It’s hard to keep track of all the things that have been banned and censored here in the “Free State of Florida” — from middle school math books to live entertainment.
But some of the most-banned commodities in the Sunshine State are the books allowed in prisons.
As the Orlando Sentinel’s Amanda Rabines recently reported, Florida’s prison system is a leading book-banner, restricting everything from issues of The Economist magazine to “Betty Crocker’s Good and Easy Cookbook.”
And when the researchers from The Marshall Project, a nonprofit focused on the US justice system, describe Florida as a leading book-banner, they mean leading by a country mile.
In Georgia, they banned 28 books. In Kansas, it was 99.
In Florida, the number was 20,200.
Florida’s goal seems to be to keep incarcerated people bored and uneducated — a dangerous combination for correctional guards while prisoners are still behind bars, and for the public if and when they’re ever released.
Unless you believe society is better off when prisoners are prohibited from reading books like “How to Draw and Paint Flowers”?
Now, I didn’t have time to read every one of the books and magazines listed in The Marshall Project’s database.
If I tried to briskly read all 20,200 titles without taking any breaks to sleep or eat, I estimated that it would take me about 27 years. And I still need to put my holiday lights back in the attic.
But simply perusing the list of banned titles is a bonkers exercise.
It includes the “100 Animals Adult Coloring Book,” the “2021 Road Atlas” and “Star Trek: How to Speak Klingon.”
There are actually two Star Trek books banned, according to the database — along with a bunch of books on stock trading, Dungeons and Dragons and the “Bob’s Burgers” cartoon.
Also banned are books that teach foreign languages and 25 specific issues of The Economist and BusinessWeek.
Also “The Art and Science of Food Pairing,” where the authors explain “why unusual pairings like kiwi and oyster actually work.” (Because if a convicted burglar found out about the joys of combining fruit and shellfish, there’d obviously be hell to pay.)
Some of the banned titles seem understandably flagged by an agency that doesn’t want to incite violence or allow pornography — like the “100 Deadly Skills Survival Edition” and nine specific, monthly editions of Bootylicious. (Though that second one raises the question of why all the other editions of Bootylicious weren’t banned. And also which corrections official has the job of perusing all the different Bootylicious editions for ban-worthy content.)
Still, it seems like you’d have to spend a decade inside a Barnes & Noble to come up with more than 20,000 titles worth banning. Especially when Kansas found 99. (By the way, one of those Kansas-banned periodicals was the “Latin Curves 2022-2023 Calendar,” which somehow wasn’t on Florida’s long list of banned titles. Somebody alert the Bootylicious inspector.)
The only state that the Marshall Project listed as being remotely close to Florida was Texas, which still had fewer than half as many banned titles at around 9,400. After that, it plummeted precipitously… a word people incarcerated in Florida might not be able to look up in Hebrew, because the “Student’s Vocabulary for Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic” is also listed as banned here.
If there are books that keep incarcerated people busy — or better yet, teach them a new skill that they might be able to utilize upon release — that seems like something society would want.
Now, it’s worth stressing that Florida’s penchant for book-banning has little, if anything, to do with our current governor, Ron DeSantis.
While DeSantis is definitely a fan of government censorship — of everything from textbooks to corporate diversity training seminars — Florida was making headlines for prison book bans long before he came along.
In fact, for more than a decade, Florida has been singled out — along with Texas, Arizona, Michigan and North Carolina — by Prison Legal News and other watchdogs for its organized censorship efforts.
It’s also worth noting that the Marshall Project’s database wasn’t complete. The researcher who conducted it (herself the author of a banned book) found most states did not have thorough book-banning databases, perhaps because most states weren’t as obsessed with banning books. But Florida was a runaway leader.
I asked the Department of Corrections why Florida banned so many more books than other states — and why books on coloring, food-pairing, “Star Trek” and even the card game solitaire were flagged. I’ve yet to hear back.
I think most of us understand why books that pose security risks would not be welcome. If a bad guy’s locked up, I don’t want to give him a recipe for homemade bombs. But one for homemade apple pie? Or something to help learn a new career? Or even just something to keep him thinking about anything other than fighting with guards or other prisoners?
As The Human Rights Defense Center said when it was challenging some of these Florida bans two years ago, those bans not only seem dubious, they seem “counterproductive to the goals of security and rehabilitation.”
At it seems like corrections officials should be focused on those goals … at least as much as they are on Bootylicious.