The Books That Prison Officials Don’t Want Chelsea Manning to Read

The U.S. soldier convicted of leaking classified information has been found guilty of violating rules for permitted reading material.

Inmates browse books at a Texas prison library. (Adrees Latif / Reuters)

Last month, prison officials discovered contraband in Chelsea Manning’s cell: books and magazines considered to be “prohibited reading material.” Her potential punishment? Solitary confinement.

On Tuesday night, Manning, the U.S. soldier convicted in 2013 of giving classified government information to WikiLeaks, tweeted the punishment a prison board handed her for possessing the items: “21 days of restrictions on recreation” which means “no gym, library, or outdoors.”

Manning, who previously was known as Bradley Manning, identifies as a woman. She is serving a 35-year sentence at an all-male, maximum-security military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Officials confiscated 22 books and magazines, which included a novel about transgender women, the Caitlyn Jenner issue of Vanity Fair magazine, Malala Yousafzai’s memoir, and the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture.

Here’s the full inventory, according to Manning:

None of these, Manning’s lawyer argued last week, constitute “a national security issue.” The issue of security, however, is often used to determine approved and prohibited reading material in federal and state prisons across the country. Federal Bureau of Prisons regulations state publications can be confiscated and banned if they are found “to be detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity." Prisons can’t reject a publication “solely because its content is religious, philosophical, political, social, sexual, or...unpopular or repugnant.”

But determining which books are considered safe and which are dangerous is, as you might expect, highly subjective. And not every prison in America interprets federal guidelines in the same way. As Andrew Losowsky reported in The Huffington Post in 2011:

… many correctional institutions censor materials far beyond these guidelines. Central Mississippi Correctional, for example, is stated as refusing to allow any books whose content includes anything legal, medical or contains violence, while Staunton Correctional in Virginia is claimed only to allow its inmates access to "non-fiction educational or spiritual books."

There are plenty more examples. Losowsky points to a 2011 report by the Texas Civil Rights Project, which called the state prison system’s censorship of some authors— including Shakespeare, Sojourner Truth, George Orwell, and Jon Stewart—“arbitrary” and “bizarre.” One correctional facility in South Carolina denied access to most books and magazines for several years until the American Civil Liberties Union sued it and won in 2012. In 2013, National Journal’s Matt Berman reported the Connecticut Bureau of Corrections had banned the July 22, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, which included a story on domestic abuse, and the September copy of Slam Magazine, with LeBron James on the cover, citing "safety and security” reasons. The bureau did add some books to its approved list: George R.R. Martin’s popular novels, but not the first one in the series, A Game of Thrones.

The Leavenworth facility where Manning is serving her sentence could not be reached for comment about its list of approved and prohibited reading material. According to the prison’s inmate information handbook, inmates “have the right to a wide range of reading materials...for educational purposes and your own enjoyment,” which “may include magazines and newspapers sent from the community, with certain restrictions.”