In June, National Public Radio reported that Michigan prisons were banning prisoners from accessing certain books and dictionaries in languages other than English.
Michigan prison officials claimed that the state’s ban on prisoners’ access to seven Spanish and Swahili books and dictionaries was for security reasons, however prisoners’ rights and language policy advocates were swift to condemn the move as a harmful and improper measure.
“Viewing books wrongly as dangerous or harmful to safety and security has a long and detrimental history as a means to prohibit access to literature and limit free expression for incarcerated people,” said PEN America’s research and advocacy manager, Anthony Johnson. “This is particularly troublesome in the current situation of limiting access to a book as fundamental as a dictionary.”
Language Magazine reached out to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office for a statement on the officials’ decision to ban the books, but the office did not respond immediately.
According to the report from NPR, prison officials in Michigan believe that allowing prisoners to access books in a foreign language could provoke violence and pose a security threat to the institution. NPR notes that when inmates request certain titles, officials would ban any non-English books that did not have an available translation into English that they could vet. A total of seven books were banned.
Prison officials justified the move by noting that if prisoners learn a “very obscure” language, they might be able to communicate freely with one another without any surveillance — that is, if prisoners learn a foreign language, the officials fear that they could plan assaults on other prisoners or discuss the possibility of bringing in contraband without the officials having any idea. None of the banned books were in particularly obscure languages, however, as they both have tens of millions of speakers across the world.
Under the 1989 Supreme Court case, Thornburgh v. Abbott, prisons have been allowed to ban inmates from accessing pretty much any book that officials deem a reasonable threat to prison security.
“In mandating “English-only” as a prerequisite for books of any kind, Michigan’s Correctional Facilities counter-productively places severe restrictions on access to literature for incarcerated people,” Johnson added. “To punish a broad segment of the prison population is short-sighted, in addition to trampling on prisoners’ fundamental rights.”