There’s been a slew of articles about books banned in state prisons: In Texas, you can’t read “Charlie Brown” or “The Color Purple” (you can read “Mein Kampf”), and in Mississippi, there’s been a ban on books from a nonprofit agency (no one is sure why that ban occurred — one prison official reportedly told the nonprofit it could send religious books instead).
Curious about what books are banned in Arkansas’s prisons? Well, too bad, that information is not part of the public record.
It’s technically protected by a directive that regulates what is public in the institutional file of inmates — because Arkansas holds information about rejections of publications within each individual prisoner’s file.
It’s a bit confusing: Why would a policy that presumably applies to all inmates be considered related to the privacy of inmates?
Well, join me on a voyage into requesting information from a state agency.
First, I asked for the list of banned books. I was told Arkansas does not keep a list of books that state’s prison system has banned. Instead, each “publication” a prison receives (book, magazine, etc.) is reviewed under Administrative Directive 2017-17.
That directive has a staff member, at the designation of the warden of the unit, review incoming publications and reject them for a number of reasons, including for nudity, for sexually explicit material (enjoy the directive’s definition of “sexually explicit” on page 2), if it could help with identity theft, if it could help in escape, if it promoted violence and if it advocated behavior that would cause “work stoppage” (ADC prisoners work for no wages, FYI).
So, when, for one of those reasons, a publication is recommended for rejection by the staff member, the publication “will be referred to the Warden/Center Supervisor for the final decision.” The warden reviews. And
This seemed, to the Freedom of Information-loving folks of the Arkansas Times, a perfect opportunity, so we asked for “all letters sent to inmates since Jan. 1, 2015, by all wardens at all units rejecting a publication.”
But ADC spokesperson Solomon Graves told us: “Publication Rejection Notices are maintained as a part of the inmate’s record. Those notices are not disclosable under the provisions of Administrative Regulation 804.“
We then asked, in other ways, for the memos or notes from wardens on books they’ve rejected.
Again, we were told: “The Department does not maintain a record of publications recommended for denial, or appeals of a publication’s denial, outside of an inmate’s institutional record.”
So, even though it’s a decision made by prison officials, the record is held with the inmate’s records. And, since the inmate’s file holds the record, the ADC protects that information from FOI. It’s a good explanation of how where information is held can trump what information is held when it comes to public record laws.
Since that’s the case: If you, or anyone you know, has had a book rejected in Arkansas’s prisons (and has the letter you received from a warden), let us know! We’d love to see what’s getting rejected.