By Carol Rosenberg
Big and small libraries across the United States marked Banned Books Week recently with awareness campaigns celebrating the freedom to read in America, and so did Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba with two libraries — one for the war on terror prisoners, the other for base residents.
The public library that serves sailors, their families and prison troops offered a quiz, free bookmarks and an educational display of books that have stirred controversy: The Diary of Anne Frank, Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse Five and others.
“Experience the power of the freedom to read,” said a poster in the squat, one-story library not far from the base McDonald’s. “Banning books silences stories,” said the book display wrapped in tape that read, “Caution! Keep Out!”
The Detention Zone library is a different matter.
The 1,800-staff military prison of 40 captives, just one of them convicted of a crime, recently rejected a book about an anti-war organisation called September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an illustrated book of ship cross-sections meant for a captive who makes model ships in his Camp 6 art class, and a Tank Girl 3 comic book.
Prison staff screen out books “for appropriateness, excessive, graphic violence, extremist or sexually explicit content,” said spokeswoman Navy Commander Anne Leanos, noting that in addition to the above three donations staff rejected a series of Islamic religious books whose titles suggest they might be radical and Leo Tolstoy’s The Forged Coupon.
To be clear, the federal Bureau of Prisons has a screening policy, too, for the “security, good order, or discipline of the institution: “No books that show how to make weapons or bombs. No books with sexually explicit images although explicit text is allowed unless it features sadomasochism, bestiality or children. A warden “may not reject a publication solely because its content is … religious, philosophical, political, social or sexual, or because its content is unpopular or repugnant.”
On death row in Louisiana, says American Civil Liberties Union attorney Denny LeBoeuf, the prison only accepts paperbacks direct from the publisher. And books with sex and maps are strictly taboo.
But the terror prison run by troops on mostly nine-month deployments has at times left donors puzzled by books that were rejected.
In 2013, a man who lost his father in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center donated about 70 works of literature as an “escape from darkness,” and the prison rejected one, Stephen King’s It, presumably as too creepy, until it was mentioned in an article. Then someone in the staff noted that it had earlier been accessioned into the prison collection, and accepted it.
In 2009, the library rejected an Arabic copy of antiwar activist Noam Chomsky’s anthology of post 9/11 commentary that was published in The New York Times, prompting the professor of linguistics to remark, “This happens sometimes in totalitarian regimes.”
Earlier this year the prison library rejected an encyclopedia-style picture book showing cross sections of seafaring vessels, which attorney Beth Jacob had donated. It was from the paperback Look Inside series, and titled Ships: See inside 10 fascinating vessels.
Guantanamo prison policy prohibits people from giving individual captives books. So Jacob gave Ships to the detention centre library with a specific client in mind — forever prisoner Moath al Alwi, who has for years built model ships in art class as a distraction. The detention centre returned the book without an explanation.
Jacob said she wondered whether the book’s inclusion of a 1943 vintage US aircraft carrier, the long ago decommissioned Lexington, struck a nerve with somebody censoring books at the Navy base prison. In another perplexing episode, Jacob recalled, she donated two discs about three years ago — one of original speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., the other a DVD featuring teen idol Taylor Swift.
“The DVD of Taylor Swift did get in,” she said, but they rejected the civil rights leader’s speeches. “They never gave an explanation.”
At this prison last week, the Army officer acting as spokeswoman during Banned Books Week, and who insisted on anonymity, was unable to explain the rejections. But she said the 34,000-item detainee library collection (with dozens of Harry Potter Books in multiple languages) already had a King In search of Freedom CD, as well as a book called The Words of Martin Luther King Jr.
Attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis said she, too, had a DVD of King speeches rejected earlier this year. Also rejected by the prison without explanation, she said, were DVDs of the movies Malcolm X, I Am Not Your Negro and Selma.
Sullivan-Bennis, who helps captives held in indefinite detention prepare for their status hearings, said she was the one who unsuccessfully tried to donate September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows book to the prison collection — twice, in recent months.
The American Library Association, whose Office for Intellectual Freedom established Banned Books Week in 1982 to promote understanding, declined to comment specifically on the Guantanamo prison screening policy but pointed to this passage in the ALA policy statement:
“The American Library Association asserts a compelling public interest in the preservation of intellectual freedom for individuals of any age held in jails, prisons, detention facilities, juvenile facilities, immigration facilities, prison work camps and segregated units within any facility.”
The policy also quoted a 1974 concurring opinion by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: “When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realisation concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanising prison environment.”
At the Guantanamo public library, base spokesman J Overton said anyone who lives on the base of 5,500 to 6,000 residents, about 400 of them children, can check out items from the 23,000-book and 1,000-DVD collection — except the war prisoners.
“I don’t believe they have access,” he said of the men who were brought here between 2002 and 2008 and are confined to the Detention Center Zone except for trips to court, status hearings or the base hospital.
The reason for last week’s display?
“We’re just like any other naval installation or a small town in America. We celebrate the freedom of expression we have in America,” Overton said. “There’s always been controversy over that: Certain books people think shouldn’t be read, certain books people think everyone should read. So we just celebrate that controversy there and the way we’ve worked through that in a democratic society.”
A sign on the display explained it this way: “The freedom, not only to choose what we read, but also to select from a full array of possibilities, is firmly rooted in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. …Would-be censors who continue to threaten the freedom to read come from all quarters and political persuasions.” — Miami Herald/ TNS
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