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Prisons Are Banning Books That Teach Prisoners How to Code

Oregon prisons have banned dozens of books about technology and programming, like 'Microsoft Excel 2016 for Dummies,' citing security reasons. The state isn't alone.

by Madeleine Gregory
Jun 21 2019, 3:05pm

Image: Getty

The Oregon Department of Corrections has banned prisoners from reading a number of books related to technology and programming, citing concerns about security.

According to public records obtained by the Salem Reporter, the Oregon Department of Corrections has banned dozens of books related to programming and technology as they come through the mail room, ensuring that they don’t get to the hands of prisoners.

At least in official department code, there is no blanket ban on technology-related books. Instead, each book is individually evaluated to assess potential threats. Many programming-related books are cited as “material that threatens,” often including the subject matter (“computer programming”) as justification.

Rejected books that are geared towards hacking, such as Justin Seitz’s Black Hat Python, may represent a clearer threat to the Department of Corrections, which fears that prisoners could use those tools to compromise their systems. But how did books such as Windows 10 for Dummies, Microsoft Excel 2016 for Dummies, and Google Adsense for Dummies (marked as posing "clear and present danger"), fail the prison’s security test?

“I’m not entirely surprised that my book is on that list,” Seitz told Motherboard. “I think what’s more surprising is some of the other, much more baseline ones. Learning a programming language in and of itself is not dangerous.”

Proficiency in Excel and Windows 10 isn’t viewed as dangerous in the outside world. Instead, it's a prerequisite for most entry-level jobs. Andy Rathbone, author of the Windows for Dummies series, said that he doubts anything in his books could be used to compromise the prison’s systems. Some of his blacklisted books date back to the 90s, he said, their contents so outdated that it would be hard to imagine a prisoner using them maliciously.

Rathbone sees a big problem, though, in not teaching prisoners basic computer skills that they will need when they re-enter society.

“As soon as they get out of prison and have to deal with today’s world when just about everything is computerized, they won’t know what to do,” Rathbone said. “If they can’t get legitimate jobs, what are they going to do?”

Officials at the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) argue, however, that knowledge of even these basic programs can pose a threat to prisons.

“Not only do we have to think about classic prison escape and riot efforts like digging holes, jumping fences and starting fires, modernity requires that we also protect our prisons and the public against data system breaches and malware,” DOC spokesperson Jennifer Black said in an emailed statement. “It is a balancing act we are actively trying to achieve.”

In one instance, a prisoner allegedly used a malicious thumb drive (prisoners are allowed to have thumb drives for educational or work-related purposes) to copy staff files from an Excel spreadsheet when an employee inserted it into a computer, Black said.

According to Rutgers law professor Todd Clear, security concerns are overblown because learning to hack can require more than reading a book (for example, unrestricted internet access and some savvy comrades), and prison staff can monitor prisoners’ activities.

“They are different places, no doubt, but the security claim is often specious,” he said.

Acknowledging the importance of technological knowledge for reentry, the department has been working to provide more technology to prisoners, including Windows 10 and limited access to the internet.

The Oregon DOC has approved nearly 98% of books and magazines sent in the last three years, Black said. In the last seven months, the DOC has approved a handful of tech-related titles such as C Programming Absolute Beginner's Guide Part 1 and An Introduction to Using Windows 10.

As for why some books get banned and others don't, Black said that staff make a decision "based on IT experience, DOC technical architecture and DOC’s mandate to run safe and secure institutions for all." Each book is evaluated based on the information inside, the exact subject matter, and level of detail it provides.

Oregon is not alone in restricting prisoner access to tech-focused books. Ohio and Michigan, too, have banned books that teach programming. In Kansas, technology-focused books also feature in the thousands of titles banned from prisons.

On the outside, reading books is usually a pastime, and sometimes a chore. To those in prison, books are a rare link to the outside world, a source of education and entertainment. Many prisoners, especially those with long sentences, are completely cut off from the technological world. Some have never touched a smartphone or worked on a laptop. Reading about blockchains may be the closest they get to understanding how technology is evolving in modern society.

For those incarcerated people leaving prison, programming books act as job training. Coding classes are becoming increasingly popular in prisons, giving incarcerated people a glimmer of hope at a tech career outside prison walls. Books that give prisoners a head-start on programming can help them once they’re back in society. Lack of access to skills or education, by contrast, is a big driver of putting people back in prison.

“Prison officials tend to be overzealous in their banning, and often err on the side of banning,” said Emerson Sykes, staff attorney at the ACLU. “It speaks to an underlying approach that focuses on the punitive nature of incarceration rather than a rehabilitation approach.”

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