Prison Book Bans Are ‘Arbitrary and Irrational,’ Report Finds

PEN America’s report coincided with the annual Banned Books Week

banned books
A Fremont Correctional Facility inmate reading a book on the top bunk of his cell. Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Last Saturday marked the conclusion of the annual Banned Books Week, which seeks to highlight the dangers of censorship and celebrate the freedom to read. To coincide with the campaign, the advocacy organization PEN America released a new report on book restrictions within the U.S. prison system, according to the group, “the largest book ban policy in the United States.”

Rules governing what prisoners can and cannot read vary from state to state, even from prison to prison. “Prison systems function as a hierarchy, meaning officials at multiple levels can act as censors and block incarcerated people’s access to books,” the report states. Book bans often do not follow a formal process, and can be based on the discretion of individual officers. This can make it difficult to track just how many authors and titles have been banned in U.S. prisons. But around 20,000 books are off limits to inmates in Florida, as the report points out. More than 10,000 titles have been banned in Texas. The list of books and magazines prohibited to prisoners in Florida numbers 7,000.

Generally speaking, according to the report, books are often banned based on their content. Nudity or obscenity, depictions of violence or criminal activity, language that encourages escape, or language that encourages “racial animus” or hatred can be grounds for restriction. Officials say that removing certain titles from the prison roster can help prevent inmates from getting information that will lead to violence or escapes, as Mihir Zaveri of the New York Times reports. But the PEN reports cites multiple examples showing that the rules are “arbitrary and irrational.” In Tennessee, officials refused to allow a prisoner to receive a book about the Holocaust because it contained nudity. An Ohio prison blocked a biology textbook for the same reason. In Colorado, officials at a federal prison stopped an inmate from receiving Barack Obama’s memoirs on the grounds that the books were “potentially detrimental to national security”; that decision was later reversed.

Books on civil rights are frequent targets of censorship, according to the report. In one high-profile example, the New Jersey Department of Corrections banned The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which explores the devastating impact of mass incarceration on black communities, in some of its facilities. After a protest by the American Civil Liberties Union, the department rolled back the ban.

Other restrictions have little to do with the content of a literary work. In an effort to stop the flow of contraband into prisons, some state and federal systems have implemented policies that allow prisoners to acquire books only from “secure vendors” with limited reading options. Prisoners have to pay for the books, rather than receive them from family members or activist groups, which can be prohibitive. “Such content-neutral bans are actually far more damaging to incarcerated people’s right to read than content-specific bans,” the report states. They are also controversial. The New York State Corrections Department, for instance, suspended its secure vendor program just 10 days after it launched, following an outcry.

The PEN report notes that it is difficult for prisoners to challenge book bans on First Amendment grounds due to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which, according to the New Yorker’s Rachel Poser, “was designed to reduce the number of lawsuits brought by inmates against prisons.” Under this law, incarcerated individuals must submit their complaint to the prison’s administration, and then appeal that decision within the state’s correction system, before they can bring a case to an actual court.

“Functioning properly, a grievance system can provide corrections officials with early warnings of staff misconduct, deficient medical care, and unsanitary or dangerous conditions,” Poser writes. “But in practice, critics say, these systems create a tangle of administrative procedures that discourage or disqualify inmates from filing lawsuits.”

The PEN report makes a number of recommendations to approve inmates’ access to literature, among them repealing or reforming the PLRA. The report also suggests that state and federal officials conduct periodic reviews of their book restriction policies, and make lists of banned books easily accessible to the public.

“The goal of this briefer is not to demonize prison officials or to belittle legitimate security concerns,” the report notes. “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. The result is a book banning system that fails incarcerated people, and fails to live up to our democratic and Constitutional ideals. As both a practical and a moral matter, it is time to re-evaluate the state of the right to read within American prisons.”

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