Book banning is alive and well in Wisconsin prisons

The state’s Department of Corrections uses opaque and arbitrary rules to control what incarcerated people can read.
A pencil drawing of a fist breaking through bricks. Illustrated by Joshua Micke, currently incarcerated at the Wisconsin Resource Center.
A pencil drawing of a fist breaking through bricks. Illustrated by Joshua Micke, currently incarcerated at the Wisconsin Resource Center.

The state’s Department of Corrections uses opaque and arbitrary rules to control what incarcerated people can read. 

Volunteers at the Madison-based organization LGBT Books to Prisoners recently found out that Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, an expansive “resource guide by and for the trans, gender expansive, and nonbinary community and their families” published by Oxford University Press, was banned in Wisconsin prisons by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2019. The DOC has deemed the book “pornographic,” and its decision will prevent incarcerated trans people from learning about issues incredibly relevant to their selves.

Our carceral punishment system’s loopy, arbitrary, cruel, and opaque choices and methods for censoring the books imprisoned people can read has extended to the trans community, with this particular ban, amid ongoing attacks on trans people.

Censorship, Wisconsin-style

When do books get banned in Wisconsin prisons? It’s an expensive surprise! If you send a book to somebody in prison, there’s no way to actually know if it will pass the gauntlet or not. DOC 309.04 and DOC 309.05 are the sections of state administrative code that define what’s okay to send. The specific rules about books are defined in DOC 309.05(2)(b), which sets five criteria:

  1. They must not “teach or advocate violence or hatred and present a danger to institutional security and order.” (Who defines this danger? The people in power who perceive the danger? OK, great, pretty sure that’ll work perfectly and never be abused.)
  2. They must not “teach or advocate behavior that violates the law of the state or the United States or the rules of the department.” (Logically consistent. Here, the department rules are Division of Adult Institution’s 309.20.03 I. C. 4. [p. 6] which also says that publications “which meet standards … may be denied based on an individual’s criminogenic needs.”)
  3. They must not “teach or describe the manufacture or use of weapons, explosives, drugs, or intoxicating substances.” Put on your cop-logic hat, and these all seem to be easily covered under 1, but okay.
  4. They must not “teach or describe the manufacture or use of devices that create a substantial danger of physical harm to self or others.” Notice that this isn’t covered by 1 above, because the machine’s first priority isn’t the people, it’s the “institutional security and order.”
  5. They must not be “injurious” as defined in DOC 309.04 (4) (c) 8, which lists three more things that are the same as rules 1, 3, and 2 above, respectively, and finally “pornography,” as defined in DOC 309.02(16).

Let’s all bathe in the majesty of DOC’s definition of pornography, a famously easy-to-define concept. It includes tasty phrases like “Describes human sexual behavior in a patently offensive way.” (Offensive to who?) And the classic “Unnatural preoccupation with human excretion.” (Unnatural, you say.) This definition basically reads like someone attempting to define what makes them feel icky.

The real problem in this definition is the blanket phrase “A publication that features nudity.” That’s the definition the DOC used to block Trans Bodies, Trans Selves as pornography in 2019. Any expert on pornography would clarify that nudity alone is not enough to qualify in most contexts; it has to come with the intent to arouse. The Wisconsin DOC definitions of pornography and nudity were created in a 1998 register and later modified in 2001. The definition of nudity was expanded in that 2001 edit to include any “publication that features nudity,” and also includes a very weird, specific tweak: with personal photographs, it now includes “buttocks with less than a fully opaque covering,” but does not apply this rule to the concept of nudity in a commercial photograph. So, if you sell the non-opaquely covered butts, they used to be pornography, but are no longer? What are we trying to do here, folks?

How does denying pleasure via book happen? Who decides if a book goes against “security,” is “pornography,” or breaks any of the DOC’s other ill-defined rules? DOC spokesperson John Beard tells Tone Madison via email: “Staff at the institution would review any books that come in as personal property, keeping DOC policy in mind. If there is any question about whether it is acceptable, or if there is consideration that it should be banned across all DOC institutions, it would go to the Division of Adult Institutions [DAI] Security Director for review.”

So what about appeals on bans? Beard told Tone Madison about the DOC’s byzantine “Complaint Review” system. Complaints go to the Institution Complaint Examiner, whose decisions can then be appealed to the Inmate Complaint Examiner in DOC’s Central Office. Finally, that decision could theoretically be appealed to the Office of the Secretary. Asked how common these appeals are, Beard says the DAI Security Director “estimated about a handful [of appeals] every month or so.” 

Sandy Olson, an organizer volunteer with LGBT Books to Prisoners in Madison, has never heard of a successful appeal, and neither have the folks in Wisconsin prisons I contacted for this story, some of whom have been imprisoned for decades. If a book is banned, and the appeal process fails, Beard says that “a person in our care can always have a book reviewed again if they feel it should be allowed, as operations/opinions change over time. They could order the book and it would be re-reviewed.” But it seems unlikely that DOC’s “operations” or “opinions” have changed since the ban of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves in 2019. 

Who’s afraid of trans bodies?

LGBT Books to Prisoners ships books to queer folks locked up all around the country, not just in Wisconsin. This national scope makes it easy for the organization’s volunteers to see how bizarre the rules are everywhere: some states or even individual prisons make completely different rules on what kinds of nudity and prose erotica are or are not acceptable. 

“If people want to read erotica, they should be able to. If they want to look at porn, they should be able to. […] It’s infuriating,” Olson says. 

Are we really such prudes that we don’t want the people we cage and pay pennies to build furniture—legal slave labor—in our prisons to have any sexual pleasure? Well, yes, Olson explains. 

“Really, it’s about control and domination, and making people suffer,” Olson says. “Activists say that prisons are death-making machines. When you learn about these book bans, it’s radicalizing in that way. Because, as readers, we know that books are powerful, but are they really so powerful that they’re going to endanger someone? No. But they’re going to liberate. It’s liberation, and that’s what they’re afraid of.”

Another volunteer with LGBT Books to Prisoners has made a list of pages in Trans Bodies, Trans Selves that may trigger various states’ “nudity” definitions, so people can possibly request it with those pages carefully removed. But because of the adversarial relationship with arbitrary systems, we don’t really even know what is being judged as nudity or pornography. A picture of a smiling masculine person from the torso up, puffing out their big, hairy chest? Most people would be surprised if we called this pornography. But as the DOC sees it, it’s in a book about scary transgender people, and it has a dangerous, unsecured nipple, so this could trigger the “publication featuring nudity” definition of pornography. Even though this textbook does not “feature” nudity and includes it in educational contexts, it crosses the invisible wobbling line.

Air-quotes "Nudity" annotations on a second edition copy of "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves," which includes a list of things like "shirtless person," "anatomical drawings," "artsy nude," and "nipple."
Air-quotes “Nudity” annotations on a second edition copy of “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” which includes a list of things like “shirtless person,” “anatomical drawings,” “artsy nude,” and “nipple.”

Why is the Wisconsin DOC’s ban of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves harmful?

“We serve a lot of trans people, especially trans women, because this group is targeted by the prison-industrial complex,” Olson says. “So, there’s a big need for resources for trans people in prison. Trans Bodies, Trans Selves is one of the most basic, good resources we can send. It’s like a friendly textbook. It does have information about sex, about being part of the community, about medical transition, things like that. So it really is an invaluable resource.”

As the political right escalates its attacks on trans people (who, let’s remember, are people who just want to peacefully exist), this is just another way our punishment systems try to isolate trans folks in prison from resources that might help them. (P.S.: Nobody tell them about trans metaphors in literature.)

Olson connects book banning in prisons to the also-escalating push for book bans in schools, saying they are “directly related.” 

“They’re treating schools like prisons, and I think people should realize that,” Olson says. “Do you want to send your child to someplace that has a prison mentality around books?”

People marginalized on multiple levels get oppressed on multiple levels. In schools and prisons, trans people often become targets of hate, from individual people and from the institutions that claim to help them.

Which books are banned?

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections doesn’t publish its list of which books are currently banned in the state’s prisons.

“Historically, it has not been something in which the general public has had a great deal of interest,”  DOC spokesperson Beard says. 

Wisconsin Public Radio journalist Sarah Lehr posted a recent spreadsheet of books DOC has reviewed while reporting a March 2 story on book bans in Wisconsin prisons. The spreadsheet includes books that DOC ended up banning, and books it decided to allow, sometimes with brief comments on reviewers’ rationales.

Trans Bodies, Trans Selves is banned on this list for being “pornography,” but many other publications are banned for “security” or other reasons. It’s worth trying to dig a bit deeper into the ban list to see if we can understand the DOC definitions better. (Spoiler alert: it’s all super conservative and arbitrary.)

Books that have drawings or photos of a naked body most often get banned as pornography, of course. Tattoo books are banned for multiple stated reasons, but most often because they have those sexy, sexy bodies in them. Folks in prison have gotten pretty desperate, leading to bans of medical texts like Clinical Lactation: A Visual Guide. This is where a definition of pornography that says any nudity is pornography gets us: In Wisconsin prisons, medical texts are pornography.

Cis or mainstream books about sex often seem to pass muster just fine: Why Is The Penis Shaped Like That? is allowed. A note in the DOC spreadsheet calls it “More informational/scientific than gratuitous.” So who, exactly, is deciding what is “gratuitous?” 

While DOC tries so hard not to let anyone see naked bodies, its rules for textual pornography and erotica are clearly confusing the poor wardens. Some Letters To Penthouse books (no images) are allowed, while some are not. Some are on the ban list for things like “portraying a sexual act with a correctional officer,” which means that at some point, someone on the clock at DOC had to read erotica to find out if it included any sex with a correctional officer.

Both white and Black separatism are banned. But while you can’t get niche white separatist works like Nature’s Eternal Religion, you can still get a copy of the Illustrated History Of The Third Reich, a book about Nazi special forces, or Mein freakin’ Kampf. (The DOC media folks ignored Tone Madison’s question about why Mein Kampf is allowed.)

Speaking of fascism, the late British anarchist Albert Meltzer’s book Anarchism: Arguments For And Against is banned for “political” reasons. Most folks don’t actually know they’re probably more anarchist than they think: anarchism is really the inverse of fascism. Leaving that aside, this ban isn’t too surprising. Prisons are about the most hierarchical you can get in our pretty-addicted-to-hierarchies society. Let’s find a relevant quote from Meltzer’s work for the context of this censorship:

Nobody is fit to rule anybody else. It is not alleged that Mankind is perfect, or that merely through his/her natural goodness (or lack of same) he/she should (or should not) be permitted to rule. Rule as such causes abuse. There are no superpeople nor privileged classes who are above “imperfect Mankind” and are capable or entitled to rule the rest of us. Submission to slavery means surrender of life.

Obvious “dangers” like books about drugs and gambling are banned. Books about card games and fantasy football are banned due to “promoting gambling” … but How To Win At Online Gambling was reviewed and found acceptable. Behind Bars: Surviving Prison is banned for “Security” reasons, which makes a strange kind of sense; our prison system wouldn’t want anyone to survive this process unscarred. But then other books are banned under the flag of “Security” in rulings that follow no visible logic, like DSM-5 Made Easy and The Complete Guide To Edible Wild Plants

Comics with graphic violence in them are out. Anything that even comes close to teaching fighting techniques is banned, including various books about Bruce Lee. The DOC bans the Complete Idiot’s Guide To Tai Chi And Qigong. Can’t have anyone escaping from our prisons with their chi powers. Ninja Secrets Of Invisibility? Banned, as we certainly don’t want anyone learning how to become invisible and walk right past the guards on out. (The great Doom Patrol omnibus is specifically banned for including some comic nudity.)

Each row in the ban list is often a tight little short story on its own. J. J. Luna’s classic on personal privacy, How To Be Invisible, is marked as “Book goes against the penological interests of our inmate population.” Penological interests, eh? It sure seems like this phrase is often used to justify and obscure whatever arbitrary decision the U.S. carceral system makes, but it’s clear whose interests are actually involved.

Linux Toolbox 2nd Edition is denied because it “gives various tips and procedures on how to circumvent computer security,” and Windows 10 In Easy Steps is also banned as a security risk. Page through the table of contents of that book aimed at your favorite computer-savvy grandfather, and see if you can guess exactly how it poses any kind of security risk. This is absolutely ridiculous. If you’re in prison in Wisconsin, you stand no chance of learning anything about computers under these arbitrary bans.

Possibly because of their religious connotations, the Encyclopedia Of 5,000 Spells, The Inner Temple Of Witchcraft: Magick, Mediation & Psychic Development, and Rites Of Odin are explicitly allowed. Don’t worry, though, Modern Witch’s Spellbook, Book 1: Casting Spells, Working Charm And Love Magic is banned because it “details evil curses & spells, including agony, maim [sic] and death.” Agreed. We should keep the “maim” out of our prison system. But it seems unlikely that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections has considered that the simple act of banning books you don’t like is one of the first steps in a nasty spell that can lead to genocide.

I cast lightning bolt

It’s clear the corrections folks don’t understand the difference between fantasy novels, video games, and tabletop role-playing games. Fantasy-genre books are confusingly blanket-banned for “role-playing” reasons, including video game strategy guides like the Diablo II Ultimate Strategy Guide and Final Fantasy XV Guide. Also banned is the first Dragonflight Chronicles novel, Dragons Of Autumn Twilight. Me and my teenage stack of Dragonlance novels from the book fair are here to tell you that there is absolutely no reason this should be banned. For crying out loud, this is a cheesy and fun fantasy novel… like a goofier Lord Of The Rings. The idea that Dragonlance novels are a threat to security should show us how bizarre the ban process is.

Actual books about role-playing—a fun and creative pastime where people pretend to be elves or dwarves or whatever and have adventures, collaboratively telling stories as a group—are banned under a code that prohibits books “inconsistent with or [posing] a threat to the safety, treatment or rehabilitative goals of an inmate.” Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons And Dragons are both called out specifically in DAI 309.20.03 I. C. 11. [p. 6]:

11. Fantasy role playing games and associated materials shall not be permitted; e.g., Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering.

Kevin Singer sued the state in 2007 over this while incarcerated at Waupun Correctional Institution, and at the time prison officials claimed “cooperative games like D&D mimic the structure of a gang.” It would be more true to say cooperative games mimic the structure of society and creative collaboration. Tone Madison asked DOC why role-playing games are banned, and DOC spokesperson Beard’s response was: “Role playing games can establish roles and hierarchy among people in our care. That is not allowed due to security concern.” A federal court dismissed Singer’s lawsuit, and in 2010 the appeal of that dismissal failed.

When some folks from Tone Madison toured the Dane County jail last year, jail staff explained that they had an active tabletop role-playing group there, and seemed quite proud of that. So it’s worth remembering that jails and prisons make different sets of rules.

Olson, of LGBT Books to Prisoners, says that this is again about control. 

“Prisons are not just about keeping people in,” they say. “They’re about keeping community out… and stopping community from forming.” 

LGBT Books to Prisoners does keep on hand a set of cool diceless role-playing games designed to be prison-compatible from Bull Press, to send to folks around the country who request role playing materials. While these books are not on the Wisconsin ban list yet, under DOC’s current rules they would be blocked if anyone tried to send them.

Let’s dig into the other bit, the Magic piece, with Magic: The Gathering’s Official Encyclopedia as an example. This encyclopedia is a set of books of pictures of cards from a popular collectible card game. There’s no nudity, so DOC couldn’t use the pornography blanket; it is banned for “role-playing.” While there are some Magic players who get pretty into it, in no sense is Magic: The Gathering a “role-playing game.” Tone Madison asked if DOC still thinks Magic: The Gathering is a “role-playing game” but they ignored that question. The idea that these encyclopedias pose any sort of security threat or “establish roles and hierarchy” is laughable.

The point is, these censorship decisions are extremely arbitrary, and there’s no oversight outside DOC on any of the process. That’s how a book like Trans Bodies, Trans Selves gets banned as pornography: the process is slipshod intentionally, so that DOC officials can be the unwatched arbiters, waving vaguely at poorly defined statutes as they maximize their control over people.

In Wisconsin you also can’t send used books or hardcover books to prisoners, though some states allow both—another small way prisons atomize people. Last year I had a friend ask to send a relationship advice book she’d read to her imprisoned fiance; she couldn’t send a used book, couldn’t afford a new book, and it had just been published so it was only available in hardcover. Not allowed inside. The two are, unfortunately, now broken up.

While Olson says that LGBT Books to Prisoners sometimes gets books bounced back as “return to sender,” they have suspicions about where others end up: “I think sometimes they go in the garbage.” Many of the folks Tone Madison talked to in Wisconsin prisons seem pretty sure that books are often simply thrown out when they are already banned or don’t pass the review.

One person in prison Tone Madison interviewed has overheard staff saying all “girl mags” should be banned, even the ones without nudity. That person also reported that yes, staff do sometimes use these book bans to retaliate against people they don’t like. (Keep in mind that we don’t have any oversight to know if retribution comes to incarcerated people who speak up about book bans, either. Hopefully nobody suffers more because we got curious.) When Tone Madison asked DOC if they track or review per-inmate decisions about book banning, Beard’s response was simply “No.” So the more personalized sort of censorship goes completely uncounted and unknown.

Another person in prison told us that they’ve noticed Sun Tzu’s classic The Art Of War is banned for personal property, but kept in the library for access. If you try to send a book in this weird gray area, the book may be put straight in the library, instead of being given to the person it’s been sent to. DOC’s media folks have a confusing explanation for this: 

“Library publications are reviewed by a library committee,” Beard says. “The committee does not take into account an individual’s specific criminogenic needs. Just one example, some publications may be acceptable to the general prison population, but not appropriate for a sex offender.” 

The Art Of War is in prison libraries, so that committee must have found it acceptable for the general population. But the same book is also listed on the banned list as “Poses a threat to the security.” Huh? Looks like a book in a quantum state of being banned. This opaque and arbitrary process gets even more so as you dig through the different sub-agencies and even individuals that add and remove books from the ban list with no standards or logic, and often vague explanations like “Security.” 

Make some noise

Choices made behind a one-way mirror by the Department of Corrections without true democratic oversight are arbitrarily blocking trans people, and everyone else in Wisconsin prisons, from learning about complex issues that affect them deeply. And that’s just one tiny piece of the censorship and control us outsiders don’t get to see.

Olson recommends pressuring politicians and the DOC to add oversight and improve the rules, so that educational textbooks are not denied as pornography going forward. Maybe we should think about why we’re trying to draw a bright line on defining porn in the first place.

“Making noise however people want to make noise is good,” Olson says. “And learning about prison abolition is something everyone can do. If you’re not comfortable with making noise, sit and learn about prison abolition. Talk about it with other people.” 

One great place to talk about it with other people is while volunteering with LGBT Books to Prisoners to help queer folks incarcerated all across the US. Donations are always good, but Olson says what the organization really needs is people power to help read letters, pick books, and pack packages. It’s easy, it’s energizing, and it will help connect more of us to real people. It will remind us vividly that the prisoners in our prison-industrial complex are still people

Olson says that most folks don’t realize the scale of the problem. 

“There’s thousands of people we’re supporting with our books project,” they say.

There are also lots of pen-pal programs if you’d like to write to folks in prison. To write specifically to queer folks, check out Black and Pink or Power Blossoms. Abolition Apostles is a faith-based organization (currently transitioning to a different model) that is still connecting people with pen pals.  

Every day, it becomes clearer and clearer that punishment doesn’t keep us safe. Book bans don’t keep us safe. Prisons don’t keep us safe. What we have right now is a laboratory for growing different flavors of fascism—little fiefdoms hidden behind cement walls for authoritarians to practice book bans that target marginalized groups, and worse. Banning Trans Bodies, Trans Selves may seem like a small step against one marginalized group, but let’s remember: when the Nazis passed laws enabling book burning, one of the very first targets they burned was the archives of the largest trans and gay research institute in the world.

Who has power and what are they doing with it?

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