How Guantánamo, the Navy base with book-banning prison, marks Banned Books Week

A display at the Guantánamo public library Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018, not far from the thrift shop, gas station and McDonald’s, sought to educate patrons about the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week. This year’s theme: “Banning Books Silences Stories.”  This photo was screened by a Navy base official, who approved its release to the public.
A display at the Guantánamo public library Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018, not far from the thrift shop, gas station and McDonald’s, sought to educate patrons about the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week. This year’s theme: “Banning Books Silences Stories.” This photo was screened by a Navy base official, who approved its release to the public.

Big and small libraries across the United States marked Banned Books Week recently with awareness campaigns celebrating the freedom to read in America, and so did this base with two libraries — one for the war on terror prisoners, the other for base residents.

The public library that serves sailors, their families and prison troops offered a quiz, free bookmarks and an educational display of books that have stirred controversy: “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “Slaughterhouse Five” and others.

“Experience the power of the freedom to read,” said a poster in the squat, one-story library not far from the base McDonald’s. “Banning books silences stories,” said the book display wrapped in tape that read, “Caution! Keep Out!”

The Detention Zone library is a different matter.

The 1,800-staff military prison of 40 captives, just one of them convicted of a crime, recently rejected a book about an anti-war organization called “September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows,” an illustrated book of ship cross-sections meant for a captive who makes model ships in his Camp 6 art class, and a Tank Girl 3 comic book.

Prison staff screen out books “for appropriateness, excessive, graphic violence, extremist or sexually explicit content,” said spokeswoman Navy Commander Anne Leanos, noting that in addition to the above three donations staff rejected a series of Islamic religious books whose titles suggest they might be radical and Leo Tolstoy’s “The Forged Coupon.”

These four items were recently rejected by the Guantánamo prison library without explanation. Amazon

To be clear, the federal Bureau of Prisons has a screening policy, too, for the “security, good order, or discipline of the institution: “No books that show how to make weapons or bombs. No books with sexually explicit images although explicit text is allowed unless it features sadomasochism, bestiality or children. A warden “may not reject a publication solely because its content is ... religious, philosophical, political, social or sexual, or because its content is unpopular or repugnant.”

On Death Row in Louisiana, says American Civil Liberties Union attorney Denny LeBoeuf, the prison only accepts paperbacks direct from the publisher. And books with sex and maps are strictly taboo.

But the terror prison run by troops on mostly nine-month deployments has at times left donors puzzled by books that were rejected.

In 2013, a man who lost his father in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center donated about 70 works of literature as an “escape from darkness,” and the prison rejected one, Stephen King’s “It,” presumably as too creepy, until it was mentioned in an article. Then someone in the staff noted that it had earlier been accessioned into the prison collection, and accepted it.

In 2009, the library rejected an Arabic copy of antiwar activist Noam Chomsky’s anthology of post 9/11 commentary that was published in The New York Times, prompting the professor of linguistics to remark, “This happens sometimes in totalitarian regimes.”

Earlier this year the prison library rejected an encyclopedia-style picture book showing cross sections of seafaring vessels, which attorney Beth Jacob had donated. It was from the paperback “Look Inside” series, and entitled “Ships: See inside 10 fascinating vessels.”

stamped ship
Guantánamo prison put its stamp of approval for release on the sail of this model ship built by a current captive, Yemeni Moath al Alwi. The prison subsequently halted release of prisoner artwork. CAROL ROSENBERG

Guantánamo prison policy prohibits people from giving individual captives books. So Jacob gave “Ships” to the detention center library with a specific client in mind — forever prisoner Moath al Alwi, who has for years built model ships in art class as a distraction. The detention center returned the book without an explanation.

Jacob said she wondered whether the book’s inclusion of a 1943 vintage U.S. aircraft carrier, the long ago decommissioned Lexington, struck a nerve with somebody censoring books at the Navy base prison. In another perplexing episode, Jacob recalled, she donated two discs about three years ago — one of original speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., the other a DVD featuring teen idol Taylor Swift.

“The DVD of Taylor Swift did get in,” she said, but they rejected the civil rights leader’s speeches. “They never gave an explanation.”

At this prison last week, the Army officer acting as spokeswoman during Banned Books Week, and who insisted on anonymity, was unable to explain the rejections But she said the 34,000-item detainee library collection (with dozens of Harry Potter Books in multiple languages) already had a King “In search of Freedom” CD, as well as a book called “The Words of Martin Luther King Jr.”

Attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis said she, too, had a DVD of King speeches rejected earlier this year. Also rejected by the prison without explanation, she said, were DVDs of the movies “Malcolm X,” “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Selma.”

Sullivan-Bennis, who helps captives held in indefinite detention prepare for their status hearings, said she was the one who unsuccessfully tried to donate “the Peaceful Tomorrows book” to the prison collection — twice, in recent months.

The American Library Association, whose Office for Intellectual Freedom established Banned Books Week in 1982 to promote understanding, declined to comment specifically on the Guantánamo prison screening policy but pointed to this passage in the ALA policy statement:

“The American Library Association asserts a compelling public interest in the preservation of intellectual freedom for individuals of any age held in jails, prisons, detention facilities, juvenile facilities, immigration facilities, prison work camps and segregated units within any facility.”

The policy also quoted a 1974 concurring opinion by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: “When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.”

At the Guantánamo public library, base spokesman J. Overton said anyone who lives on the base of 5,500 to 6,000 residents, about 400 of them children, can check out items from the 23,000-book and 1,000-DVD collection — except the war prisoners.

“I don’t believe they have access,” he said of the men who were brought here between 2002 and 2008 and are confined to the Detention Center Zone except for trips to court, status hearings or the base hospital.

The reason for last week’s display?

“We’re just like any other naval installation or a small town in America. We celebrate the freedom of expression we have in America,” Overton said. “There’s always been controversy over that: Certain books people think shouldn’t be read, certain books people think everyone should read. So we just celebrate that controversy there and the way we’ve worked through that in a democratic society.”

A sign on the display explained it this way: “The freedom, not only to choose what we read, but also to select from a full array of possibilities, is firmly rooted in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. …Would-be censors who continue to threaten the freedom to read come from all quarters and political persuasions.”

The prison library