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New Reports Lists Thousands of Books Banned in U.S. Prison

'Censorship should not be a knee jerk tactic by authorities to address other prison concerns,' said a researcher from PEN America

A free speech organization dedicated to monitoring lists of banned books in the United States published a new report on the tens of thousands of books prohibited in prisons across the country.

PEN America published Reading Between the Bars: An In-Depth Look at Prison Censorship to document the wide range of reading materials that are kept from incarcerated people. The organization is critical of perceived inconsistencies and potential overexpansion of government censorship.

PEN America strongly recommends an end to all prison book censorship and urges prison systems to expand access to literature for all incarcerated people,” the group said in a press release on Oct. 25.

Researchers’ findings are based on materials obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests submitted to prison systems in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C. Most commonly, books were banned for distribution in prison because of sexual content. PEN America also noted an increasing number of prisons only permit “content-neutral” books that are supplied by approved vendors.  

“Content-based bans refer to the rejection of books because of the specific content within them—limiting incarcerated people’s access to information and specific ideas by designating them as threats,” wrote the researchers. “Arguments for content bans that may appear reasonable to an outside viewer, such as the contention that certain book content could be used to facilitate an escape, are routinely and speciously used to censor a truly astounding array of information and literature.”

According to the results of the FIOA requests, prison systems in 28 states have lists of specifically banned titles. PEN American received 15 lists that included written explanations for why a specific title is not permitted in prison and 13 lists that did not include a written justification. The group was not able to access the banned content lists for New York and Colorado.

Florida leads the nation in the number of banned books with 22,825 specifically identified titles. Texas has the second-longest list with 10,265 titles according to the report. Kansas (7,699 titles as of 2021), Virginia (7,204 titles as of 2022), and New York (5,356 as of 2019) also lead the nation in prison book bans.

In addition to barring sexually graphic content, several prisons ban specific titles that are deemed a potential security threat. The cookbook Prison Ramen is banned in 19 states for referencing prison hooch, razor blades, and the removal of food from the cafeteria.

Books that are considered to be “racially inflammatory” are also restricted in many prison systems.

North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Oregon all routinely reevaluate their banned content and title lists to avoid arbitrary censorship.

“North Carolina adopted this policy in 2011 in response to a lawsuit against its DOC for censorship practices that included blanket denials of any literature deemed ‘gay,’” reported PEN America. “This process, however, doesn’t solve the root issue that it claims to solve. While the purging of lists eliminates the previous judgments, it does not prevent prison staff from baselessly re-banning a book.”

“The extent of prison book banning is alarming and an attack on the written word itself,” said Moira Marquis, one of the report’s lead authors. 

“Censorship should not be a knee jerk tactic by authorities to address other prison concerns, such as spurious claims that books are a conduit for drugs,” continued Marquis. “Yet we are witnessing vast amounts of time, effort and money expended in order to stop people from reading. This censorship must end.”

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