The Texas Department of Criminal Justice burns books that incarcerated people are not allowed to receive. A lot of famous writers you know have books that are banned and burned after they arrive at Texas prisons. When I tried to help TDCJ avoid burning books, throwing away someone’s money and degrading the environment, at no cost to the state, they told me they prefer to burn the books. Read on.
In late 2015, I wrote a story for a magazine about prison censorship in Texas. I reported on the system the Texas Department of Criminal Justice uses to determine which books are allowed in and which aren’t. Part of their process has some logic, other parts are really arbitrary. The result of its somewhat willy-nilly system: authors like Stephen King, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, and 2016 National Book Award winner Congressman John Lewis all have books that are banned from Texas prisons. I cited a report from ________ that investigated censorship in TX prison, and of course, I called TDCJ for comments on their protocol. TDCJ requested I email my questions and they would respond in kind. Well, I had many questions. The obvious one: what does your institution do with 1000s of banned and undeliverable books? Their response: “They are sent to a burn pile.”
Really, burning books? I had to do something.
Men and women behind the wall have the option to send the banned book back to its sender, at their own expense. Most people don’t send books back, so the books are burned.
I had an idea: ask TDCJ for the soon-to-be-burned books and sell them; put the money toward a bookstore and hire formerly incarcerated people to work at the shop.
After talking to my friends (incarcerated and not), people with incarcerated loved ones who send books to prisons, and prison reform advocates, it was clear that my intention was in the right place, but my plan didn’t benefit the people locked up nor their friends and family who were literally having their money burned. Facts.
I started brainstorming.
New idea: Rent commercial space (at my expense) for a multi-week art installation to display the books. Gallery-goers could read the books; I would invite the authors of some of the banned books to speak, and I would host lectures about censorship, art and politics. All that social and cerebral good-good. The direct benefit: get donations from visitors, crowdsource and apply for grants to send the books back to its sender on behalf of their incarcerated loved one. I called it Early Release.
I could see Dr. Henry Louis Gates reading an excerpt from his banned biography of Oprah Winfrey; Congressman John Lewis would bless the space with a passage from his autobiography (which by the way, the third installment in the series just won a national book award, and you guessed it, is banned in the state of Texas); Stephen King would do a writer’s workshop.
Early Release had a lot of momentum. For a year, my friends kept asking about it. People (folks on the street, prison personnel in Texas and elsewhere, my doctors!) whom I told or knew about TDCJ’s antiquated and abhorrent practices were shocked, upset, unsurprised—and encouraged my plan.
I noticed something else. Regardless of race or SES, and even beliefs on crime and punishment, people felt the same way: banning and burning Oprah Winfrey’s biography, and books of the like, was repugnant.
There was the obvious human element in Early Release: I didn’t want families to waste their money. I didn’t want incarcerated people to feel guilty for being in a circumstance that further complicated things for their family and friends. I didn’t want any books burned. I wanted people of diverse backgrounds to discuss the books and the situation. But I had a feeling TDCJ wouldn’t care too much about those things. For it to benefit them, I had to talk dollars and cents.
So, I did some digging. Well, a lot of digging. I found old awards for the state’s waste management contracts. I reviewed TDCJ’s budget. I tried to quantify the amount of money TDCJ spends on banning and burning books. I tried to determine the amount of money families lose when their books are burned (which was practically impossible to do). It was a lot. I decided that I was doing too much. In fact, the most.
Did I really have to do all of that to convince the TDCJ to let me send the books back to its sender FOR FREE? Add to that, I was willing to pick up the books myself. For. Free.
I had the report from the _______________. And I had the emails from TDCJ confirming it burns banned books. I wasn’t shooting in the dark.
This was a no-brainer. So, I thought.
With all of this fire (go figure) behind me, I contacted the Executive Director of TDCJ, Bryan Collier and the Chairman of the Board _____ with my plan for Early Release.
In my one-pager, I talked about the financial benefits (time and money) of Early Release, and the benefit to families and gallery-goers. I wasn't accusatory; I was solutions-oriented. Although I had forgone crunching the numbers, clearly storing and burning books came at a cost; there’s personnel responsible for storing and surveilling the books, personnel/ contractors responsible for transporting the books to the burn pile, there’s the burn pile…you get it.
I even was prepared to attend the board’s public meeting in Austin to network and discuss my plan.
A few days went by. Nothing. I sent a follow up email.
A few more days passed.
Mr. Collier responded. Yes! Surely I would get a meeting.
He said there wasn’t a significant financial benefit to not discard the books. Then, he questioned if I would really send the books back to its sender.
At the very least, my one-pager warranted a conversation; it was an overture. Was it really worthy of a flat-out no? Plus the suspicion that I lacked integrity?
I was very pissed off. Very. So pissed I took a few days before responding to his email— tactfully, I think.
After telling my people about what happened and ruminating on their don’t-be-done-with-this advice, I decided to write this post and start a petition.
Join me in petitioning the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to donate banned books to Early Release.
This petition is for people serving time, their friends and family, readers, writers, activists, the what-you-not-going-to-doers, and anybody who speaks truth to power.