Michigan prison authorities ban dictionaries, activists win reversal

In a June 2 story, National Public Radio broke the news that the Michigan Department of Corrections had, over the past year, banned Spanish and Swahili dictionaries. This racist, xenophobic decision denied the legal right to an education to Spanish- and Swahili-speaking prisoners and to any prisoner desiring to learn these languages. The bogus excuse MDOC concocted was that “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 staff or assaulting another prisoner.” (npr.org, June 2)

Neither Spanish nor Swahili are obscure!

Activists organized a protest campaign. Nearly 400 “library workers, advocates for incarcerated people’s rights and community members who believe in our inherent right to education,” signed a letter to MDOC to “demand the Michigan Department of Corrections immediately rescind this racist policy.”

Signers were from 95 Michigan cities and towns, 40 U.S. states, Canada and the Netherlands. The Detroit and Michigan chapters of the National Lawyers Guild, the Detroit-based Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls also signed.

The letter pointed out: “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.’”

On July 21 MDOC issued a memo reversing the dictionary ban!

In the words of the great Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “Without struggle there is no progress.”

Martha Grevatt

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Martha Grevatt

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