Don’t Ban Non-English Dictionaries Michigan Department of Corrections!

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Dear Michigan Department of Corrections:

NPR reported that Michigan Department of Corrections (“MDOC”) facilities have restricted the use of and / or banned non-English language dictionaries.

Dictionaries and other reference materials are some of the most important foundational materials in a prison library. Dictionaries also are among the most requested materials by incarcerated people and are needed to complete education programs.

The ban on non-English dictionaries not only violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution but also MDOC’s own policies. MDOC Policy Directive 05.03.115 states:

Each librarian shall maintain a comprehensive range of library services. This shall include a collection containing reference, general, and specialized reading materials selected to meet the educational, informational, and recreational needs of the prisoner population. Materials shall be available for various reading levels, languages, ethnicities, and special interests. Educational materials shall supplement those available through the institution’s education program. Library standards for adult correctional institutions established by the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies shall serve as a guide to assist librarians in collection development.

(Emphasis added)

MDOC Policy Directive 05.03.118 details how materials are placed on the restricted publication list where they “may pose a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the facility, facilitate or encourage criminal activity, or interfere with the rehabilitation of the prisoner.” It strains credulity to argue that dictionaries in any language qualify as materials which threaten order or encourage criminal activity — they are arguably the least likely material to be able to cause harm in any way. Banning non-English dictionaries undermines the reference collection of the prison library and the incarcerated individuals’ right to read.

MDOC has frequently touted its diminishing recidivism rate in numerous press releases in the last few years. MDOC Director Heidi Washington herself identified education as a key factor in Michigan’s downward trend of recidivism. It is well established that education during incarceration greatly lowers the likelihood of recidivism and this policy banning reference materials contradicts those goals.

We, as library workers and concerned community members, strongly condemn this policy and demand that the Michigan Department of Corrections rescind this ban immediately. We believe all incarcerated people deserve access to reading materials.

As stated by the Prisoner’s Right to Read: An interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, “Suppression of ideas does not prepare people of any age who are incarcerated for life in a free society. Even those individuals who are incarcerated for life require access to information, to literature, and to a window on the world.” We, the undersigned library workers, advocates for incarcerated people’s rights, and community members who believe in our inherent right to education, demand the Michigan Department of Corrections immediately rescind this racist policy.


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