Michigan prisons have banned Spanish and Swahili dictionaries. Spanish and Swahili dictionaries are banned in Michigan prisons. An official says the ban is to prevent prisoners from being disruptive.

Michigan prisons ban Spanish and Swahili dictionaries to prevent inmate disruptions

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Officials in prison systems across the United States have banned certain books to cut off access to material that they say might incite violence. In Michigan, the ban has extended to several non-English language dictionaries. Michelle Jokisch Polo of member station WKAR in East Lansing reports.

MICHELLE JOKISCH POLO, BYLINE: Over the last year, the Michigan Department of Corrections has banned dictionaries in Spanish and Swahili under claims that the contents of the books are a threat to the state's penitentiaries.

CHRIS GAUTZ: If certain prisoners all decided to learn a very obscure language, they would be able to then speak freely in front of staff and others about introducing contraband or assaulting the staff or assaulting another prisoner.

JOKISCH POLO: That's Chris Gautz. He's a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections. He says allowing prisoners to gain access to language books other than English could encourage them to organize without the knowledge of staff.

GAUTZ: When it's in a language that we don't have the ability to read ourselves and understand exactly what it is that we're looking for, we're not able to allow it in.

JOKISCH POLO: If staff is unable to find a translation, the book request is denied, and the book is placed under the list of banned books, even when these are in Spanish, the second-most commonly spoken language in American households. For Rodolfo Rodriguez, getting books in his own native language has been about learning how to communicate in English, something he says he's been trying to do since his sentence in 1993.

RODOLFO RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

JOKISCH POLO: He says here that you feel like they're telling you that pure Spanish is worthless, that you don't need to learn because you'll just stay here. Seven books in both Spanish and Swahili have been banned from the state's prisons in the last year, according to a list obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Kwesi Osundar was born in Detroit and says he's been requesting books in Swahili since 2009.

KWESI OSUNDAR: So Swahili being one of the more widely spoken African languages, that was the first stop for me.

JOKISCH POLO: Osundar says he's filed grievances with the prison he's in, but these never went anywhere.

OSUNDAR: It's just there because they have to give us some form of process to seek administrative remedies. But very seldom does anybody get any relief.

JOKISCH POLO: Gautz says the issue of banning language books isn't something that's come up a lot.

GAUTZ: If we were to start seeing requests and a need to have something be reviewed along these lines, we could certainly be open to that.

JOKISCH POLO: Paul Wright is the director of the Human Rights Defense Center and a former inmate at a correctional facility in the state of Washington. While he was incarcerated, Wright founded Prison Legal News, a publication that he's fought to keep from being censored at several prisons across the country.

PAUL WRIGHT: Prison officials like to censor anything that's critical of themselves, and also they like to censor anything to do with minority anything.

JOKISCH POLO: A 1989 Supreme Court ruling allows prisons to ban any book as long as it's in the interest of safety. Rodolfo Rodriguez would like the Michigan policy on books in different languages revised. He says incarcerated people deserve a right to educate themselves in their own native language.

For NPR News, I'm Michelle Jokisch Polo.


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