Computer programming is, according to Wired’s Clive Thompson, “The Big Blue Collar Job.” In countries like Australia and Estonia, coding has become a central part of school curricula. If programming is the wave of the future in employment, prisons in several American states may be cutting incarcerated people off from gaining important skills by preventing them from possessing or receiving books about computer programming.
Lists of banned books acquired by MuckRock through public records requests show that Ohio and Michigan prisons ban books that aim to teach computer programming skills. Their decisions to ban educational texts related to programming, alongside erotica and literature published by neo-nazi groups, are in stark contrast with practices in other states and countries, where prisons include coding in educational programs.
Ohio’s list of banned books does not list the reasons books are banned, but does include several texts about programming. The list includes books like Beginning Linux Programming 4th Edition, The Linux Professional Institute Certification Guide, and Operating Systems Demystified.
Michigan’s list of banned books includes a specific category aimed specifically at books aimed to teach prisoners coding skills. Prisoners in the state are specifically banned from reading that the Department of Corrections believes “Contains information about computer programs and applications.” Some texts related to programming, though, including Windows 98, 6 in 1, and Windows Game Programming for Dummies, are banned because they represent a “Threat to the order and security of the institution.” 15 books are banned for including information about computer programming, including guides to web design and a book aimed at teaching the elderly how to use computers.
Michigan’s Department of Corrections may believe that some texts related to computer programming are a “threat to the order” of state prisons, but that judgement is not shared by other states. Pennsylvania’s list of banned books explicitly permits books related to computer programming and repair, banning one that provides instructions about illegal hacking.
In Michigan, once a book has reached the central list of prohibited publications, it is not removed unless Department of Corrections policy officially changes, meaning that prisoners may be barred from learning programming skills without the chance to appeal until the state makes a unilateral decision to lift the prohibition.
While some states are banning prisoners from learning computer skills, others use them as a tool for rehabilitation. In California, a program called “The Last Mile,” teaches prisoners at San Quentin to code and helps them find jobs in software development. In April, ABC News reported that none of the prisoners who had gone through the program had returned to prison since being released.
If programming is going to be an essential skill in the economy of the near future, the decisions by Ohio and Michigan to ban prisoners from teaching themselves computer skills raise questions about their commitment to giving incarcerated people opportunities to prepare themselves fully for life outside of prison. The claims of a security risk are complicated by the decision that other states have made not to ban books related to coding, as well as the fact that some prisons have embraced programming as a tool for rehabilitation.
If Ohio and Michigan continue to enforce their policy banning inmates from acquiring information about programming, they risk excluding felons, and already excluded and stigmatized group, from acquiring skills important to finding work and remaining out of prison.
Read Ohio and Michigan’s full list of banned books embedded below, or on their request pages.
Image via California Department of Corrections