Some prisons are limiting incarcerated people’s access to educational and reading materials. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision expanded to every facility in the state a “care package” program that restricts the ability of family and friends to purchase items for incarcerated people in state prisons to a few approved sellers.Tariro Mzezewa, “To Make Prisons ‘Safer,’ Some Are Banning . . . Books,” New York Times, January 12, 2018.
Although the policy stems from a concern about contraband, it has a very real effect on what information people in prison can access: the available print offerings are “one dictionary, one thesaurus, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, 14 religious books, 24 coloring books and five romance novels.”Tariro Mzezewa, “To Make Prisons ‘Safer,’ Some Are Banning . . . Books,” New York Times, January 12, 2018.
Other correctional systems are restricting access to books as well, for content-based reasons. Prison officials say that banning books containing maps, information about manufacturing explosives, and controversial subjects like incest or race makes prisons safer, but Amy Peterson, who works with Books Through Bars—an organization that sends books to incarcerated people in 40 states—told the New York Times that what is banned is “really arbitrary.”Tariro Mzezewa, “To Make Prisons ‘Safer,’ Some Are Banning . . . Books,” New York Times, January 12, 2018.
Florida’s banned book list includes Ron Stallworth’s memoir Black Klansman, John Grisham’s Innocent Man, and The Simpsons Rainy Day Fun Book.Mitch Perry, “The Strange World of Banned Books in Florida Prisons,” Florida Phoenix, December 4, 2018. New Jersey tried to ban Michelle Alexander’s bestseller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in two correctional facilities—and only relented after pressure from the ACLU in January.Jonah Engel Bromwich and Benjamin Mueller, “Ban on Book About Mass Incarceration Lifted in New Jersey Prisons After A.C.L.U. Protest,” New York Times, January 8, 2018. Florida, too, had banned The New Jim Crow before the ACLU intervened this year and is embroiled in a lawsuit over its ongoing ban of Prison Legal News, a monthly publication reporting on topics affecting people in the criminal justice system.Perry, “The Strange World Of Banned Books,” 2018; and Prison Legal News v. Florida Department of Corrections, No. 4:12-cv-00239-MW-CAS (N.D. Fla.). On May 17, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the court below had correctly dismissed plaintiff’s First Amendment claims but also upheld the permanent injunction entered against defendant requiring notice every time a publication was rejected; the parties have appealed and, as of the end of 2018, the Supreme Court had not decided whether to hear the case.
Not all states restricted access to books in 2018: in June, Maryland reversed its restrictions—which had limited purchases to two approved vendors with a limited number of titles—and people in prison are again free to receive books in care packages and from online retailers.Ann Marimow, “In a Reversal, Md. Prison Officials Lift Limits on Access to Books for Inmates,” Washington Post, June 11, 2018. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections had prohibited book donations as well as many mail order publications until public outcry caused a reversal of the policy in November.Corcione, “How the State Keep[s] Books from Incarcerated People,” 2018.