Monday, July 18, 2011

Haunted Libraries

Most people assume that the most popular section in a prison library is True Crime. That’s probably true, but at the prison I worked in, modern True Crime was banned. We had plenty of books about Jack the Ripper, and other famous, long dead killers, but there were no books by or about any currently incarcerated prisoners. I didn’t know that was unusual until I visited another prison library and found book after book about the people I worked with every day.

Prison libraries in the UK are meant to be a mix of public and school libraries, and censorship is unusual except for security reasons. It makes sense not to have books on martial arts or how to build bombs. And, it was explained to me, that books written by inmates were not allowed because they should not be able to profit from their crimes while they are in prison. Also included under this mandate were books about current inmates. After I had been working there for a while, an officer explained to me another, more disturbing, reason.

In 1993, not long after the prison opened, and before the infamous IRA escape, a Whitemoor prisoner was murdered by two other inmates. His name was Leslie “Catweazle” Bailey and he was a convicted pedophile and child killer. According to the officer, the subsequent investigation revealed that the prisoners learned about Bailey’s crimes in a book they had checked out from the prison library. Then, all books that mentioned any prisoners or their crimes were removed from the library.

The Security Department at the prison periodically tried to ban books and I always challenged them to demonstrate an actual risk. Sometimes I got the book re-instated (in the case of a book about military helicopters), and other times I acquiesced (in the case of a book on chemical warfare). While preparing for this essay, I searched online for information about this murder. Although I was able to confirm that a prisoner by that name was murdered in Whitemoor prison, I could find no mention of a library book being to blame. That information may not have been released to the press, or it may not even be true.

Under normal circumstances, I would argue that freedom of information is a human right, no matter what a small minority might choose to do with that information. But a prison library is not a public library, the minority is the majority, and sometimes safety and security, even for murderers and rapists, takes precedence over censorship quarrels and access to information. So, I never challenged this rule, because I didn’t want the library to be haunted by another murder.

*This entry was originally posted at The Daily Theme on September 10, 2010

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