MDOC plans to remove further restrictions after lifting ban on non-English dictionaries

The Michigan Department of Corrections is receiving criticism for how it restricts access to foreign language documents for inmates.

This summer, the MDOC lifted its ban on non-English dictionaries.

WKAR’s Michelle Jokisch Polo reported on the restrictions before the dictionary ban was lifted.

Now the American Civil Liberties Union is urging the MDOC to go further and reverse its ban on other foreign language books.

WKAR’s Megan Schellong spoke with Michelle about her reporting and what’s next.

Interview Highlights

Why the Ban on Non-English Language Dictionaries Was Implemented in the First Place

They [MDOC officials] said they were doing this because the contents of the books posed a threat to state penitentiaries. So they were saying, you know, if you decide to learn Spanish or Swahili, you might organize with other inmates and cause violence in the prisons.

What the process of removing books from the banned list looks like

It’s a long process. I spoke with the MDOC spokesperson. And he told me that the process starts with a meeting, this meeting that they had. They started it last month, and through this meeting they’re going to start reviewing what’s on the list of groups in the banned list – it’s a 60+ page list, and they’re going to review this listing. And they want to make sure that the books that are on this list deserve to be on this list. And it’s a long process.

On how the Department of Corrections handles the American Civil Liberties Union request

So in the letter that the American Civil Liberties Union sent to the MDOC, they’re, you know, they’re asking them to consider reviewing these books on a case-by-case basis, not just making a blatant decision on all the books and say no, and I think they’re willing to look at that. From what I’ve heard and seen, I think they’re ready to consider it and, you know, it’s exciting to see our community come together to make sure everyone has access to the material pedagogic.

Interview Transcript

Megan Schellong: The Michigan Department of Corrections is receiving criticism for how it restricts access to foreign language documents for inmates.

This summer, the MDOC lifted its ban on non-English dictionaries.

WKAR’s Michelle Jokisch Polo reported on the restrictions before the dictionary ban was lifted.

Now the American Civil Liberties Union is urging the MDOC to go further and reverse its ban on other foreign language books.

Michelle joins me now to discuss her story and what’s next.

Thanks for joining me.

Polo Michelle Jokisch: Thanks for having me, Megan.

Schelong: So tell us a little story. Why was the ban on non-English dictionaries put in place?

Jokisch Polo: So in the last year we found out through a freedom of information law that the Michigan Department of Corrections banned Spanish and Swahili dictionaries and they said they were doing it because the contents of the books posed a threat to state penitentiaries. .

So they were saying, you know, if you decide to learn Spanish or Swahili, you might organize with other inmates and cause violence in the prisons.

Schelong: What was your reaction when the MDOC lifted its ban on non-English dictionaries?

Jokisch Polo: So after my story was published, a lot of people in our community were surprised. And they reached out to their state representatives, their senators, and their leaders, and that, you know, started talking more about it. On July 21, without much fanfare, MDOC Director Heidi Washington released what is called a memo. And in that note, she said, you know, we’re going to lift the ban on dictionaries and foreign language dictionaries, and now people can get them in their prison. And my reaction, you know, I found out several months later, and I was surprised, I was surprised at the impact that you know, the reporting had on politics. And, you know, reporting was only a small part of lifting that ban at MDOC.

Schelong: You have to speak with an inmate who wanted to learn Swahili. Was there anything surprising he told you about the barriers to education and literacy in Michigan prisons?

Jokisch Polo: Yeah, you know, he told me he was African American, and he was really interested, really interested in learning more about his ancestry, you know, about Africa and where he was from, d where his ancestors came from.

And part of that journey for him was learning Swahili and diving deep into that language and he was struggling to access it. And what’s interesting is that it wasn’t just dictionaries that he had trouble accessing, it was you books on different religions in Africa, different traditions, that he couldn’t access and , you know, all he really wanted was to know more about who he is, who his family was, his ancestors, and those were denied.

While reporting on the lifting of the ban, I spoke with Mira Edmonds, she is a clinical assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School. She told me she was glad the ban was lifted. But there is more to do. And this is what she said:

Mira Edmonds: You know, the commercial driver’s license manual, the computer manuals, other things that would help people again, in a way, to prepare themselves to reenter the labor market.

Jokisch Polo: She wants to ensure that inmates have access to other educational materials so that they can reintegrate into the labor market once they leave the correctional establishment.

Schellong: What does the process of removing books from the banned list look like? How does this process even begin?

Jokisch Polo: Yes, so it’s a long process. I spoke with the MDOC spokesperson. And he told me that the process starts with a meeting, this meeting that they had. They started it last month, and through this meeting, they’re going to start reviewing what’s on the forbidden list, it’s a 60+ page list, and they’re going to review that list. And they want to make sure that the books that are on this list deserve to be on this list. And it’s a long process. But I think, looking to the future, it’s an opportunity to make that change. And they’re ready to make that change and they’re starting that review.

Schelong: How does the Department of Corrections process or respond to the request from the American Civil Liberties Union?

Jokisch Polo: So in the letter that the American Civil Liberties Union sent to the MDOC, they’re, you know, they’re asking them to consider reviewing these books on a case-by-case basis, not just making a blatant decision on all the books and say no, and I think they’re willing to look at that. From what I’ve heard and seen, I think they’re ready to consider it and, you know, it’s exciting to see our community come together to make sure everyone has access to the material pedagogic.

Schelong: Michelle Jokisch Polo is WKAR’s Latinx Stories reporter. Thank you for your time.

Jokisch Polo: Thank you for.

This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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