Fight Back Against Censorship in Texas Prisons

Without notification, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has implemented an “approved vendor” policy for its prisons, a type of censorship that PEN America opposes because it can seriously limit the flow of books to incarcerated people by restricting which distributors can send reading materials to prisons.

Moira Marquis, senior manager of PEN America’s Freewrite Project, said: “Approved vendor policies for books are censorship. They reduce incarcerated people’s access to all kinds of literature. Although content-based censorship in prisons is responsible for blocking tens of thousands of books every year, it is these content-neutral policies that are far more wide-reaching because they target all literature–regardless of perspective or content.”

According to prison book programs that send literature to incarcerated people in Texas, during the week of Sept. 19, literature was returned with “No longer approved vendor” written in black marker on the exterior of the packages. Prison Health News, a free newspaper for incarcerated people that answers their medical questions in collaboration with Temple University Medical School, had 160 issues refused.

The Texas Criminal Justice Department has not announced this policy shift on their website or through any media. They have also not indicated which book distributors are approved, although prison book programs were told to submit information to Tom Jones, the deputy director of volunteer services and operations at TDCJ.

PEN America considers restrictions on literature as packages–including policies that restrict who can mail books or how books are mailed–as content-neutral censorship policies. PEN America’s research has found that many federal facilities require literature to be mailed in white paper with no mailing labels. Many prisons prohibit hardcover books, and many Georgia prisons require that people get approval from the warden before they can receive a book.

Texas’s approved vendor policy follows the state’s digitization of mail for incarcerated people, which was announced in July in seven pilot facilities and by September was extended to all facilities. This policy means that incarcerated people no longer receive their original mail–including correspondence from friends and family.

PEN America is urging people concerned about the damaging effects of this newest policy by writing to Tim Jones, the Texas TDCJ ombudsman, and Bryan Collier, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, asking them to stop the “approved vendor” restriction.

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