The Cruel Practice of Banning Books Behind Bars

Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Apr 04, 2022

In Florida, the list of 20,000-plus banned books includes Nutrition For Dummies and PCs For Dummies. In New Hampshire, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy makes the list. Texas, which bans nearly 9,000 books, once counted a collection of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets among them. In New York, one prison attempted to ban a book of maps of the moon because it could “present risks of escape.”

The examples here serve to demonstrate the expansive, arbitrary, and absurd ways in which prisons make materials inaccessible to people behind bars. Across the United States, agencies have issued an ever-evolving list of restrictions on what people in prison can read. Works by Black authors, civil rights literature, critiques of mass incarceration, books in languages other than English—all are frequently censored. (Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and books by David Duke have been allowed in some of those same prisons.)

Restrictions aren’t limited to book titles. Maps, survival guides, and even specific magazine issues (of Reader’s Digest and Rolling Stone, among others) are prohibited. Restrictions vary from state to state, facility to facility. Ultimately, such policies underscore how corrections agencies and staff limit incarcerated people’s access to the written word—and, by extension, their access to information. And they succeed in doing so without much public awareness or oversight.

“Anything to educate or empower [is] screened by the mailroom,” and most often banned, Cynthia Simons, the coordinator of the Texas Women’s Justice Coalition, told the magazine Scalawag.

Prisons treat books as “restricted commodities” that pose threats within prison walls. But for people who are incarcerated, books allow them to establish a connection to the outside world, connections that increase their chances of success after release. Books create opportunities, enabling people to leave prison with knowledge they didn’t have before. Seemingly, that’s not what corrections agencies want.

“Approved vendors” only

Facilities don’t just try to control what people in prison read. In recent years, some states have outlined who can send books to people in prison—and who can’t. Several states prevent family and friends from mailing books directly to incarcerated people, requiring that they come from bookstores or publishers. Last April, the Iowa Department of Corrections extended this ban to third parties, barring bookstores and nonprofits from sending books to people behind bars. Now, people incarcerated in Iowa must buy the books themselves from a list of approved vendors, and used books are prohibited altogether.

At least four federal prisons have enacted similar policies, according to Julia Mascioli, deputy director at Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. The nonprofit primarily works with people from Washington, DC, who are held in Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities across the country, sending them books, writing resources, and other materials.

But the books Free Minds sent to its members started coming back from Federal Correctional Institution (FCI), Beckley in West Virginia in April 2020, and from FCI Schuylkill in Pennsylvania that August. FCI Manchester in Kentucky began rejecting books around February 2021, and United States Penitentiary, McCreary, also in Kentucky, followed suit last month. Mascioli said all have adopted bans like Iowa’s, requiring that incarcerated people purchase books themselves from a few approved publishers who offer a limited catalog at prices higher than those of other booksellers.

The bans, including Iowa’s, are based on an unsubstantiated narrative that books may contain contraband (which is also the explanation given for recent bans on mail). Mascioli said some BOP facilities briefly implemented similar restrictions in 2017, only to walk them back when the Washington Post pressed for further information. She fears that this renewed trickle signals that more facilities will adopt similar policies as time goes on.

“How much of the actual contraband coming in do books account for?” Mascioli said. “When we call and ask about these policies, that's what [corrections officers] say. But I haven't seen anything from the Bureau of Prisons backing this up.”

Andy Chan, president of Seattle-based nonprofit Books to Prisoners’ board, said he frequently sees books rejected because they contain “racial” content or content that is detrimental to the “good order” of the prison. He added that Books to Prisoners encounters new restrictions “all the time,” and recent moves to restrict books by prison authorities have been more “subtle.”

“Things pop up, and we haven’t heard anything about them,” Chan said. Books to Prisoners is run in large part by volunteers. “There’s no way [we] can proactively keep on top of this stuff.”

Fighting the bans on books

Books to Prisoners has first-hand experience fighting book-banning policies. When the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) pushed out a ban on used books, in March 2019, it did so quietly. Books to Prisoners staff only realized when they started receiving rejection notices from prisons. Some digging uncovered a memo, posted on the DOC’s website, that cited a rise in contraband as the reason for the rule change.

“They don’t advertise these kinds of things,” Chan said.

Books to Prisoners mobilized swiftly—and fought the ban successfully. It marshalled support from across the country, tapping into the informal network of organizations that donate books to incarcerated people. It took to social media and brought the policy change to the attention of local press, which led The Seattle Times to request further information from the DOC.

While advocates and the public flooded the DOC with emails and phone calls, The Seattle Times’s information request revealed that none of the 17 instances the agency originally cited to back the ban had anything to do with contraband entering prisons inside books. And about a month after the DOC first issued the ban, it was reversed.

No transparency

It’s seldom the case that states or facilities make lists of their banned books publicly available. State departments of corrections create policies that prison officials have wide-ranging discretion to interpret and enforce. Chan said it often seems like the sole decision-making power rests with the mailroom staffer who receives the package. He added that, in the network of nonprofits that send books to people in prison, it’s known that prisons may accept books that were previously rejected, and vice versa. Some states have even said they make decisions on a case-by-case basis and don’t track rejections or subsequent appeals.

PEN America’s 2019 survey of prison censorship similarly found that there’s little oversight or public visibility on how prison authorities censor content. Nonprofit organizations that send books to people in prison struggle to keep up with opaque restrictions. The Tennessee Prison Books Project wrote last fall that many of the books it has sent out have been returned, supposedly for “safety” reasons. In January 2022, a rejection notice Books to Prisoners received from a Tennessee prison for a Scholastic biography of Malcolm X simply read “Malcolm X not allowed.” Chan said the organization receives a handful of them every week. It’s impossible to say how many books never make it to their intended recipients because such notices aren’t standard.

This lack of transparency means that U.S. prisons’ book-banning practices could be far more extensive than we know. But there have been wins, as advocates—including volunteer-led organizations and people who have been incarcerated—have helped successfully fight bans on books by intensifying public pressure, pursuing lawsuits, and gaining the support of governors and other state officials.

“There’s no cookie-cutter approach to responding to these things,” Chan said.

The ongoing, insidious assault on access to books must end. Prison officials must scrap irrational, inconsistent restrictions and develop clear, explicit policies, grounded in evidence, in their place. At the heart of this is the fight for access to information and ideas, and freedom of thought. Those aren’t just rights that exist beyond prison walls—they must also prevail within them.