Trashing the Right to Read

By Paul Krassner

While serving five years in prison for growing medical marijuana, Todd McCormick contributed a couple of stories --about his experiences with psilocybin and ketamine--to my collection, Magic Mushrooms and Other Highs: From Toad Slime to Ecstasy (see, and when it was published, I immediately sent him a copy.

But the warden rejected it "because on pages 259-261, it describes the process of squeezing toads to obtain illicit substances which could be detrimental to the security, good order and discipline of the institution."

This was pure theater of cruelty. Federal correctional facilities do not have a toad problem, and outside accomplices have not been catapulting loads of toads over barbed wire fences to provide the fuel for a prison riot.

McCormick commented, "Can you believe this shit! I wonder how much we pay the guy/girl who actually sits and reads every book that comes in for offending passages. How about you tear out pages 259-261 and re-send this book back with a copy of the rejection and a notation that the offending pages have been removed."

Which is exactly what I did. This time, though, my cover letter to the warden was ignored, and the book was returned, stamped "Unauthorized." I had called their bluff. Obviously, McCormick was being punished simply because he happened to be a prisoner.

I then corresponded with several friends in prisons around the country to find out what they had not been allowed to read. I wanted to see other examples of arbitrary and frivolous censorship by prison personnel. Here are some results of my informal survey:

* "The Texas Department of Corrections blocked Bo Lozoff's Breaking Out of Jail, a book about teaching meditation to prison inmates."

* "Disallowed: Trainspotting because of its `glorification of drug use.' Tom Robbins' Still Life With Woodpecker because it has a chapter that `contains information about bombmaking.'"

* "An inmate couldn't get nude pictures of his wife sent to him but could get a subscription to Playboy. The rationale: A wife deserved more respect."

* "They kept out The Anarchist's Cookbook. No kiddie porn, no tales or photos suggesting sex with a guard, no photos showing frontal or rear nudity--not even a wife or friend."

* "The Utah prison system banned Rolling Stone as being an anarchist publication."

* "A Revolution in Kindness is banned from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola as `a threat to internal security.' It was intended for Herman Wallace, who contributed an essay about how he organized a chess tournament on his cell block as a way of easing tensions and minimizing violence between inmates. Wallace is one of the Angola Three--Black Panthers who have been in solitary confinement for 31 years trying to improve conditions in the `bloodiest prison in America' in the early 1970s."

* "All hardback books forbidden, because the covers could be fashioned into weapons. Educational textbooks--a new rule precludes prisoners on death row [including this particular prisoner] or in lockdown from taking correspondence courses--and I've had a couple of books returned to sender on the claim they appeared to be for a course. MAPS [Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies]--their publication was sent back several times because maps are not allowed in here. High Times was repeatedly denied becasuse it posed a danger to the safe, secure and orderly operation of the institution. `Smut mags' like Hustler are reviewed monthly."

* "There's a whole new genre of men's magazines:--Maxim, Stuff, For Him--which show it all except for nipples and beaver. Now the feds want to ban Maxim due to `security' reasons. The `rejected mail' slip they send you when some verboten material arrives has a box to check (to specify offending matter) which says `pubic hair.' "

* "Peace activist William Combs spent eight days in solitary confinement for receiving and sharing with other imates what federal authorities consider disruptive, if not subversive, political literature. The offending `propaganda' included commentary by such extremists as Bill Moyers and Ellen Goodman, and included an article published in Reader's Digest. The common thread was that they all questioned the wisdom of government policy."

The name of the game is control in the guise of security--a microcosm of the nation outside prison walls ( practice of power without compassion.

After Magic Mushrooms and Other Highs was rejected for the second time, I appealed to the Regional Director of the Bureau of Prisons (as instructed by the warden) for an independent review. I also wrote to the ACLU. I heard back from neither.

Todd McCormick was released from prison in December 2003. Among so many other things to catch up on, he would finally be able to read what he had written. However, he was discharged to a halfway house, where all his books and magazines were confiscated as "paraphernalia."

© 2004 - Paul Krassner

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