Censoring Imagination: Why Prisons Ban Fantasy and Science Fiction
Moira Marquis on the Importance of Magical Thinking For the Incarcerated
In 2009 I was working with the prison book program in Asheville, North Carolina when I got a request for shapeshifting. I was shocked and thought it was funny, until I came to realize esoteric interests like this are common with incarcerated people.
Incarceration removes people from friends and family. Most are unsure of when they will be released, and inside prisons people aren’t supposed to touch each other, talk in private or share belongings. Perhaps this is why literature on magic, fantasy and esoteric ideas like alchemy and shapeshifting are so popular with incarcerated people.
When deprived of human intimacy and other avenues for creating meaning out of life, escapist thought provides perhaps a necessary release, without which a potentially crushing realism would extinguish all hope and make continued living near impossible. Many incarcerated people, potentially with decades of time to do ahead of them, escape through ideas.
Which is why it’s especially cruel that U.S. prisons ban magical literature. As PEN America’s new report Reading Between the Bars shows, books banned in prisons by some states dwarf all other book censorship in school and public libraries. Prison censorship robs those behind bars of everything from exercise and health to art and even yoga, often for reasons that strain credulity.Many incarcerated people, potentially with decades of time to do ahead of them, escape through ideas.
The strangest category of bans however, are the ones on magical and fantastical literature.
Looking through the lists of titles prison authorities have gone to the trouble of prohibiting people from reading you find Invisibility: Mastering the Art of Vanishing and Magic: An Occult Primer in Louisiana, Practical Mental Magic in Connecticut, all intriguingly for “safety and security reasons.” The Clavis or Key to the Magic of Solomon in Arizona, Maskim Hul Babylonian Magick in California. Nearly every state that has a list of banned titles contains books on magic.
Do carceral authorities believe that magic is real?
Courts affirm that magical thinking is dangerous. For example, the seventh circuit court upheld a ban on the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game for incarcerated people because prison authorities argued that such “fantasy role playing” creates “competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviors, and possible gambling.”
A particularly strange example of banning magic can be seen on Louisiana’s censored list.
Fantasy Artist’s Pocket Reference contains explanations of traditional nonhuman beings like elves, fairies and the like. It also features drawings of these beings and some guidance on how to draw them using traditional or computer based art. The explanation for this book’s censorship on Louisiana’s banned list reads, “Sectarian content (promotion of Wicca) based on the connection of this type of literature and the murder of Capt. Knapps.” Captain Knapps was a corrections officer in the once plantation now prison, Angola in Louisiana. Knapps was killed in 1999 during an uprising that the New York Times attributed to the successful negotiation of other incarcerated people for their deportation to Cuba at a different facility in Louisiana prior that year. It is unclear how this incident is linked in the minds of the mailroom staff with Wicca or this book—which is a broad fantasy text and not Wiccan per se. (Prison mailrooms are where censorship decisions are—at least initially—made).
As confused as this example is, what is clear is that these seemingly disparate links are understood by others within the Louisiana Department of Corrections since Captain Knapps’ death continues to be cited as rationale for why fantasy books are not allowed.
Is the banning of fantastical literature in prisons just carceral paranoia—or it is indicative of a larger cultural attitude that simultaneously denigrates and fears imagination? After all, prisons are part of U.S. culture which, despite a thriving culture industry that trafficks in magic and fantasy, nonetheless degrades it as lesser than realism. We see this most clearly in the literary designation of high literature as realist fiction and genre fiction like science fiction, Afrofuturism, magical realism as not as serious.
Magic’s status as deception and unreality is a relatively recent invention. Like the prison itself, it is a reform of older conceptions. In Chaucer’s time and place, ‘magic’ was a field of study. For example, in The Canterbury Tales, written in 1392, he writes, “He kepte his pacient a ful greet deel/ In houres, by his magyk natureel” when speaking about a doctor whose knowledge of plants was medicinal. Magic was connected to knowledge in Chaucer’s mind because of its connection with the Neoplatonic tradition, which acknowledged the limits of human knowledge. The known and the unknown were in a kind of relationship.
However, the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Subsequently, with the spread of rationalistic and scientific explanations of the natural world in the West, the status of magic has declined.” Beginning with OED entries from the 1600s, “magic” becomes a term to designate manipulation of an evil kind.
At this time in Europe and its settler colonies, ‘magic’ became applied to a huge variety of practices increasingly seen as pernicious, from healing with herbs to rituals associated with nature spirit figures, like the Green Man and fairies, to astrology and divination. The diverse practices popularly labeled ‘magical’ were lumped together only through their association with intentional deception, superstition and error.
Writers like Ursula Le Guin have gone to great lengths to contest the supposedly firm divide between magic and reality. She argues that imagination is eminently practical and necessary:
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.
For Le Guin, rejecting imagination is the ultimate collapse of the human social project.
Joan Didion’s conception of magical thinking as escapism is not far from this. The imagination that allows us mental respite from trauma is a bedfellow to the imagination that envisions our world unmoored to current conditions. There are so many issues that demand wild dreams to be addressed in more than shallow and inadequate ways.
It’s much simpler and less disruptive, of course, to deny dreams as unrealistic and to assert their danger. Imagination’s potential for disrupting systems already in place is clear. Those that cite this danger as a reason to foreclose imagination may even admit current systems imperfections yet, necessity. This may be the perspective of prison censorship of magical literature—commonly banned under the justification that these ideas are a “threat to security.”
Incarcerated readers say the censorship they experience oppresses their thoughts and intellectual freedoms. Leo Cardez says, “They [books] are how we escape, we cope, we learn, we grow…for many (too many) it is our sole companion.” Jason Centrone, incarcerated in Oregon, expresses exasperation with the mentality that sees magical thinking as threatening: “Or, lo! The material is riddled with survival skills, martial art maneuvers, knot-tying, tips on how to disappear—like this.”
Banning fantasy is particularly pernicious. Regardless of how you view incarceration—as an existence in a degraded and injurious confinement, or the justifiable requisitioning of people who have done harm away from others—we should all agree that we want incarcerated people to be able to imagine otherwise. Whether it’s imagining themselves or systems differently, creativity of thought is a tool to build a better life for everyone.
Such foreclosure of the imagination, a preemptive denial of the possibility of alternatives are a death-knell for betterment both individually and socially.
We need more magic, not less.