Spanish and Swahili Dictionaries Banned by Michigan Prisons
Chris Gautz, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections, explained, “If certain prisoners all decided to learn a very obscure language, they would be able to then speak freely in front of staff and others about introducing contraband or assaulting staff or assaulting another prisoner…. When it’s in a language that we don’t have the ability to read ourselves and understand exactly what it is that we’re looking for, we’re not able to allow it in.”
If a prisoner requests a book in a banned language, the prison looks for an English translation to provide to the prisoner. If a translation is not found, the book is placed on the banned books list. A 1989 US Supreme Court ruling allows prisons to restrict books in the interest of safety.
However, some claim prison officials use the classification too broadly. “Prison officials like to censor anything that’s critical of themselves, and also they like to censor anything to do with minority anything” said Paul Wright, Director of the Human Rights Defense Center
Rodolfo Rodriguez, who is incarcerated in Lakeland Correctional Facility and whose native language is Spanish, said he requested books in Spanish in order to learn English. He elaborated, “One feels offended. One feels like they are telling you that pure Spanish is worthless, that you don’t need to learn because you’ll just stay here.” Rodriguez stated that prisoners should be able to educate themselves in their own languages.
Kwesi Osundar, who is incarcerated at Chippewa Correctional Facility, said he requested books in Swahili to learn more about the African diaspora: “So Swahili being one of the more widely spoken African languages that was the first stop for me.”
Jennifer Cobbina, Professor of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University and expert in prisoner re-entry, argued that these bans create barriers for prisoners to get jobs and feel comfortable outside of prison with evolving technology they don’t have access to in prison.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult, Stock Investing for Dummies by Paul Mladjenovic, Atlas of the World published by Oxford University Press, and instruction manuals for role-playing games including Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering are also banned.
1. Should prisons ban books? If yes, which books and why? If no, why not?
2. Should prisons be privatized? Explain your answer(s).
3. Analyze the list of books banned in prisons in your state. Do you agree or disagree with the titles on the list? Would you include or exclude any? Explain your answer(s).
1. Michelle Jokisch Polo, “Michigan Prisons Ban Spanish and Swahili Dictionaries to Prevent Inmate Disruptions,” npr.org, June 2, 2022
2. Riley Beggin, “Michigan Prison Inmates Need Job Skills, but Technology Books Are Banned,” bridgemi.com, July 18, 2019
3. Books to Prisoners, “Banned Books Lists,” bookstoprisoners.net (accessed June 6, 2022)