Why Do Ohio Prisons Ban Books About Learning To Code?

Sep 5, 2017

While Wired Magazine is calling coding "the next big blue-collar job," Ohio may be creating a barrier between that industry and the people who could benefit most from employment.

An investigation from the journalism organization MuckRock found that Ohio and Michigan are among the few states that ban books on coding from prisons, essentially prohibiting prisoners from learning programming.

"By preventing prisoners from learning about programming or teaching themselves to code, Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections might be cutting them off from an important sector of the economy in the future," says journalist Alec Shea.

Shea said his search began accidentally, while looking into prisoner email services in Florida. That lead to probing for prohibited publications in prisons, collected through Freedom Of Information Act requests.

MuckRock found there's a discrepancy in what states won't let prisoners read.

"So alongside texts like Mein Kampf and the newsletter of the Racial Nationalist Party of the United States, Ohio bans books related to computer programming - specifically Linux computer programming," Shea says.

The Linux operating system is a framework under which computers are run, Shea explains, and many computer-related professions require some understanding of it.

Shea says Ohio's ban includes books that include instructions on escaping prison, books that are sexually explicit, and books related to codes and ciphers. 

In a statement, the ODRC said it "has a publication screening process which is in place to prevent materials from entering the facility that may compromise security."

But the ODRC gave no explanation of what that screening process entails.

Concerns that prisoners could access computers for illegal activities aren't entirely unfounded. A report released in April found that Marion Prison inmates built contraband computers, using them to commit credit card fraud and create security clearance passes.

But while Shea says that incident is troubling, ODRC's digital policies are inconsistent. After all, some prisons in the state already allow prisoners access to email, video chat services and even the ability to send money. 

"The other question that that idea raises is, if computer programming represents a risk to prisoners in Ohio or indeed in Michigan, where it's also banned, why doesn't it in Pennsylvania?" Shea says.

Pennsylvania, MuckRock found, only bans books related to hacking and the criminal use of computers, rather than all books about programming. Meanwhile, other states actually found programming can be used as a form of rehabilitation through job training.

"There's a program called The Last Mile in the California prison system that has a record of success at getting formerly incarcerated people placed in jobs at tech companies," Shea says.

For its own efforts, ODRC points to its varied inmate training programs, which include placements in recycling, welding, barista training, and transportation.

"Our prisons do offer a variety of different programs that prepare individuals for release following incarceration, many of which are technology-based," the ODRC said in a statement.

Shea says that despite other job training programs that may exist, continuing to ban information about programming risks excluding inmates from finding long-term fulfilling work outside the prison.

"The fact is, the computer coding world is one where being self-taught and teaching yourself plays a vital role in how people interact with the computerized economy," Shea says.