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Prisons Are Banning Books That Teach Prisoners How to Code

The Oregon Department of Corrections has banned prisoners from reading a number of books related to technology and programming, citing concerns about security.

According to public records obtained by the Salem Reporter, the Oregon Department of Corrections has banned dozens of books related to programming and technology as they come through the mail room, ensuring that they don’t get to the hands of prisoners.

At least in official department code, there is no blanket ban on technology-related books. Instead, each book is individually evaluated to assess potential threats. Many programming-related books are cited as “material that threatens,” often including the subject matter (“computer programming”) as justification.

Rejected books that are geared towards hacking, such as Justin Seitz’s Black Hat Python, may represent a clearer threat to the Department of Corrections, which fears that prisoners could use those tools to compromise their systems. But how did books such as Windows 10 for Dummies, Microsoft Excel 2016 for Dummies, and Google Adsense for Dummies (marked as posing “clear and present danger”), fail the prison’s security test?

“I’m not entirely surprised that my book is on that list,” Seitz told Motherboard. “I think what’s more surprising is some of the other, much more baseline ones. Learning a programming language in and of itself is not dangerous.”

Proficiency in Excel and Windows 10 isn’t viewed as dangerous in the outside world. Instead, it’s a prerequisite for most entry-level jobs. Andy Rathbone, author of the Windows for Dummies series, said that he doubts anything in his books could be used to compromise the prison’s systems. Some of his blacklisted books date back to the 90s, he said, their contents so outdated that it would be hard to imagine a prisoner using them maliciously.