learn about art, history, science, geography, and health, we impede and discourage learning and limit the capacity for individuals to grow and prepare to contribute to society upon their release.

This is a special moment in history for criminal justice reform. A moment where people from the left and the right, united in recognition of our current failings, are calling with a collective voice for a smarter justice system.  If we are serious in this goal, education, literacy training, and, yes, censorship must be part of the conversation. 

For an interactive infographic featuring classic books once banned inside the United States, click here.

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