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'Violent, deviant sexual acts:' Prison records show why inmates are denied books

Posted April 3, 2014

Books at Wake Correctional Center's library.

— Mike Hoffman grabbed a copy of one of his favorite books, "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman, and placed it among a pile of donations to be mailed to prisoners. Hopefully, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill junior thought, his favorite modern fantasy science fiction book could find its way to an inmate and bring some comfort.

Getting Hoffman's book to one of the nearly 37,000 inmates in North Carolina's 61 state prisons is a complicated process. Prison staff inspects each publication to catch contraband and prohibited content, such as pornography and violent material. Prison policy allows staff to withhold books, magazines, newsletters and other items from prisoners for 17 different reasons.

Q&A: How do North Carolina inmates get publications?

When inmates are denied reading material, they can appeal to a five-member panel – the Publication Review Committee – which has the final say. Last year, the committee rejected more than 600 books, magazines and other publications.

Books Quiz: Would you allow or deny these books in prison?

WRAL News filed a public records request to get a list of the rejected publications, authors and reasons why they were denied. Many of the banned items included sexual references or nude photos, according to the reviewers' comments:

  • Jenna Jameson's "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star" has a picture of a woman's exposed breasts
  • "Bound in Moonlight" describes violent, deviant sexual acts
  • American Curves magazine has a picture of a female breast covered by liquid
  • I'Adore Magazine details sexual activity between an inmate and an officer
  • Asis magazine has a picture of a dismembered penis and details sexual activities with animals

Other books and magazines were denied for different reasons, according to the reviewers' comments:

  • "Tryptamine Palace" depicts how to make illegal drugs from toad venom
  • "Body Language 101" has material that could be used to intimidate staff
  • Field & Stream Hunting Guide provides information how to silently stalk a victim
  • "The Colored Pencil Artist's Drawing Bible" is bound together by metal wire
  • "Football's Greatest," by Sports Illustrated, is an oversize book
  • Popular Science magazine instructs how to turn a match into a rocket
  • Maxim magazine details how to extract intoxicants from a whipped cream can
  • Pink and Black magazine promotes the rejection of Caucasian people

See more publications the committee rejected in 2013.

"When a portion of a publication is disapproved, the entire publication will be disapproved," according to the state's prison policy manual. "There will be no attempt to remove or censor the disapproved material."

Inmates file lawsuit over banned books

North Carolina's inmate publication policy has existed since the early 1970s, but it was changed in 2010 after inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against the state Department of Correction, alleging that their First Amendment rights were violated when prison staff denied them reading material.

The state settled and agreed to allow inmates to challenge disapprovals. The state also acknowledged that "policies and procedures governing inmate publications were not consistently enforced in the past" and agreed to do a better job of following the policy and training staff once a year to create consistency among prisons, according to the settlement agreement.

Brick Oettinger

"We've had on-site classroom courses offered at different correctional facilities going all the way back to 1975. We've never run into a problem on a textbook being turned down."

– Brick Oettinger, associate director for correctional education

Michele Luecking-Sunman, a civil litigation managing attorney at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, was one of the attorneys who represented the inmates and says the settlement has "solved a lot of issues."

"I believe (North Carolina prisons) are doing a fairly good job on the whole," she said. "The ability to have books in prison is really important. It's also important in terms of rehabilitation and being a productive person as far as doing time."

Brick Oettinger has spent his career using books and education to try to rehabilitate North Carolina's prisoners. For nearly the past four decades, he has helped bring tuition-free university courses and educational services to inmates through the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Friday Center for Continuing Education, where he works as associate director for correctional education.

"We’ve had on-site classroom courses offered at different correctional facilities going all the way back to 1975. We’ve never run into a problem on a textbook being turned down," Oettinger said. "We actually have had four (prisoners) who went from having no college credits when they began our program in the correctional system to, ultimately after getting out of prison, getting PhDs."

Publisher: 'If we have a problem, we appeal it'

Publishers can also appeal to the Publication Review Committee when their book, magazine or newsletter is denied. Prison policy says publishers must be notified and given 15 days to file an appeal. Last year, publishers filed 10 appeals, three of which were granted, according to prison records.

In December, Publication Review Committee Chairwoman Fay Lassiter sent a letter to the Human Kindness Foundation in Durham to say that its 2013 Christmas newsletter had been banned because it included a letter from an inmate who supported violence against another inmate. The inmate's letter said, in part:

Dear Bo,
... This man is 2 cells away from the guy who beat his MOMMA to (expletive) death with a (expletive) baseball bat! He saw his momma’s eyes roll to the back of her head ... This guy needs to get a shank and take this (expletive) off the count! ... I’m mad! Man, I hope that nobody does that to my mom or dad. I’ll kill em! ...
- Later, D

Human Kindness Foundation founder Bo Lozoff, whom the inmate was addressing, responded in the newsletter:

Dear D,
I appreciate the honesty and friendship in your letter ... One of the worst things a human being can do is to kill another human being on purpose no matter who started it, what the circumstances were, whether there was any choice or not, etc. It’s a tragic thing to do and has unpredictable consequences inside the mind and heart of the killer ...
- Love, Bo

In her letter to the Human Kindness Foundation, Lassiter said the newsletter was banned because it "could be detrimental to the security and good order of the prison facility and the rehabilitation of inmates."

Books Q&A: How do inmates get publications?

Catherine Miller, co-director of the foundation, appealed the decision, saying the newsletter could "help reduce violence in prisons, not by avoiding the mention of such violence, but by discouraging it in a powerful way."

A month later, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety overturned the denial and allowed the group to resend the newsletter.

"If we have a problem, we appeal it," Miller told WRAL News. "So far, at least, we have found (North Carolina prisons) to be very reasonable."

Miller says the group mails about 300 to 400 packages of books to prisoners across the country each week. They also send a newsletter three times a year to about 40,000 inmates on their mailing list.

"Our books are all about taking personal responsibility for your life," Miller said. "We challenge people to calm down and use some classic spiritual practices."

UNC student: 'Their most requested book is the dictionary'

A book's subject material is not the only thing prison staff take into consideration when deciding whether to allow or deny a book. The size of a book can be a problem, too, according to Department of Public Safety spokesman Keith Acree.

"The prohibition on large hardback books was a result of inmates using large, heavy books to assault others," Acree wrote in an email to WRAL News.

That's why the Prison Books Collective in Chapel Hill, which describes itself as an "anti-prison group," asks people to donate paperback books for prisoners.

Since 2006, the group has gotten together every week "to open prisoners’ letters, read their requests, and search through our library to find the books they want," according to the group's website. "We send a wide range of texts, ranging from dictionaries and GED study guides to Grisham novels, Greek philosophy to radical history."

A WRAL reporter asked to speak with a member of the Prison Books Collective and observe one of the group's book collections for prisoners, but a spokeswoman said the group was not interested in participating in the story.

"They're very cautious because they are a radical group," said Mike Hoffman, a UNC junior who donated one of his favorite books, "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman, to the group. He and other students in UNC's Students of the World group were granted access to the Prison Books Collective in February to document its work sending books to prisoners.

Mike Hoffman, junior at UNC-Chapel Hill
"I hope that they find some comfort in reading the story about someone who is struggling as well."

– Mike Hoffman, UNC student

"We came out, we did video interviews," Hoffman said. "They have thousands of books. They get them donated. They get books from organizations ... Their most requested book is the dictionary."

Hoffman says he watched the group's volunteers sit around tables one Sunday, reading through prisoners' letters and talking about "the entire spectrum of social issues."

"I was happy to see people putting their time into help, into addressing this issue," he said. "People that are incarcerated are largely not trying to waste away their time within prison. They need opportunities to educate themselves, to develop skills, to maybe even get college credit, which a number of them do. They can't do that without resources. There's this mindset that anybody that's in prison is a lost cause, but that's not going to help anything at all."

Hoffman says he and others in UNC's Students of the World group hope to "draw attention to groups that are doing good work." In the meantime, he hopes his book donation, "American Gods," is delivered to a prisoner and brings that person some peace.

"I hope that they enjoy it. I hope that they find some comfort in reading the story about someone who is struggling as well," he said.

So far, Hoffman's book has not appeared on the rejected list, according to Department of Public Safety officials.

Take our quiz: Would you allow or deny these books in prison?


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  • Lorna Schuler Apr 4, 2014
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    View quoted thread

    Excellent point

  • "Screen Name-8/20" Apr 4, 2014

    View quoted thread


    I don't believe the innocent behind bars are a majority.

    They're far and few between, but yeah, you're right - there should be ZERO!!!

  • "Screen Name-8/20" Apr 4, 2014

    "Prison policy allows staff to withhold books, magazines, newsletters and other items from prisoners for 17 different reasons."

    Geez, would that parents were this strict with books, movies, video games, etc. Then maybe so many wouldn't end up in prison to begin with.

  • jakemgad Apr 4, 2014

    American Gods doesn't stand a chance. Between all the sex scenes, the in-depth explanation of how to run profitable cons, and a handful of torture scenes, there's at least 2 rejectable offenses per chapter.

  • dollibug Apr 4, 2014

    Not all inmates are even GUILTY of the crime that they have been convicted of. I think we all know that there is a lot of *corruption and cover up* and it is present here as well. Innocent people get indicted, tried and convicted without any sort of EVIDENCE that they committed a crime. Prison is supposed to be for criminals only...it is a very sad place for INNOCENT people. All inmates need to have something to do to pass the time and reading books can be a good thing.

  • brime26 Apr 4, 2014

    Send the books to UNC. I hear the football team needs some reading material.

  • ncouterbanks69 Apr 4, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Excellent idea! Let's support our troops who risk their lives rather than those who take innocent lives. That may be too difficult for the left to understand though.

  • ncouterbanks69 Apr 4, 2014

    'I agree. MOST people in prison will get out one day. We should at least [i]try[i] to find a way to make them a better person when they come out than they were when they went in. That would be a win-win situation for all of us in society. "

    Yeah...good luck with that. Of course it would be win win but once again the left's dreamland views (although a great thought) are way off base when it comes to reality.

  • ncouterbanks69 Apr 4, 2014

    View quoted thread

    WHAT! If that is true we are an even more sad society than I thought we were. These whiny left wingers will be the end of freedom and this country. Sad that some do not understand that criminals have no place among us and gave up their rights when they committed their crimes. Pitiful

  • ncouterbanks69 Apr 4, 2014

    Q: "Why give them anything to read?"

    A: Because a large proportion of people behind bars are high school dropouts. Anything that can encourage increased literacy is a good idea.

    But you assume they will "change their ways" or aka rehabilitate. Let me help.....there is no such thing. If you have the ability to commit a violent crime you will always have that in you. You guys can wish and pretend these types will change but you are way way way off base.