May 17, 2022

New Policy Paper From PEN America: “Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban”

From the PEN America Foundation:

 In a new policy paper, the literary and human rights organization PEN America showcases the impact of the nation’s most pernicious book ban: the system of restrictions that exist across U.S. prisons, jails, and other incarceration settings. Some 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated across the country.  Against that backdrop, Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban details the types of book bans prisoners face, the arbitrariness with which they are implemented, and the lack of transparency and oversight that leads to bans on titles from Nobel Prize winners and leading historical figures. The publication of this paper comes amid PEN America’s Literature Locked Up initiative for Banned Books Week 2019.


Among the paper’s highlights:

  • PEN America reports that literature on race and civil rights is disproportionately subject to bans, often on the grounds that such texts threaten to disrupt a prison’s social order. Often entire categories of books are banned, and these often reflect discriminatory approaches to regulation.
  • PEN America also found that review mechanisms fail to offer meaningful oversight over these bans. While the U.S. Supreme Court has established that prisons must provide some form of administrative appeal process, there is no requirement that such reviewers are independent of the prison system, nor are there any criteria regarding reviewers’ qualifications.
  • PEN America also explores how in addition to content-specific bans, prison systems have enacted wholesale restrictions on book deliveries, such as requiring purchases come only through “secure vendors,” as well as shutdowns on book donations and deliveries writ large. PEN America finds that these “content-neutral bans” have the effect of banning potentially thousands of titles by significantly limiting the range of books available to people who are incarcerated.

While no comprehensive list exists of all books banned in jails and prisons within the U.S., tens of thousands of titles are banned outright based on outmoded or misguided attempts to regulate behavior. The carceral system in Texas, for example, has reportedly banned more than 10,000 titles, including Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. But perhaps more insidious, the paper finds that bans are often ad hoc, purely at the discretion of mailroom employees or corrections officers who happen to be on duty, constituting a wider and more arbitrary landscape of restrictions that is often invisible to the public.

PEN America recommends that prison systems follow the American Library Association’s Prisoners’ Right to Read – Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights principles as a guide. PEN America also urges state and federal officials to implement periodic review of book restriction policies; develop clear and non-discriminatory policies governing such restrictions; encourage prison authorities to consider the educational, literary, and rehabilitative merit of texts; make any banned book list available and accessible; and most crucially, enact meaningful review policies.

Direct to Full Text: Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.