Prisons Are Responsible for the “Nation’s Largest Book Ban,” Says PEN America

Prison cells in Alcatraz’s now-defunct maximum-security penitentiary (via miss_millions/Flickrstream)

The United States has the largest documented number of incarcerated people in the world. Over 2.2 million people are currently locked up in prison facilities across the country, a population that disproportionately consists of people of color. Though African Americans and Hispanic people make up about 32% of the US population, they comprise 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people. Now, a PEN America policy paper on restrictions regulating books in prisons reveals that incarcerated people are being denied access to literature on race and civil rights. The current sweeping regulations, PEN America says, represent the largest book ban policy in the US.

The report, entitled “Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban” points to arbitrariness in implementing book bans in prisons and a lack of transparency and oversight over the process. The report found that titles like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) and Cornel West’s Race Matters (1993) are subject to bans in some prisons on grounds of “threatening to disrupt a prison’s social order, hindering rehabilitation, or supporting criminal behavior.”

“Such grounds are so arbitrary and so broad that they often operate as sweeping bans,” the PEN America says, adding that prisons are increasingly limiting incarcerated people’s abilities to order books directly, or receive used books from families, arguing that such book deliveries pose a security threat.

Books in prisons are censored on both statewide and federal levels, the report says. But they are also banned on the individual level, as officers are empowered to arbitrarily decide what book to allow into their facility, and on a prison-wide level, depending on one prison’s specific policy. As a result, certain books may be allowed in some prisons and banned in others.

The state of Texas has officially banned more the 10,000 books including Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (1988), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), and books on the Civil Rights Movement. But most states keep their lists of banned books under wraps, the report says, and the ones that do reveal their lists neglect to share changes and additions with the public.

Book-banning decisions are rarely reviewed, the report adds. “When they are reviewed, [they are] commonly rubber-stamped by other corrections officials,” it says. A 1974 US Supreme Court ruling established that prisons must offer an administrative appeals process where the reviewer was not involved in the original censorship decision. But the ruling did not require that this reviewer be independent of the prison system, nor did it determine any criteria for the reviewer’s qualifications. “The result is a review system that fails to operate as a serious check on prison censorship,” the report says.

This lack of oversight has led to some absurd results. Officials at an Ohio prison prevented a book donation group from sending a biology textbook to an incarcerated person, labeling the anatomical drawings as “nudity.” In Florida, prisons have banned Klingon dictionaries and a coloring book about chickens. In New York, one prison attempted to ban a book of maps of the moon, arguing the book could “present risks of escape.”

“The goal of this briefer is not to demonize prison officials or to belittle legitimate security concerns,” PEN America clarifies. “It does aim to demonstrate, however, that the book restrictions in American prisons are often arbitrary, overbroad, opaque, subject to little meaningful review, and overly dismissive of incarcerated people’s right to access literature behind bars.”

PEN America recommends that prisons follow the guideline of the American Library Association’s Prisoners’ Right to Read — Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. It also urges state and federal officials to enact “meaningful review policies”, demonstrate more transparency about their book bans, and develop “clear and non-discriminatory policies governing such restrictions”.

“The right to read is one that implicates our fundamental human and constitutional rights,” PEN America says. “Meaningful access to literature is essential for incarcerated people, where the written word is a rare source of information, education, and recreation, and a window to the wider world.”

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