These Prisons Are Banning Books That Teach Inmates How to Code


Illustration for article titled These Prisons Are Banning Books That Teach Inmates How to Code
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The Oregon Department of Corrections [DOC] has barred inmates from reading dozens of books about technology and programming—many of which teach basic skills for many entry-level jobs.

The Salem Reporter acquired public records that show 1,600 book titles the state agency has banned. The list is meant to help the mail rooms at state prisons know which books to withhold from inmates. Within this list are many books about technology—like Blockchain Revolution, Python Programming For Beginners, The Hidden Language Of Computer Hardware And Software, and Windows 10 for Dummies.

The list of banned books explains that these books pose a security threat.

“There’s absolutely nothing in there that would pose a security risk. The books are written for consumers—people at home,” Andy Rathbone, author of Windows 10 for Dummies, and some other books on the banned list, told Salem Reporter. “There’s certainly nothing about breaking into networks.”

As Motherboard points out, books about hacking could pose a more obvious threat. After all, there have been efforts to hack into correctional facilities’ computer systems. “I’m not entirely surprised that my book is on that list,” Justin Seitz, author of Black Hat Python, 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.”

Kelly Raths, an Oregon DOC administrator who oversee mailrooms, told Salem Reporter that books about technology are inspected by a group of IT workers with an understanding of prison security threats. She told the newspaper that the agency allows inmates to have “have a lot of access to computers,” but when the prisons began giving people in custody computer access, some of them left messages for other inmates through the computers. “That’s a significant threat to us,” Raths told Salem Reporter.

So to mitigate that threat, the DOC is hindering how much the inmates can learn about computers.

The Oregon DOC did not respond to a Gizmodo request for comment on why the agency banned books that teach basic computer skills. An Oregon DOC spokesperson told Motherboard that a prisoner copied staff files when an employee unwittingly put a malicious thumb drive into a computer. “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,” Oregon DOC spokesperson Jennifer Black told Motherboard. “It is a balancing act we are actively trying to achieve.”

But Rathbone, the author, seems to believe the DOC is failing inmates in this balancing act. “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 told Motherboard. “If they can’t get legitimate jobs, what are they going to do?”

Update: Oregon DOC spokesperson Jennifer Black sent Gizmodo a statement shortly after publication. “An IT book mail review happens the same for an AIC [adult in custody] known to compromise IT systems as it does for a person about to release to a community full of tech job opportunities,” Black said, in the statement. “We educate AICs on technology in our computer labs and other learning and classroom settings.”

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