Corrections officials across the United States have banned certain books to prevent the flow of material they believe could incite violence.
In Michigan, the ban extended to several non-English language dictionaries.
For the past year, the Michigan Department of Corrections has banned Spanish and Swahili dictionaries on the grounds that the books’ contents pose a threat to state penitentiaries.
“If some prisoners all decided to learn a very obscure language, then they could speak freely in front of staff and others about smuggling in or assaulting staff or assaulting another prisoner,” said said Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.
He says allowing prisoners access to books in languages other than English could encourage them to organize without the knowledge of staff.
“When it’s in a language that we don’t have the ability to read ourselves and understand exactly what we’re looking for, we can’t allow it,” he added.
If staff cannot find a translation, the book request is denied and the book is placed on the banned books list, even if they are in Spanish. The second most spoken language in American homes.
For Rodolfo Rodriguez, getting books in his native Spanish was about learning to communicate in English. Something he says he’s been trying to do since his life sentence in 1993.
“You feel offended. It feels like they’re telling you that pure Spanish isn’t worth anything, that you don’t need to learn because you’ll stay here,” he said during the interview. a call from Lakeland Correctional Center in northern Michigan.
Because he doesn’t speak or write English well, Rodriguez says he’s had a harder time navigating the court process from prison.
Seven books in Spanish and Swahili have been banned from state prisons in the past year, according to a list obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Kwesi Osundar was born in Detroit and has been asking for Swahili books since 2009. He says he wants to learn more about the African diaspora.
Osundar says he filed grievances with the prison, but these were never successful.
“It’s just there because they have to give us some form of procedure to seek administrative remedies, but very rarely does anyone get relief,” Osundar explained.
But prison spokesman Gautz says the issue of language book bans isn’t something that comes up often.
“If we were to start seeing requests and the need to revisit something along those lines, we could definitely be open to that,” he said.
Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center and former inmate of a Washington state correctional facility, has dealt with censorship in US prisons for two decades.
While incarcerated, Wright founded Prison Legal News, a publication for which he fought to avoid censorship.
“Prison officials like to censor anything critical of themselves, and they also like to censor anything about minorities,” he said.
A 1989 Supreme Court ruling allows prisons to ban any book – as long as it is in the interest of safety.
Rodolfo Rodriguez would like Michigan’s policy on books in different languages to be reviewed. He says incarcerated people deserve the right to be educated in their own mother tongue.