Ban Violent Books from Prison Libraries, Urges Connecticut State Senator
Connecticut State Sen. John Kissel (R-Enfield) met October 6 with state Department of Corrections Commissioner Leo Arnone to discuss the removal of books containing graphic violence from Connecticut prison-library collections. The meeting took place several days after jurors returned a guilty verdict for the first of two defendants in the murder of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters Hayley and Michaela in their Chesire, Connecticut, home, and the brutal beating of their husband and father William Petit.
There had been speculation during the summer about what Petit murder defendant Steven Hayes had read while serving time for a prior conviction in light of his defense team motioning the court to keep private his reading list, which the defense characterized as containing material that is “criminally malevolent in the extreme.” The motion was granted and the titles were never disclosed, according to the July 21 New York Times.
“It is important that we do our homework and establish a policy that not only keeps books like In Cold Blood out of the hands of violent criminals like Steven Hayes, but also a policy that will stand up to any legal challenges that are thrown its way,” Sen. Kissel stated October 6. “Common sense is on our side and I believe we will be able to establish an effective policy without having to pass new legislation.”
Kissel and Arnone confirmed that the corrections department would revise prison-library policy in about a month after examining how collection development is codified for federal prison libraries, and how those policies balance prison security against the threat of First Amendment lawsuits. Connecticut’s present policy states: “Library materials shall be selected to meet the educational, informational, and recreational needs of the inmates” and that collections “shall include but are not limited to, a reference collection containing general and specialized materials, along with planned continuous acquisition of materials to meet the needs of the inmate population.”
“Somebody that is moved to commit a crime has much more going on in their lives than simply having read a few comic books or a novel or In Cold Blood,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy executive director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told the AP October 3. The Prisoners’ Right to Read interpretation of ALA’s Library Bill of Rights acknowledges that prison librarians may be required by law “to prohibit material that instructs, incites, or advocates criminal action or bodily harm” but goes on to caution that “only those items that present an actual compelling and imminent risk to safety and security should be restricted.”
In November 2009, the Petit murders had stirred controversy for the Chesire Public Library, when some patrons objected to its purchase of two copies of Brian McDonald’s In the Middle of the Night: The Shocking True Story of a Family Killed in Cold Blood–which details Hayes’s perspective on the crimes. The book was retained.
Reading beyond the Bible
According to the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, inmates of the Berkeley County Detention Center in Moncks Corner suffer from exactly the opposite problem as people incarcerated in Connecticut. The South Carolina chapter of the ACLU filed a First Amendment lawsuit October 6 against the county jail on behalf of the monthly magazine Prison Legal News. The lawsuit contends that Berkeley County prison officials are denying inmates any reading material except for the Christian Bible. “This is nothing less than unjustified censorship,” stated David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “There is no legitimate justification for denying detainees access to periodicals and, in the process, shutting them off from the outside world in draconian ways.”
The editors of Prison Legal News contend that every issue of the magazine requested by Berkeley County Detention Center prisoners has been intercepted by corrections officials and in some cases, mailed back to the magazine. “Our inmates are only allowed to receive soft back bibles in the mail directly from the publisher,” First Sgt. K. Habersham emailed Prison Legal News in July.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for South Carolina, the case (PDF file) is Prison Legal News v. Berkeley County Detention Center.
American Libraries, Tue, 10/12/2010 - 11:16