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Banning books in prison spurs lawsuit: Playboy OK, but books on Buddhism and sailing rejected

By Staff | Sep 28, 2014

Since he was sent to prison in 2012, Michael Hanson has relied on Buddhism to give him strength and prepare for life on the outside.

Hanson participates in weekly meetings with volunteers from Aryaloka, a Buddhist center in Newmarket that runs an outreach program for inmates. He meditates with a group on Saturdays and reads the religious texts he can access behind bars.

Hanson stays in touch with the tenets of his faith. But as a practitioner of Shaolin Chan, a strain of Buddhism that flourished centuries ago at the Shaolin monastery in China, Hanson hasn’t found anything within the walls of the New Hampshire State Prison for Men that speaks directly to his beliefs.

“The study of Buddhism, or any spiritual practice, is important in rehabilitating a person,” he said, “and so the time that I’m spending in prison, I’m trying to use it wisely to become a different person – a better person – and it’s difficult for me to do that without having that part of my spirituality.”

Hanson was jailed at the Rockingham County House of Corrections in 2011 after he pleaded guilty to trying to access child pornography. A probation violation the next year sent Hanson back to jail – this time to the state prison in Concord.

During Hanson’s first stint behind bars, a book that outlined the philosophy of Shaolin Buddhism was a source of comfort. And although Hanson was allowed to read the book in the Rockingham County jail, he was barred this year from getting a copy in state prison. Officials determined information about martial arts contained within the book, “The Shaolin Grandmasters’ Text,” posed a security risk.

Sometimes painted with a broad brush, Buddhism and its many disciplines can be as varied as the denominations of Christianity. Shaolin Chan centers around the idea of nonattachment, but unlike some other Buddhist practices, Shaolin focuses heavily on martial arts. For Shaolin disciples, kung fu functions as a form of meditation through action.

Hanson maintains that the “Grandmasters’ Text” is fundamentally a religious work with only cursory information about martial arts. Without it, Hanson says he has no way to study Shaolin philosophy. He is suing the prison to gain access to the book, alleging the prison’s Literary Review Committee violated his constitutional rights.

“Because of the religious nature of the text, I really honestly thought that it’s protected by the First Amendment,” he said.

Sending books to prison

Like all Americans, prisoners have rights that are protected under the Constitution, but when it comes to prison literature, the Supreme Court has recognized that some material can be curtailed to maintain safety and order.

In New Hampshire, it’s up to the state prison’s Literary Review Committee to determine whether newspapers, magazines and books sent through the mail should be censored or rejected. The three members of the committee have backgrounds in security, mental health and education and are guided by a series of regulations.

Department of Corrections spokesman Jeffrey Lyons said the committee focuses mainly on material that could jeopardize security, such as self-defense books or directions for making weapons.

“We don’t want them learning how to fight an officer,” Lyons said.

However, not all of the Literary Review Committee’s decisions are clear-cut. Hanson said inmates have been perplexed by some of its choices in the past. For instance, Hanson said, some reading material already available in the prison library has been rejected. He cited the 1989 Ken Follett novel “The Pillars of the Earth,” which centers around the building of a cathedral in England. Hanson said the book was rejected because some passages were deemed to be sexually explicit.

By contrast, the Literary Review Committee has approved scores of racy magazines sent to inmates since 2012, such as American Curves, Hooters and Playboy, according to records provided by the Department of Corrections.

After pawing through “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the steamy romance novel that became a sensation after it was published in 2011, the committee took issue only with two pages. And the committee appears to look more favorably on material geared toward heterosexuals; on at least two occasions, it has rejected material on the grounds that it shows “homosexual acts.”

Pornography is technically banned in the prison, but the Literary Review Committee exercises wide discretion in determining which materials are too sexually charged for inmates. Prisoners are allowed to receive images of nudity that have “scholarly, medical or purely artistic” value. The committee’s regulations prohibit any “obscene material,” including “explicit descriptions, advertisements or pictorial representations” of sexual acts, bestiality, bondage, sadomasochism, or sex involving children. Playboy, apparently, does not trigger these regulations.

Material describing “deviant or unlawful sexual practices” is also banned. Regulations call for the committee to consult with sex offender treatment clinical staff to determine which materials might be problematic.

Dangerous ideas

Other guidelines used by the Literary Review Committee offer even more room for interpretation. In March 2013, the committee rejected “The Heroin Diaries,” a memoir by Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx, on the basis that it depicts criminal activities.

“Building Clustered Linux Systems,” a guide to networking computers using the Linux operating system, was rejected because the committee felt it could provide prisoners a means to escape.

Literature that may lead to “group disruption” or “severe psychiatric or emotional disturbance” also receives extra scrutiny. Books ranging from a Bruce Lee biography to historical nonfiction and true-crime thrillers have been rejected because they could cause “mental disturbance” to inmates.

Among them is “Orange Sunshine,” a 2010 book that tells the story of the so-called “Hippie Mafia,” a group affiliated with Timothy Leary. Members worked to put Leary’s teachings into practice by distributing psychedelic drugs. The Hippie Mafia became one of the biggest hash and LSD distribution networks in the country during the 1960s and ’70s. Members were finally taken down in a 1972 drug bust that served as a precursor to the country’s war on drugs.

Committee regroups

Prison officials temporarily suspended the activities of the Literary Review Committee after Hanson filed his lawsuit in March.

Hanson filed suit after he unsuccessfully appealed to Warden Richard Gerry to intervene and grant him access to the Shaolin text, as well as a book on sailing that was rejected by the committee.

Gerry determined sections of the “Grandmasters’ Text” provided “instruction into training and use of punches and body strikes,” and that such material “does jeopardize the institutional security toward others including staff,” according to court documents. He declined Hanson’s offer to have a Buddhist volunteer copy only portions of the book that contain Shaolin philosophy. Gerry offered no explanation for why the second book, “Sailing a Serious Ocean,” was rejected.

In handwritten court filings, Hanson claims prison officials violated his First Amendment right to access literature and practice his religion. Hanson is suing Gerry, the Literary Review Committee, New Hampshire Department of Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn and six corrections employees.

Hanson is asking a judge to order prison staff to release both books to him immediately and award punitive damages of $100 per day dating to Feb. 3. He also is seeking damages ranging from $10,000 to $5 million against defendants named in other allegations in the lawsuit.

Wrenn and Gerry declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story. The former members of the Literary Review Committee also declined to be interviewed.

The committee recently resumed its activities with three new members after going on hiatus in May. The new committee members are Sgt. Dave Cormier, Chris Hatala and Kristina Toth, according to an Aug. 20 memo issued by the commissioner. Lyons said the committee was reformulated with a focus on bringing in people with expertise in mental health.

“We want the people of that committee to have specialized skills,” he said.

During an August interview, Hanson said prisoners were unaware that the Literary Review Committee was undergoing changes. He said he hopes his lawsuit will draw attention to the important role literature plays in helping rehabilitate inmates.

“I may have made mistakes in the past, but I’m trying to use this time wisely and constructively to make myself a better person,” he said.

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