US prisons books censorship: thousands banned and restricted

US prisons books censorship: thousands banned and restricted

Arbitrary bans and the fight for literary freedom behind bars

by Suswati Basu
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A new report from PEN America has disclosed the extensive censorship of books and other reading materials in US prisons, often based on arbitrary reasons such as the size of a book or the hue of the wrapping paper in which it’s mailed.

Entitled “Reading Between the Bars: An In-Depth Look at Prison Censorship,” the study dives deep into the tactics used by prisons to restrict inmates’ access to literature. It emerges from data obtained through Freedom of Information requests sent to prison systems across the US, including the District of Columbia and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“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. Yet we are witnessing vast amounts of time, effort and money expended in order to stop people from reading. This censorship must end.”

Moira Marquis, PEn America’s Freewrite Project Senior Manager

Moira Marquis, senior manager of PEN America’s Freewrite Project and the report’s chief author, expressed her concern, stating, “The extent of prison book banning is alarming and an attack on the written word itself.” She continued, “This censorship must end.”

The arbitrary nature of book bans: from medical journals to cookbooks

Evidently, the rationale for these bans is not always about the content of the books. “Content-neutral censorship” is a term first introduced by PEN America in their 2019 report, “Literature Locked Up“. It relates to the varied methods through which officials censor reading materials, irrespective of their content.

While official record-keeping is inconsistent, the study reveals extensive censorship, from medical journals to art books and even dictionaries. One of the most recurrent reasons provided for censorship is “sexually explicit,” a label often misapplied to popular magazines, medical books, and drawing materials.

Read: School book bans: alarming rise as Florida takes lead

The scale of this ban is vast. Florida tops the list with 22,825 banned titles, trailed by Texas at 10,265 and Kansas at 7,699, as of 2021. Notably, “Prison Ramen“, a cookbook co-authored by actor Clifton Collins Jr. and Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez, a former California inmate, stands out as the most frequently prohibited title across 19 states.

The rise of approved-vendor only policies: suppressing access to literature

This rampant censorship isn’t the sole concern. PEN America also discovered that prisons are gradually restricting the suppliers permitted to dispatch books to inmates. In 2015, 30% of prisons refused books from nonprofits and independent bookstores. This figure has alarmingly jumped to 84% in 2023, with prisons now demanding that books be acquired only from state or prison-approved vendors. The basis for these approvals remains concealed, leading to more opaque and questionable decision-making.

Robert Greene, bestselling author of self-help books and one whose works are banned in 19 state prison systems, commented on the issue: “It’s a form of control […] That’s how totalitarian systems operate.”

 “It’s a form of control. It’s the ultimate form of power of manipulation. So the hypocrisy of saying, ‘this is a book that’s dangerous for you…’ whereas they’re [prisons] the ones that are completely controlling the dynamic and giving you access to only certain amounts of information is very frightening. That’s how totalitarian systems operate.”

Robert Greene, “The 48 Laws of Power” Author

PEN America’s recommendations and the hope for change

The report not only unveils the problem but offers possible solutions to dismantle this suppression of information. PEN America has a long-standing opposition to censorship of books in the US, whether within prisons or elsewhere. In line with this, the organisation advocates for the federal Prison Libraries Act (H.R. 2825) which promotes partnerships between prisons and local public libraries and supports the acceptance of donated books.

“[The] Attorney General shall establish a program to make grants to eligible applicants for the purpose of providing library services to incarcerated individuals in order to advance reintegration efforts, reduce recidivism, and increase educational opportunities.”

Prison Libraries Act of 2023

Only time will tell if these recommendations will usher in a new era of reading freedom for incarcerated individuals, but the importance of such change cannot be overstated. Reading, as a form of education and mental escape, should be a right, not a privilege, even behind bars.

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