New PEN America Report: U.S. Prisons Ban Staggering Numbers of Books
From PEN America:
Prisons censor staggering numbers of books and other reading materials, not just for their content but for a stunning range of capricious reasons including the size of a book or the color of mailed wrapping paper, according to a new report by PEN America. Reading Between the Bars: An In-Depth Look at Prison Censorship presents a comprehensive look at the tactics used by prisons to deny reading materials to incarcerated people.
PEN America strongly recommends an end to all prison book censorship and urges prison systems to expand access to literature for all incarcerated people. In response to its findings, PEN America, with partnering organizations, is launching Prison Banned Books Week starting today through next Tuesday.
This report expands PEN America’s earlier work documenting prison censorship. In Literature Locked Up, published in 2019, PEN America first defined “content-neutral censorship” and documented its use across the United States. These are restrictions based not on the content of certain books but instead on all the other ways prison officials censor reading materials.
The new report is based on freedom of information (FOIA) requests to prison systems in every state in the U.S., to the District of Columbia and to the federal Bureau of Prisons, as well as interviews with prison mailroom staff and narratives from incarcerated people. The research exposes censorship carried out in prisons where books are literally thrown in the trash by staff. Despite the patchiness of official state record keeping, the report documented extensive prison censorship of content, including medical and art books, dictionaries and other reference materials. The most common reason cited for censoring content was “sexually explicit,” which was used to deny popular magazines, drawing books, medical books and dictionaries.
Florida leads the 28 states that collect information on censored titles with 22,825 banned, followed by Texas with 10,265 titles and Kansas with 7,699 titles up to 2021, the latest data available.
Of these 28 states that record titles banned in prisons, a cookbook, Prison Ramen, which is a collection of recipes for ramen noodles (some contributed by anonymous prisoners and others from recognized figures such as Shia LaBeouf), is most frequently banned (19 states). Prison Ramen was written by actor Clifton Collins Jr. and Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez, a former California inmate. The award-winning actor Samuel L. Jackson wrote the foreword to the 2015 paperback edition. 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, the New York Times bestselling author of self-help books, follows as the second most banned title (18 states). The Art of War, a 5th century BC military text, is also frequently banned by prisons.
PEN America also found prisons are increasingly limiting the booksellers allowed to send books into prisons to a handful of “approved vendors.” This practice is a kind of content-neutral restriction, and has increased exponentially since 2015, when 30 percent of prisons wouldn’t allow books from nonprofits, independent bookstores, family and friends. In 2023, PEN America found 84 percent of prisons now require that books are purchased from vendors the state or specific prisons opaquely select without publishing criteria for their choices or providing steps for booksellers to become approved. The scale of this censorship is widely unknown due to a lack of record keeping. Idaho uniquely keeps track of approved vendor censorship and, in the first year the policy was implemented, the state denied one book for every four incarcerated people.
Other major findings in the research revealed:
- Approved vendor banning is on the rise and is outstripping content bans in limiting literature to incarcerated people.
- The most common reason for content-based censorship is “sexually explicit” which in practice censors art, medical and drawing books among others.
- A lack of documentation means that the true extent of carceral censorship is likely exponentially greater than the numbers featured in the report, which were found to be extremely high.
The report includes several policy recommendations focused on reducing barriers to access to literature in prison including endorsing the federal Prison Libraries Act (H.R. 2825) which urges state lawmakers to draft legislation in line with the recently updated American Library Association standards for prison libraries. Among other aspects, the Prison Libraries Act allows prisons to partner with local public libraries, and requires that prisons accept donated books–which many facilities currently deny.
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About Gary Price
Gary Price (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. He earned his MLIS degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Price has won several awards including the SLA Innovations in Technology Award and Alumnus of the Year from the Wayne St. University Library and Information Science Program. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com.