Skip navigation
The Habeas Citebook: Prosecutorial Misconduct - Header

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

Download original document:
Brief thumbnail
This text is machine-read, and may contain errors. Check the original document to verify accuracy.
September 2019

Literature Locked Up:
How Prison Book Restriction Policies
Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

W

ith over two million Americans incarcerated, the book-restriction regulations within the
United States carceral system
represent the largest book ban policy in the United States.
The reality of book banning in American prisons is systematic and comprehensive. State and
federal prison authorities censor content with little oversight or public scrutiny. Often the ultimate
decision-maker about a person’s right to read is
housed in the prison mailroom.
Books in American prisons can be banned on
vague grounds, with authorities striking titles and
authors believed to be detrimental to “rehabilitation” or somehow supportive of criminal behavior.
Such grounds are so arbitrary and so broad that
they often operate as sweeping bans. Literature
on civil rights and landmark works rightly critical
of the American incarceration system—titles like
The New Jim Crow and Race Matters—are often
subject to bans.
And increasingly, prisons are limiting incarcerated people’s abilities to order books directly, arguing that such book deliveries represent a security threat. As a result, thousands of incarcerated
people across the country are seeing their access
to books dramatically restricted, regardless of the
books’ content.

This phenomenon presents a particular challenge when it comes to reporting and analysis.
There is very little public visibility into how these
policies are considered, adopted, implemented
and reviewed. As such, advocates for access to literature in prisons must often review a disparate
set of state, county, and even individual facility-level practices, with varying degrees of public
accessibility or transparency, to gain even a partial
view of how book banning procedures play out on
a national level.
To highlight this issue of prison book censorship, PEN America has produced this issue
briefer outlining the troubled state of the right
to read in U.S. prisons. The right to read is one
that implicates our fundamental human and constitutional right. Research clearly indicates that
access to literature reduces recidivism and better
prepares individuals to thrive when they return to
free society. 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.
The goal of this briefer is not to demonize
prison officials or to belittle legitimate security
concerns. 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

PEN America

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.

Definitions

This briefer uses the term “prison officials”
or “prison authorities” to refer broadly to state,
county, and federal officials involved in promulgating book restriction policies. Such authorities
are often officials within the state departments
of corrections, and our use of this term includes
ground-level corrections officers.
We use the term “prison” to refer broadly to
various sites of detention and incarceration. This
includes prisons, jails, or other sites related to our
criminal justice system which are used to house
individuals either awaiting disposition of criminal charges or those who in the post-conviction
stage. While this document briefly touches upon
jails specifically, a full review of the differences
in access to literature between jails and prisons is
beyond the scope of this paper, and PEN America
expects that jails in particular may be subject to
additional pressures against the right to read that
are not enumerated here.
We use the terms “incarcerated person” and
“incarcerated people,” to refer to those affected
by these censorship limitations.1 Note that people
who have not been convicted of a crime but nonetheless held in jail or other pre-trial detention sites
are also likely to be affected by these policies.

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

2

PEN America

SECTION I: CONTENT BASED BANS

Section I
Content Based Bans

W

hile the specific rules vary from
state to state, prison officials
generally have broad latitude to
ban books based on their content, including the prerogative to develop their
own rationales for why a book should be blocked.
They usually do so on one of several grounds:2
•	 Sexual content. nudity, or obscenity
•	 Depictions of violence or language perceived
to encourage it
•	 Depictions of criminal activity or language
perceived to encourage it
•	 Depictions of escape or language perceived
to encourage it
•	 Encouragement of “group disruption” or anti-authority attitudes or actions
•	 Racial animus or language perceived to encourage hatred
For purposes of this brief, we refer to these types of
bans as content-based. While all these categories
may encompass areas of legitimate concern, they
can be—and in practice often are—construed so
broadly that they essentially serve as convenient
justifications for arbitrary bans. Further, prison
officials are allowed to block books even outside
these categories so long as the text is “detrimental
to the security, good order, rehabilitation, or discipline of the institution.” 3 This type of provision
grants officials substantial leeway.
One of the nation’s foremost jurists, Supreme
Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, explained how

these officials are likely to interpret such broad directives in a 1977 dissenting opinion:
“A warden seldom will find himself subject
to public criticism or dismissal because he
needlessly repressed free speech; indeed,
neither the public nor the warden will have
any way of knowing when repression was
unnecessary. But a warden's job can be
jeopardized and public criticism is sure to
come should disorder occur. Consequently,
prison officials inevitably will err on the side
of too little freedom.” 4
This is not merely a hypothetical concern. Groups
that exist to provide books to incarcerated people
have noted that “With enough time and ingenuity, prison officials and their lawyers can usually
imagine some way in which some aspect of a particular written work might conceivably have some
marginal effect on prison order or security.” 5
The results have been wide-ranging, from perverse to absurd to constitutionally troubling, with
bans being applied in ways that defy logic. As just
a few specific examples:
•	 Texas has banned books by Pulitzer Prize
winners Alice Walker, Robert Penn Warren, and John Updike; National Book Award
winners Joyce Carol Oates and Annie Proulx; Nobel Prize winners Pablo Neruda and
Andre Gide; and even George Orwell and
former Senator Bob Dole.6
•	 Officials at one prison in Ohio prevented a

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

3

PEN America

book donation group from sending a biology
textbook to an incarcerated person, labeling
the anatomical drawings as “nudity.” 7
•	 Arizona has banned “Dragonology: The
Complete Book of Dragons,” “E=MC2:
Simple Physics,” and “Sketching Basics.” 8
•	 In Tennessee, officials refused to allow the
literary non-profit Books Through Bars to
send a book about the Holocaust to an incarcerated person, citing as justification the fact
the book included a photo of the nude bodies
of victims.9
•	 Although they later reversed their decision,
officials at a federal prison in Colorado prevented a prisoner from receiving President
Barack Obama’s Memoirs—Dreams from
my Father and The Audacity of Hope—saying the books were “potentially detrimental
to national security.” 10 Federal officials have
previously attempted to ban Jewish texts including Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad
Things Happen to Good People.11
•	 In New York, one prison attempted to ban
a book of maps of the Moon, claiming the
book could “present risks of escape.” 12
These examples—and there are many, many more
from which to choose—help illustrate the arbitrary and irrational nature of our nation’s approach to book access in our prisons.

Who Censors?

Prison systems function as a hierarchy, meaning officials at multiple levels can act as censors
and block incarcerated people’s access to books.
It also means that with so many overlapping and
conflicting bans, it’s difficult to get a full accounting of just how many titles and authors are banned
in U.S. prisons.
The first type of content-based censorship often occurs in the prison mailroom or in the prison library–on the individual level. In the prison
mailroom, individual officers are empowered to
decide whether a book will be allowed to reach
its intended recipient, or not. 13 Often, these individuals in a position to implement content-specific book bans do so without formal processes and

SECTION I: CONTENT BASED BANS

on the basis of their personal beliefs and biases.14
Their decisions may be accompanied by official
explanations or meaningful oversight. Often they
are not.
The second type of censorship occurs at the
prison-wide level. Individual prisons may create
their own institution-specific rules about which
books are allowed. As a result, certain books may
be allowed in one prison and banned in another.
The third type of censorship occurs at the statewide level (or in the case of the federal Bureau of
Prisons, the federal level). State departments of
correction may have a list of banned books, which
often include thousands of banned titles. Such
lists often codify and formalize the practices of
prison mail rooms towards certain books, turning
institution-wide norms into an automatic statewide ban. For example:
•	 The state of Texas has an official banned list
of over 10,000 banned books, and public reporting has indicated that the list may now
include over 15,000 titles.15 The statewide list
reportedly includes such books as Salman
Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Alice Walker’s The
Color Purple, and books on the Civil Rights
Movement.16
•	 Florida has a list of over 20,000 banned
books. The nonprofit organization Books
to Prisoners has noted that this list includes
“Klingon dictionaries [and] a coloring book
about chickens.” 17
•	 Kansas has had a list of over 7,000 banned
books, including “self-help books,” as well as
“bestselling literary works, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.” 18 After
the Human Rights Defense Center obtained
and published the list in May 2019, the acting secretary at the Kansas Department of
Corrections announced that he would abolish the list and replace it with a new policy
for reviewing obscene materials. 19
Only a minority of states have made their prison banned book lists available.20 And even those
states normally only disclose their lists as the result
of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests
from journalists or advocacy groups – requests for

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

4

PEN America

which they are legally obligated to respond. The
public is not updated when lists are updated or
altered, meaning that the publicly-available versions of these lists are mere snapshots in a timeline of censorship.
Even FOIA requests may fail to illuminate the
full scope of a prison’s book banning practices.
Prison officials may fail to fill out official notifications that the book has been rejected, or claim
that such official notifications are “inmate property” and thus cannot legally be disclosed to others. 21
The fact that there is so little visibility into the
book banning practices of our prisons means that
there are likely even more outrageous restrictions
than those catalogued here, but without any formal disclosure or notification, the public is mostly unaware. To this day, even the most dedicated
advocates for book access in American prisons
have only limited visibility into which books are
blocked and which are allowed.

Literature on Civil Rights
Often Arbitrarily Banned

Perhaps most controversially, prisons systems
frequently place bans on literature that discusses civil rights, historical abuses within America’s
prisons, or criticisms of the prison system itself,
often on the grounds that such titles advocate disruption of the prison’s social order.
As former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan
Slater—whose own book, a cautionary tale about
two young men who fell into a life of crime, is
banned in Texas prisons—wrote in 2016, “Books
that are critical of the prison system . . . tend to
fare poorly, even if written by Nobel Prize nominees, such as Sister Helen Prejean or Harvard
Law School professors like Charles Ogletree.” 22
The categories of banned content seem to say
much more about the implicit—or explicit—biases that go into these decisions than they say
about prison safety. Texas’ banned list, for example, includes books that were banned for their
“racial content” 23 and even “deviant criminal
sexual behavior.” In 2011, the non-profit Texas
Civil Rights Project documented how the Texas

SECTION I: CONTENT BASED BANS

Department of Criminal justice even used censorship abbreviations of “M/H” and “W/H” to
mark when books depicted homosexual activity,
for use in evaluating whether the book would be
allowed.24 In 2019, New Hampshire reportedly
banned Coming Out of the Concrete Closets, a
survey on the experiences of LGBTQ+ incarcerated people, because the text depicts “unlawful
sexual practice.” 25
Even apparently neutral rationales are often
employed in ways that raise the clear specter of racial discrimination. Author Dan Slater writes that
Texas’ ban against books that encourage anti-authority behavior such as prison strikes, for example, “permits the prison to ban pretty much any
book about civil rights that uses the word ‘nigger.’
Tragically, it has been used repeatedly for just that
purpose.” 26
One prominent—and recent—example of such
a ban involves the book The New Jim Crow by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander. The New Jim
Crow examines the phenomenon of mass incarceration and argues that our incarceration practices represent a continuation of our country’s racist
policies of the past. After its release, the book was
banned in prisons in North Carolina, Florida,
Michigan, and New Jersey.27
Jarrett Adams, a criminal and civil rights attorney who himself was formerly incarcerated after being wrongfully convicted at 17, expressed to
PEN America the importance of access to these
types of books specifically: “Those books tell people who are incarcerated not to give up. I would
not be where I am today if it weren't for having
been able to read certain books that addressed
systemic racism and mass incarceration.” 28 And
yet, books about racism, injustice, and civil rights
have frequently been subject to bans across the
country. As a set of recent examples:
In May 2019, public reporting revealed that the
Arizona Department of Corrections had banned
Chokehold: Policing Black Men, a book on racial
injustice in the criminal justice system, written by
Georgetown Law School professor Paul Butler. 29
Also in May 2019, the non-profit Human
Rights Defense Center obtained a list of titles

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

5

PEN America

banned from New Hampshire state prisons, as
well as the rationale for their bans.30 As outlined
above, the ban included a book on LGBTQ+ incarcerated people, as well as titles such as:
•	 Prison Nation, a book examining the prison-industrial complex, banned for “security
threat group/white supremacy.”
•	 The Factory: A Journey Through the Prison
Industrial Complex, about a formerly incarcerated person’s time behind bars and the
school-to-prison pipeline, banned for “encourag[ing] activities that may lead to group
disruption.” 31
•	 Blood in the Water, a Pulitzer Prize-winning
book about the Attica uprising, banned for
“security concerns-encourag[ing] group disruption.
In June 2019, the ACLU and the Thurgood
Marshall Center at Howard University asked
Michigan’s Department of Corrections to remove the book “Black Skin, White Masks,” from
the critical race theorist Frantz Fanon, from its
banned list. The book has been barred from state
libraries since 2000, with officials alleging it “advocates racial supremacy.” 32
In January 2019, Illinois corrections officials
pulled some 200 books from bookshelves at Danville Correctional Center, many that addressed
issues of racism or diversity. The books—which
had been available through a University of Illinois
program—included titles such as Race Matters by
Cornell West, Colored People: A Memoir by Henry
Louis Gates, Jr., and My Daddy Is in Jail, a children’s book.33 One prison official reportedly said
that the “racial stuff” within the books was the
reason for their removal.34 Public outcry forced
the prison to return the books to its library and
led the state corrections department to make—in
its own words—“long overdue” revisions to its review procedures.35
Such arbitrary policies may contribute to a
sense of alienation among incarcerated people,
who receive the message that critical information
is being deliberately kept from them. The quote
from one formerly incarcerated person in Michigan, who ordered The New Jim Crow only to find

SECTION I: CONTENT BASED BANS

that the prison’s mailroom staff had prevented
him from receiving the book due to its “racial
content,” is illustrative: “I feel like the reason why
they tried to reject it is because they didn’t want
me to have that kind of knowledge.” 36

The Review Process and
Rubber-Stamp Censorship

Book-banning decisions are rarely reviewed
and, when they are reviewed, commonly rubber-stamped by other corrections officials.
The U.S. Supreme Court has established that
prisons must offer an administrative appeals process where the reviewer was not involved in the
original censorship decision.37 But there is no requirement that this reviewer be independent of
the prison system, nor are there any other meaningful criteria regarding the reviewer’s qualifications. The result is a review system that fails to
operate as a serious check on prison censorship.
Some states appoint review officers, normally department of corrections officials, to review
their colleagues’ decisions.38 Others have created
review committees, which are commonly staffed
primarily or exclusively by career corrections officers.39
Paul Wright, the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center—an organization
which has geared much of its mission around
fighting prison book bans—shared with PEN
America his concerns about prison review committees. “These groups are not anything like what
a normal person would understand to be a review
body for censorship—that this is any kind of body
composed of independent people who are versed
in literature and constitutional law.” 40 The result
is that these committees are far more likely to uphold the censor’s decision than to reverse it.
In Florida, for example, the Human Rights
Defense Center has noted that the state’s Literature Review Committee upholds approximately
75 percent of censorship decisions—this, in a state
with over 20,000 banned books.41 The committee,
Wright says, often ignores or downplays a book’s
overall significance. “They often don’t review the

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

6

PEN America

whole book. The mailroom censor will just send
them a photo-copy of the ‘offending page’. So
they are not looking at these books in any overall context.”42 Another set of statistics comes from
Texas, with its own 10,000+ banned books list:
in 2018, only 187 out of the 1,378 books submitted for review were approved, for an appeal rate of
13.57%.43
It is important to acknowledge that a literature
review committee’s appeal rate only tells one part
of the story: a state with more rational policies towards censorship, for example, may have a lower
appeal rate during review. As well, the rate of successful internal appeals reveals nothing about the
road-blocks that incarcerated people may have to
surmount in order to file a successful appeal in
the first place. But, Michelle Dillon, the Public
Records Manager for the Human Rights Defense
Center, notes that one clear red flag is the fact that
some states have “a low rate of [book] approval by
a publication review committee combined with an
extraordinarily high number of books in total that
appear on the list—that says that something has
gone wrong.”44
Florida’s Literature Review Committee also
serves to exemplify how little we know about
these review bodies. The Tallahassee Democrat,
reporting on Florida’s book banning practices this
August, concluded “It was unclear who serves and
how many members are on the committee. The
DOC did not answer inquiries about the committee from the Tallahassee Democrat.”45
Even when prison review procedures include
reviewers with a background in library studies,
for instance, that is no guarantee that the review
mechanism will operate as a substantial check
on prison censorship. Dillon, who also served as
the former program coordinator for the Books to
Prisoners book-donation organization in Seattle,
shares the example of Washington state’s committee as a better-than average-but still flawed
review model.
“It has two department of corrections people
[on the Committee], but also one prison librarian.
The prison library system in Washington operates
independently of the DOC, as it is headed by the

SECTION I: CONTENT BASED BANS

secretary of state. The downside is,” she continues,
“since it is always two-to-one, the librarian will
always get out-voted. It’s better than average, the
best [review] system I know of . . . but it’s still not
a good system.”46
The decisions of these review bodies are also
opaque. To PEN America’s knowledge, only two
states—Washington and Pennsylvania—have review committees that offer the results of their reviews online for public awareness and oversight.47
Prison literature review systems may vary
widely in their composition and attitude towards
book accessibility, but overall, the internal review
system for these book bans fails to operate as any
significant check on overbroad censorship.

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

7

PEN America

SECTION II: CONTENT—BASED BANS

Section II
Content—Neutral Bans

I

n recent years, with the stated aim of
blocking contraband from entering prisons, many states and the federal prison system have attempted to dramatically restrict
book deliveries to incarcerated people or shut
down such deliveries entirely. Such policies are
often implemented as part of a “Secure Vendor”
program, by which the prison allows incarcerated people to purchase packages only from certain pre-approved vendors.
Because these restrictions are based not on
the content of certain books but instead aimed
at restricting books-as-packages, PEN America
considers them to be content-neutral bans on
books. Such content-neutral bans are actually
far more damaging to incarcerated people’s right
to read than content-specific bans. In particular:
•	 Incarcerated people are forced to pay for every book that they receive directly, instead
of receiving free books from book-access
organizations, friends, or family. The costs
for these books can be difficult or even prohibitive for the average incarcerated person
to pay.
•	 Restrictions that prevent friends or family
from sending books to incarcerated people
cut off an important emotional connection
between those incarcerated and those who
care about them.
•	 Organizations that supply books to incarcerated people—such as Books Through
Bars or Books to Prisoners—play a vital

role in the overall access to literature for incarcerated people around the country. Cutting off incarcerated people’s access to such
organizations has an immediate, tangible,
and damaging effect on their right to read.
•	 Forcing incarcerated people to buy books
from pre-approved vendors gives these vendors a monopoly over an entire population;
such vendors can get away with charging
above-market prices because their supposed
customers have no other choice.48
Such content-neutral restriction policies appear
to be getting worse in recent years according to
David Fathi, head of the National Prison Project
at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):
"Publisher-only or vendor-only rules have
existed for at least 20 years in some systems.
But what seems to be occurring—and this
is my intuitive sense as someone who pays
attention to this—is that we’re seeing more
restrictive versions of those rules today. So,
it might have been [in the past] that you had
to order a book directly from a publisher or
bookstore. Now we are seeing rules that say
‘here’s the one approved vendor, and if that
vendor doesn’t have the book you want, too
bad.’ What seems to be new--and what is now
proliferating--are these more restrictive rules
that not only say it has to be directly from
a vendor, but that it has to be the specific
vendor[s] the officials have chosen." 49
Over the past several years, there has been a new

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

8

PEN America

wave of attempted content-neutral book restriction policies across the country. Examples of such
content-neutral bans, either attempted or fully
implemented, within the past two years alone include:
New York: In December 2017, the New York
State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision rolled out Directive 4911A, which
declared that incarcerated people could receive
books only from five (later six) pre-approved vendors.50
The nonprofit Books Through Bars examined
the catalogue offerings of the first five pre-approved vendors under this initiative. They found
that the entire catalog included:“five romance
novels, fourteen bibles and other religious texts,
twenty-four drawing or coloring books, twenty-one puzzle books, eleven guitar, chess, and
how-to books, one dictionary, and one thesaurus.”51
Directive 4911A was a pilot program, affecting approximately 4,000 peoples in three upstate
New York prisons. If the directive had been expanded to include the entire state, these book restrictions would have affected more than 46,000
people.52After public outcry, New York Governor
Andrew Cuomo suspended the directive in January 2018.53
The Federal Prison System: In 2018, two
separate federal prisons—with over 1,000 people
each—unveiled a policy preventing incarcerated
people from receiving any books from outside
sources, including publishers, bookstores, online
retailers, book clubs, or friends and family. Under
the policy, people incarcerated at these facilities
would also be required to pay a 30 percent markup when ordering a book, in addition to shipping
costs. 54 Public outcry led federal officials to rescind the policy in May of that year.55 Prior to the
policy’s suspension, a third federal facility in Florida, holding over 7,000 people, had reportedly intended to implement the same policy.56
Ohio: Throughout much of 2018 and 2019,
at least eight state prisons in Ohio refused to accept any used or damaged books into the facility.
Ohio has one of the largest state prison systems

SECTION II: CONTENT—BASED BANS

in the nation, incarcerating approximately 50,000
people.57 These restrictions occurred despite the
presence of a state-wide policy that allowed for
book-donation groups to send such materials.
After public reporting in 2019 elevated the issue,
Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections stated that it would set up a new policy
that would allow book donation groups—though
not family or friends—to again be allowed to send
used books.58
Pennsylvania: In September 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced
that people incarcerated in state prisons would
no longer be allowed to directly receive physical
books from any outside source.59 Instead, the state
system was switching to e-books, meaning that
incarcerated people must instead purchase a digital tablet from prison telecommunications company GTL.60
One tablet costs $149, not including tax, although incarcerated people in Pennsylvania may
make as little as 19 cents an hour for their work.61
GTL offers only approximately 8,500 titles. This
includes public-domain works such as Moby Dick
and The Federalist Papers, which are digitally
available for free through Project Gutenburg, but
for which people using GTL’s tablets must pay.
One reviewer of GTL’s catalogue noted that "The
Autobiography of Malcolm X didn't make the cut,
though The Autobiography of Tony Bennett did.
Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl isn't available, but interested parties can download Diary of
a South Beach Party Girl.”62 After sustained public
concern, officials revised the policy and allowed
book orders to resume, through a centralized security processing center.63
Maryland: In May 2018, the Washington Post
reported that Maryland prison officials had imposed a new policy prohibiting people in prison
from directly receiving books from any source
other than two prison-approved vendors.64 Such
policies would have affected approximately 18,000
people.65
The ACLU, reviewing the offerings of the
vendors, found that books absent from their catalogues included To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

9

PEN America

Lee, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya
Angelou, the Harry Potter series, and the complete works of Langston Hughes and Martin
Luther King, Jr.66 After public outcry, the policy
was rescinded in June 2018, with the State Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary
declaring that “The department strongly believes
it can continue prioritizing the safety and security of its correctional facilities while fostering the
rehabilitative component of corrections through
literature.” 67
Washington State: In March 2019, Washington state’s department of corrections quietly implemented a new policy banning used publications
within state prisons, with only three narrowly
enumerated exceptions. After public outcry, the
policy was rescinded the next month.68 The policy
would have affected almost 17,000 people.69
Georgia: In May, the sheriff of Chatham
County imposed a new policy for its detention
center that not only banned people from receiving
books directly, but also removed the books that
people already possessed.70 The only remaining
books available are through the center’s book cart,
which appears to contain only a few dozen titles
at any given time.71 After a letter from the ACLU,
Chatham County authorities reportedly rolled
back the policy.72
It is important—and encouraging—to note
that public outcry has been successful in pushing
prison officials to revise or revoke these programs.
David Fathi of the ACLU notes that public response is “enormously useful. Prisons and jails get
away with a lot of what they do just because people aren’t watching. These are closed institutions,
and they house politically powerless and unpopular people. So when you can get public attention,
the prison system is often exposed as a paper tiger.
Not every time, but often enough.” 73
Still, programs like these exist in other states,74
and the trend whereby prison officials attempt to
roll out such content-neutral book bans continues.
Additionally, while public outcry may be effective, it may take months or even years for the general public to even learn about a new prison policy
that restricts access to books. Formal procedures,

SECTION II: CONTENT—BASED BANS

when implemented, tend to go into effect with a
great deal of secrecy. Packages may be returned
without explanation as prisons change their policies without providing notice.75 And particularly
in states without meaningful disclosure or review
requirements, many bans may go entirely unnoticed.
In short, we cannot rely on public outcry alone
to roll back the restrictions that prison officials are
increasingly implementing. We need action from
our elected and appointed officials, and a shift towards book access policies that explicitly incorporate incarcerated people’s access to literature as a
primary goal.

The Rationale for
Content-Neutral Bans

Prison authorities commonly invoke security
concerns as the rationale for these book restrictions, arguing that books can be used to smuggle contraband into the prison. Supposedly, these
concerns have grown because certain types of
newly-popular drugs—most notably suboxone
and synthetic marijuana—can reportedly be
smuggled within or through the pages of a book.
But authorities have offered very little evidence
that this problem is widespread enough to warrant such a restrictive response. In Washington
state, for example, prison officials attempted to
justify their new restrictions—which would have
affected approximately 17,000 people—by citing
17 incidents of contraband involving books within the Washington prison system.76 In his memo
revoking the directive, however, Assistant Secretary of Prisons Rob Herzog admitted, “Concerns
about contraband introduction led me to issue
the original directive. After conducting further
review, the data does not support continuing the
restriction on donated used books.” 77
Through an inquiry from the Seattle Times, it
was revealed that prison officials had primarily
gathered this data by conducting an internal database search with keywords such as “book” and
“contraband.” 78 Among these 17 incidents were:
•	 An incident report where an inmate was

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

10

PEN America

“booked” for possessing “contraband”;
•	 An incident report where an Officer “Booker” discovered “contraband”;
•	 An incident report where an inmate reported
finding a shank lying on a bookshelf.
Of the 17 incidents, the Seattle Times concluded, “a dozen of those instances actually had nothing to do with books.” In fact, only three of the 17
reported instances actually involved the discovery
of contraband in books, and zero of these instances indicated that the books were used to actually
smuggle contraband inside the prison.80
In New York, after the state rolled out its pilot
initiative to restrict books, a Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokesperson acknowledged that the Department did not
keep statistics on contraband found in books, and
pointed more generally to a recent observed increase in package-room contraband to justify the
directive.81 In Maryland, officials justified their
intended vendor-only restrictions by claiming
that investigators had uncovered 660 strips of suboxone in 44 incidents since 2015.82 The formerly-incarcerated writer Reginald Dwayne Betts, a
Maryland native, responded to these justifications
by saying “They’re using a nuclear weapon instead
of a scalpel to deal with their security issue.” 83
In Pennsylvania, state officials had justified the
switch to costly and catalogue-specific e-readers by arguing that the policies were necessary
to prevent contraband from entering its facilities. But when the DOC published examples of
contraband drugs they had intercepted in letters
and books,84 noted Jodi Lincoln of the book-donation organization Book ‘Em, “none of [them]
came from free book organizations.” While it is
important to protect staff and inmates from exposure to contraband, Lincoln argued, “the DOC
is purposefully exaggerating the risk to push their
draconian policies.” 85
Prison advocates have consistently argued that
a focus on package-screening processes—such
as hiring, training, and oversight for mail-room
screeners—would be far more effective in blocking contraband, without the need to infringe on
the right to read for an entire population of incar-

SECTION II: CONTENT—BASED BANS

cerated people.86 The security rationale for these
sweeping bans further strains credulity when it
comes to blocking incarcerated people from ordering books from commercial booksellers like
Amazon. While there have been a few reported
cases of people impersonating commercial vendors or of slipping contraband into book packages
from such vendors, they appear to be very few and
far between.87 David Fathi of the ACLU says,
“The allegation that massive amounts of drugs are
being smuggled in through books sent by Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and that’s why [prisons]
have to limit you to a specific vendor” represents
“the idiocy du jour” of prison policies towards
book access.88
Without public visibility, prison officials have
broad discretion to invoke “security” and “contraband” in ways that may have little bearing on reality. Prison officials certainly have an obligation
to ensure the safety of everyone in their facilities.
However, the general public must evaluate these
security claims with a critical eye, when these
claims are used to degrade the right of access to
literature for thousands of Americans.

Prison Libraries: Not an
Answer on Their Own
Corrections officials may respond to criticisms
over their content-neutral book bans by noting
that these bans only affect packages sent directly
to incarcerated people and not the content of prison libraries.89
However, the nation’s prison libraries are under-funded, under-resourced, under-staffed, and
under-stocked. On their own, our prison libraries
are insufficient to address the incarcerated population’s need for access to literature.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Interim Director
of the American Library Association’s Office for
Intellectual Freedom, described to PEN America that “This is an observation I’ve made drawing
from 18 years of this work: Prison libraries lack
resources and institutional support, and are subject to arbitrary censorship at the drop of a hat.” 90
James LaRue, the former Director of the Office

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

11

PEN America

for Intellectual Freedom, offered similar comments, noting: “There is no consistent funding
mechanism to ensure anything like parity across
various prison libraries. It comes down to how
amenable the administration is and how persuasive the librarian is. It is a battle every minute . . .
libraries are not a priority for prisons.” 91
The American Library Association has a recommended set of standards for adult correctional institutions.92 They suggest a minimum of 15
books per person, or at least 5,000 titles for smaller institutions.93 In 2000, U.S. prison libraries
held only 7 books per prisoner, according to one
estimate.94 Since then, with the dramatic increase
in mass incarceration over the past two decades,
it is widely understood that prison library book
acquisitions have fallen even further behind this
standard, although comprehensive data is unavailable.95 As one reporter notes, many of our
nation’s carceral sites “have libraries that are understocked and outdated. Others might not have
a library at all, or at least not one that’s accessible
to all inmates.” 96
This is particularly the case for jails, which are
more likely to hold incarcerated people with short
sentences or pre-trial detainees. Jeanie Austin,
a librarian who has both worked in and studied
library services for people who are incarcerated,
explained to PEN America that “there is a difference between library services in prisons and
public library services in jails . . . library services
in jails reflect the design of the jails as short-term
facilities. Often, there is no designated space for
recreational library materials in local level jails.” 97
Public librarians inside New York’s infamous
Rikers Island jail complex, for example, circulate
books from a single cart that librarians work to
restock frequently. As one journalist noted, this
means that “With roughly 8,000 inmates spread
out among the complex’s 10 jails, getting your
hands on even one book can feel like finding a
treasure.” 98
While this is grossly insufficient to the scale
of incarcerated peoples’ needs, Austin tells PEN
America that even a single book cart can represent
a “win” for librarians working in jails, writing: “A

SECTION II: CONTENT—BASED BANS

book cart may be measly (believe me, I push one
to around 500 people in the [San Francisco] jails
on a good week), but even a book cart service was
not designed by jail officials and is often the result
of individual libraries (in most instances public libraries not employed by the facility) negotiating
with jail officials to make at least some room for
recreational / non-legal materials.” 99
Prison librarians—like any other librarians in
under-resourced locations—may find themselves
“hustling” for book donations to sufficiently stock
their shelves.100 Meanwhile, funds for prison libraries are often the first to go when state officials
cut budgets. In Illinois, for example, an Illinois
Newsroom investigation found that, in 2017,
the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC)
spent a total of $276 on new books. For a system
with 28 facilities, that’s less than ten dollars per
prison.101
Illinois Newsroom noted that funding for prison library books had been dropping for years: “The
state prison system spent roughly $750,000 each
year on books in the early 2000s. In 2005, spending on books dropped to $264,000. In the last five
years, IDOC spent a total of roughly $140,000
on reading materials. That figure represents a 96
percent decrease from what was spent on books
between 2000 and 2005.” 102
As another example, the state of Maryland has
approximately 129,000 books in its libraries, or
approximately 7 books per incarcerated person.103
The state spends approximately $16,000 per year
for new books – for an incarcerated population of
more than 17,000 people.104 Maryland’s former
head prison librarian has stated that “budget, staff
shortages and the lack of interest and pushback
from the prison authorities made it difficult to
make the library standards more than just a document.” 105
In Georgia, an investigation this year by the
Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed the book
catalogues at 12 state prisons. Among their findings: four prisons had less than four books per
person, with the prison library at one prison offering fewer than 2,000 books for approximately
1,000 prisoners.106 “Years of zero funding for pris-

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

12

PEN America

SECTION II: CONTENT—BASED BANS

on libraries in Georgia and a reliance on donations to stock the shelves contributed to the poor
state of book availability in the state,” they noted. Their investigation also found that “Although
nearly two-thirds of Georgia inmates are black,
more than half of libraries have no books on Martin Luther King Jr., and two-thirds of them don’t
have anything on Malcolm X.” 107
The Journal-Constitution quoted a Department
of Corrections Board Member who said that
books in Georgia prisons were viewed as a luxury,
and that limiting incarcerated people’s access to
books was “a common tactic” among some correctional officials.108 Finally, the Journal-Constitution
notes that prison libraries only began receiving a
dedicated budget two years ago to replace lost or
deteriorated books.109
Beyond budget shortfalls and catalogue insufficiencies, incarcerated people often have very
limited access to these libraries.110 “One of our
witnesses for a case against Kansas DOC [Department of Corrections],” Paul Wright recalls,
“was an older gentleman. He testified that he
only had access to the prison library two hours a
week. And because the cell block he was in was
furthest from the library, and because he couldn’t
walk very fast, literally by the time he reached the
prison library, all the materials had been claimed
by someone else. And by the time those people
were done, there was no time left.” 111
Prison officials may roll out book restriction
policies without any corresponding effort to ensure library resources meet incarcerated people’s
needs. In Washington, for example, when officials banned used publications, The Seattle Times
noted that the state’s prison library system “did
not have extra funding or a plan to fill the void”
left by the policy. 112
Prison libraries play an essential role in ensuring incarcerated people’s access to literature. But
on their own, they are not sufficient to allow incarcerated people the right to read. There is no
adequate substitute to ensuring that incarcerated
people have the option to receive books directly
from a diversity of sources.

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

13

PEN America

SECTION III: OBSTACLES TO LEGAL CHALLENGES

Section III
Obstacles to Legal
Challenges

W

hile incarcerated people have
their constitutional rights restricted, they still have First
Amendment rights that, in theory, protect their access to literature. 113 In practice,
however, federal and state-level legislation has
made it nearly impossible for incarcerated people
to fight book bans on constitutional grounds.
Federal legislation places a series of roadblocks
before incarcerated people who would file First
Amendment claims on their own, while publishers have little incentive to fight for incarcerated
people’s access to their titles. If a claim reaches a
court, judges are allowed to apply a legal standard
of review that gives the benefit of the doubt to
the prison, not the prisoner. In short, we cannot
expect the courts to act as a significant check on
overbroad and arbitrary prison censorship.

Incarcerated People Struggle
to Bring a Claim to Court
Before incarcerated people can consider bringing a claim in federal court, they must first exhaust all available administrative remedies, a
complicated undertaking known as the “exhaustion requirement.” 114 This means they need to follow all of a prison’s internal policies for bringing a
complaint, and take their complaints through all
available levels of appeal.
This exhaustion requirement is the result of the

Prison Litigation Reform Act, or PLRA,115 a law
passed by Congress in 1996 with the explicit goal
of decreasing the availability of judicial relief for
incarcerated people.116 The draconian exhaustion
requirement has become “the highest hurdle” to
individual plaintiffs seeking justice from behind
bars,117 as the statute has been stunningly effective
in driving down prison litigation in federal court.
118
Since the PLRA’s passage, many states have
enacted comparable statutes that similarly limit
access to state courts.119
There is effectively no limit on the internal procedures that a prison can devise. Prisons
may—and often do—implement unreasonably
short filing deadlines, extend timelines as a stalling tactic, create multiple layers of review, or craft
procedural dead ends.120 These systems are difficult to navigate, and courts will seize on any error—like sending the grievance to the wrong contact person, or writing a letter to the right person
but failing to complete the proper form121—as a
reason to dismiss the claim, regardless of the underlying merits.
These procedural hurdles can include forcing
prisoners to pay for the costs of their internal appeal. In Kansas, for example, prisoners must pay
to ship a copy of the contested book to Kansas
Department of Corrections headquarters if they
want to appeal a ban.122 Michelle Dillon notes
that the approval rate for such challenged books
in Kansas has been “abysmally low, because no

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

14

PEN America

prisoner could afford to appeal a book.” 123
David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project for the ACLU, notes that the PLRA
has barred many otherwise-meritorious prisoner
claims, explaining that under the statute, “cases
get thrown out of court for nothing to do with the
merits. You can have the most meritorious case
in the world, and if you didn’t exhaust [internal
administrative remedies], that’s it. You’re thrown
out of court.” 124
The PLRA has had a major effect on incarcerated peoples’ ability to advocate for their own First
Amendment rights. Professor Brittany Friedman
of Rutgers University explains that, in the past
decades, “In many of these lawsuits you do see the
subject of literature—what can we actually read?
That comes up time and time again in prisoner
lawsuits. And so this Act in 1996 significantly
reduced the number of suits to challenge issues
such as the right to read certain books, the right
to read in general in prison . . . this law is really
the hammer slamming down on litigation trying
to disrupt this abusive power, in terms of what
and how someone can engage with literature.” 125
Further, incarcerated people may choose not to
go through this process out of fear of retaliation.
One study of people incarcerated in Ohio found
that 70 percent of inmates who filed grievances
experienced retaliation, and 87 percent of the entire population agreed with the statement, “I believe staff will retaliate or get back at me if I use
the grievance process.” 126 The prison staff similarly recognized that retaliation was “commonplace.” 127 For someone incarcerated, challenging
literary censorship may come at a grave cost.
Thus it is no surprise that much of the litigation on book banning in U.S. prisons occurs not
on behalf of incarcerated people, but on behalf of
the book publishers and distributors. In challenging these book banning decisions, David Fathi of
the ACLU explains, “We will represent the author, or the publisher. In those cases, there’s no
exhaustion requirement.” 128
But this litigation is rare. Publishers have very
little financial incentive to wage a protracted and
expensive legal battle for the book access rights of

SECTION III: OBSTACLES TO LEGAL CHALLENGES

an incarcerated person who ordered their book.
Furthermore, publishers and authors often are
seldom aware that their book has been censored.
Only some states mandate that the sender be informed that their book was never delivered to its
recipient.129 Others have no such disclosure requirement.
The Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit based in Florida, has filed dozens of legal claims
against prison officials in more than 30 states for
book bans. But it is able to do so, in large part,
because the organization is the publisher of a series of magazines and books focusing specifically
on incarcerated people’s rights and the prison system. These publications are often blocked by prison officials; as publisher, the Center has standing
to bring First Amendment claims against these
prisons.
The center’s director Paul Wright notes that, as
a publisher that is explicitly geared as an organization to take on the issue of book restrictions in
American prisons, his organization is an exception:
"Publishers, for the most part, have been totally
absent from this discussion. As one publisher of
a major magazine once put it to me: Publishers
don’t view prisoners as part of their reading
market, and they don’t give a crap if prisoners
can read. Especially commercial publishers,
for whom the advertising demographic is
everything. Prisoners just don’t even factor into
that. If anything, it drives their advertising
statistics down. Publishing is a business in this
country, and that’s part of the problem.
We routinely fight for the right [as a
publisher] to be notified, to get our due process
notice when our materials are censored. But
we’ve had judges—I have literally sat in the
courtroom where the judge is like ‘Okay, so
you get a notice that your magazine has been
censored. Except for the Human Rights
Defense Center, what publisher in America
cares?’ And, of course, we argue that it doesn’t
matter if no other publisher in America cares.
We care, and we’re the ones sitting in the
courtroom." 130

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

15

PEN America

Courts Defer to Prison
Administrators
A court will evaluate the merits of a prison
censorship case with a standard of review that is
deferential to prison administrators. For the small
number of cases that reach this stage, the challengers face an uphill climb under this standard.
The seminal 1987 case Turner v. Safley 131 established a “reasonableness” test for evaluating the
decisions of prison administrators, meaning that
courts will uphold restrictions on an incarcerated
person’s constitutional rights so long as the restrictions are reasonably related to the interests of
incarceration. This means that the bar is incredibly low for prison administrators, who normally
justify their decisions—including their decisions
about banning literature—broadly through invocations of “security”. 132
For example, a prison in Pennsylvania implemented a number of severe policies, one of which
restricted access to newspapers, magazines, and
photographs for people in long-term solitary confinement. When challenged in the 2006 case
Beard v. Banks, 133 the administrators justified
this policy by arguing that the restrictions would
“motivate better behavior,” provide an incentive to
move out of solitary, and minimize property access to decrease the risk of contraband and weapon use.134 The U.S. Supreme Court found these
arguments convincing and upheld all challenged
policies, building on decades of jurisprudence deferring to prison administrations. One dissenter
was Justice Stevens, who wrote, “What is perhaps
most troubling about the prison regulation at issue
in this case is that the rule comes perilously close
to a state-sponsored effort at mind control.” 135

Why We Must Fight
for a Right to Read
in American Prisons

Access to literature in prison offers incarcerated people:
•	 A link to the outside world: incarcerated
people can read material that allows them to

SECTION III: OBSTACLES TO LEGAL CHALLENGES

follow—and participate in—broader societal
conversations.
•	 The opportunity to further their education
behind bars: to develop sharpened literacy,
learn specific skills, deepen their knowledge
of a specific issue, and better prepare for
life upon re-integration. Reading is often a
gateway to attending classes offered by the
prison, beginning to write one’s own professional and/or personal work, and/or mentoring others through official programs and/or
informal connections.
•	 Beyond education, reading opens worlds of
possibilities, offering soft skill-building such
as empathy, self reflection, the ability to reimagine and reshape one’s identity, and socio-emotional personal development.
•	 A connection to their families and communities: for parents to read the same books that
their children are reading, for example.136
•	 Entertainment and diversion: books offer an
invaluable way to simply pass the time, and
to cope with the stress and pressures of incarceration. In the words of one incarcerated
person: “[Books] are our safety net . . . Realities can almost be too much. Books offer a
way out, an escape.” 137
Jonathan Rapping, founder of Gideon’s Promise,
an advocacy organization for public defenders
shared with PEN America that access to literature implicates “The right to engage intellectually, to debate, to learn,” expanding that “all this is
essential to human dignity. We have an obligation
to demand a criminal justice system that does not
refuse to allow people the ability to develop their
mind.” 138
Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the American
Library Association, offered similar sentiments:
“Prison officials seem to define reading as a radical act, and yes, one can see it that way. It’s also
a deeply redeeming act. How do we expect prisoners to reform, to change and rebuild their lives,
without giving them access to literature? the freedom to read should be as applicable inside of prison as outside of prison.” 139
For more than four decades, PEN America has

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

16

PEN America

SECTION III: OBSTACLES TO LEGAL CHALLENGES

run a national Prison Writing Program that supports the work of incarcerated writers. Over the
years, we have corresponded with hundreds if not
thousands of incarcerated people, some of whom
have shared their stories on what specific works of
literature has meant to them. Below are just a few
examples:

I realized that I not only wanted to be an
accomplished writer, but that life is what we
put into it — not what we get out of it."
-Brandon B., John B. Connally Unit
(Texas)

"All Alone In The World: Children of the
Incarcerated by Nell Bernstein is brilliant.
It is an awakening. In her book, Bernstein
breaks down the many components of
incarceration that affect children: (caretaker)
arrest, sentencing, visiting, grandparents,
grandparents, foster care, reentry, and legacy
(the big picture)... This book is the roadmap
to a more compassionate future.”
-Elizabeth H., Shakopee Correctional
Facility (Minnesota)
"Tom Henry and his Code Electrical
classes, Electrical Examination Preparation
Manuals single handedly provide inspiration
to life-long-learning, a means to achieve
a worthwhile goal, hours of purposeful
journeying into a side of life that would
otherwise be so hard to understand, most
people would never even attempt it."
-Woody S., Evans Correctional Institution (South Carolina)
“At sixteen, when I was tried, prosecuted,
and incarcerated in the adult criminal justice
system, I thought my life was over. The court
believed I may be a threat to myself, and as
a result placed me on suicide watch. At that
point, I didn’t understand life or what it had
to offer. Then, quite unexpectedly, an officer
appeared and left me with a tattered copy
of October Sky, a memoir by Homer H.
Hickman Jr. I read the book in one sitting,
astonished by the inspiring tale of normal
kids struggling to come together to overcome
seemingly insurmountable obstacles, all the
while catalyzing a dying city to unite for one
last common cause. By the time I finished,

"The book that began my positive self
evolution in my incarceration: Philip Roth's
The Human Stain. Though the story was
about a mixed-race academic who hid his
African-American heritage from his peers,
it had a message that stuck with me: “Every
major change in life means saying ‘I don’t
know you’ to somebody.” Like a sock in the
gut, that line made me realize how crucial
it was to the survival of my integrity that I
leave behind everything and everyone that
didn’t support my positive transformation. I
have never regretted that choice."
-Benjamin F., Valley State Prison
(California)
"A volunteer from the outside led a group in
here based on the book: Houses of Healing:
A Prisoner’s Guide to Inner Power and
Freedom by Robin Casarjian. This selfhelp book operates on the idea that you
have to unpack the baggage before you can
put it away. You can’t move past a traumatic
childhood without re-living it on some
level. There can be no recovery without the
difficult work of re-parenting the wounded
child within. There can be no rehabilitation
without owning your behavior and the
anger behind it. This book is a must-read
for any incarcerated person who had a rough
childhood and, from my experience, that is
most of us."
-Richard G., SCI Graterford State Correctional Institution (Pennsylvania)
Sending books to prisoners also allows for a
shared human connection. Dan Schafer, a member of New York’s Books Through Bars collective,
said to PEN America: “It’s also about getting a
package. Somebody is caring about you in particular. People say ‘when I see my name called at mail

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

17

PEN America

SECTION III: OBSTACLES TO LEGAL CHALLENGES

call, I really look forward to it.’ We have people
whom we send packages to, who have no family.
It’s a gesture of humanity. This is particularly the
case when we send to someone in solitary: just the
message that someone knows that they’re there,
and is willing to reach out to them.” 140
There is also a significant body of evidence
that clearly indicates the connection between
literature, education, and rehabilitation. A meta-analysis by the RAND Corporation in 2018,
for example, found that incarcerated people who
participated in education programs were 28% less
likely to return to incarceration than those who
did not.141 The RAND authors concluded that
“Every dollar invested in correctional education
saves nearly five in reincarceration costs over three
years.” 142
In Massachusetts, people who participated in
a “Changing Lives Through Literature” reading
program had remarkably lower recidivism rates
than the rest of the incarcerated population.143 The
program’s creator, English professor Bob Waxler,
concluded that the program could achieve these
results because “reading teaches empathy, complexity, how to face shame, and how to build personal dignity.” 144
Ultimately, however, the argument for the
right to read in American prisons is not one of rehabilitation, or economics, or social cohesion. It is
a moral argument. As a country, we deserve better
than prison policies that view access to books only
through the lens of potential risk, that formalize
people’s biases and prejudices, and that treat incarcerated people as less deserving of literature
than others.
Perhaps the greatest articulation of this moral
need comes from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who wrote:
"When the prison gates slam behind an
inmate, he does not lose his human quality;
his mind does not become closed to ideas; his
intellect does not cease to feed on a free and
open interchange of opinions; his yearning
for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest
for self-realization concluded. If anything,
the needs for identity and self-respect are

more compelling in the dehumanizing prison
environment. Whether an O. Henry writing
his short stories in a jail cell or a frightened
young inmate writing his family, a prisoner
needs a medium for self-expression. It is the
role of the First Amendment and this Court
to protect those precious personal rights by
which we satisfy such basic yearnings of the
human spirit." 145

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

18

PEN America

SECTION IV: RECOMMENDATIONS

Section IV
Recommendations

T

he American Library Association has
promulgated, and PEN America supports, the “Prisoners’ Right to Read:
An Interpretation of the Library Bill
146
of Rights.” These principles include the following:
•	 “Correctional librarians should be allowed
to acquire materials that meet written selection criteria and provide for the multi-faceted needs of their populations without prior
correctional agency review. They should be
allowed to select from a wide range of sources in order to ensure a broad and diverse collection. Correctional librarians should not be
limited to acquiring or purchasing from a list
of approved materials or vendors.
•	 Correctional librarians should make all reasonable efforts to provide sufficient materials to meet the information and recreational
needs of incarcerated people who speak languages other than English.
•	 Material with sexual content should not be
banned unless it violates state and federal law.
•	 People who are incarcerated or detained
should have the ability to obtain books and
materials from outside the prison for their
personal use.”
PEN America believes that the ALA’s “Prisoners’ Right to Read” continue to serve as an ideal
starting point for guidelines that should be adopted not only by prison librarians but by all pris-

on officials who have authority over incarcerated
people’s access to literature. As these principles
focus most squarely on library services, however,
PEN America has additional recommendations.
State and federal officials with oversight over
book restriction practices in their prisons should:
•	 Implement periodic review of their book
restriction policies, including periodic review
of specific banned titles to re-consider their
potential admissibility.
•	 Develop more explicit policies governing
book restrictions, to reduce the over-broad
nature of these policies as well as their arbitrary application by prison officials.
•	 Ensure that prison officials strongly consider the literary, educational, and rehabilitative merit of any evaluated book before
determining its admissibility.
•	 Make any “banned book list” available and
easily accessible to the public.
All states should review their policies for both
notification and appeal of a banned book. Both
the sender and the intended recipient of a book
should be timely informed if that book is restricted, with a timeframe for review that allows for
sufficient time to appeal the decision.
States with publication review committees
should additionally mandate that the results of
committee decisions be publicly accessible; that
such committees have a diverse composition;
and that committee members include a signifi-

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

19

PEN America

cant portion of trained librarians, First Amendment-knowledgeable professionals, and additional
subject matter experts. Ideally, review committees
will be staffed at least in part by people with backgrounds outside the correctional system. States
without such publication review committees
should evaluate what additional steps they can
take to make publication review more meaningful
and transparent.
Additionally, PEN America has called upon
Congress—specifically the House and Senate Judiciary Committees—to convene federal hearings on the state of Americans’ right to read in
prison. 147
PEN America also calls upon publishers to assert their and their authors’ rights to have their
books read by incarcerated people, particularly
upon any notification that their books have been
blocked.
One important avenue for establishing the
legal rights of incarcerated people is legislative
change. It is clear that the Prison Litigation Reform Act has failed to live up to its stated purpose
of stopping only frivolous litigation and has instead become an active hindrance to incarcerated
people’s fundamental rights. PEN America joins
organizations including Human Rights Watch,
148
the American Bar Association,149 the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons,150
and the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission 151 in calling for the repeal or reform of
the PLRA.
All of these proposed changes fall under a
broader rubric: The public must refuse to merely
accept the catch-all excuse of “security” as adequate justifications for any and all book restrictions within our prisons. PEN America does not
claim that all books should be allowed in a prison
setting. We do claim, however, that restrictions
on book access in our prisons—restrictions which
collectively affect over 2 million people—have
gone far too far.
There are positive ways to incorporate access
to literature into the daily realities of our prisons.
In Brazil and Italy, incarcerated people can actually shave several days off their sentences, for

SECTION IV: RECOMMENDATIONS

each book they read.152 Individual judges in the
United States have offered similar incentives to
incarcerated people,153 showing that the relationship between prisons and books does not have to
be antagonistic. But that is not the overall state of
play today.
Instead, book restriction policies are almost uniformly overbroad, arbitrary, under-examined, under-challenged, and maximally restrictive well past
the point of reason. This will remain the case unless
readers and writers push for a meaningful commitment to the right to access literature and other materials in prison.
As a society, the U.S. must articulate and defend
the right to read in prison. Otherwise the nation’s largest book banning policy will remain unchallenged.

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

20

PEN America

SECTION IV: RECOMMENDATIONS

Acknowledgements
This issue briefer was written by James Tager,
Deputy Director of Free Expression Research
and Policy at PEN America, with substantial
research and drafting contributions from Ariel
Fishman, a Summer 2019 Legal Fellow at PEN
America. PEN America colleagues Caits Meissner, Program Director, Prison and Justice Writing; Robbie Pollock, Prison Writing Program
Manager; Summer Lopez, Senior Director of
Free Expression Programs; Nora Benavidez, U.S.
Director of Free Expression Programs; Stephen
Fee, Director of Communications provided editing, review, and feedback, and Yesica Balderrama
the Graphic Designer. PEN America gratefully
acknowledges that review and feedback of: David Fathi at American Civil Liberties Union, Michelle Dillon at Human Rights Defense Center
and Books to Prisoners; Paul Wright of Human
Rights Defense Center; Jeanie Austin, Jail and
Reentry Services Librarian at the San Francisco Public Library; and Daniel Schafer, member
of the Books Through Bars collective, for their
comments on earlier drafts and their quotes and
commentary, as well as to Ames Grawert, Senior
Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and
Rebecca Ginsburg, director of the Education Justice Project for their comments on an earlier draft
and to Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the American
Library Association, James LaRue of LaRue and
Associates, Jonathan Rapping of Gideon’s Promise, and attorney Jarrett Adams for their willingness to be quoted. "PEN America also gratefully
acknowledges all those who sent in their stories to
our Prison Writing Program. PEN America recognizes that this briefer draws upon a larger body
of research, reporting, and advocacy on this issue.
Reader comments can be directed to jtager@
pen.org.

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

21

PEN America

Endnotes: Section I
1 For further discussion on the terminology to refer to
people behind bars, see e.g. Blair Hickman, “Inmate.
Prisoner. Other. Discussed.” The Marshall Project,
https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/04/03/inmate-prisoner-other-discussed

2 See e.g. Dan Slater, “Texas Prisons Banned My Book
About Texas Prisoners,” Slate, Sept. 27, 2016, https://slate.
com/news-and-politics/2016/09/texas-prisons-bannedbook-policy-is-a-national-disgrace.html. For examples of
the rules which lay out these criteria, see e.g. Florida Administrative Code Rule 33-501.401, Admissible Reading
Material, Effective Date 11/22/2010, available at https://
www.f lrules.org/gateway/RuleNo.asp?ID=33-501.401;
Illinois Administrative Code Chapter 20, Subchapter E,
Part 525, Subpart C, available at https://www2.illinois.
gov/idoc/Documents/visitation.pdf; New Hampshire
Department of Corrections Policy and Procedure Directive 5.26, Inmate Mail Service, Effective Date 9/15/17,
https://www.nh.gov/nhdoc/policies/documents/5-26.
pdf; Texas Department of Criminal Justice Board Policy
BP-03.91 (Rev. 3), Uniform Offender Correspondence
Rules, Aug. 23, 2013, https://www.documentcloud.org/
documents/4266743-TDCJ-Books-Policy.html;
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – Department of Corrections
– Procedures Manual, Inmate Mail and Incoming Publications, DC-ADM 803, Effective Date 10/3/18, https://
www.cor.pa.gov/About%20Us/Documents/DOC%20
Policies/803%20Inmate%20Mail%20and%20Incoming%20Publications.pdf
3 Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 407 (1989); see
also Nila Bala, “There’s a war on books in prisons. It needs
to end,” The Washington Post, Feb. 08, 2018, https://www.
washingtonpost.com/opinions/theres-a-war-on-booksin-prisons-it-needs-to-end/2018/02/08/c31cd122-02b311e8-8acf-ad2991367d9d_story.html?noredirect=on
4 Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union, 433
U.S. 119 (1977) (Dissenting). Internal citations omitted.

5 Brief for Amici Curiae Prison Books Clubs, Prison Legal News v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections,
No. 18-355, (Oct. 18, 2018) https://tinyurl.com/yxp7fvvo
(“Prison Books Clubs Amicus”)
6 Id.

7 Jeremy Pelzer, “Ohio’s prisons agency vows to lift restrictions on book donations to inmates,” Cleveland.com, May
16, 2019, https://www.cleveland.com/politics/2019/05/
ohios-prisons-agency-vows-to-lift-restrictions-on-bookdonations-to-inmates.html
8 Corrina Regnier, “What Do Batman and The Onion
Book of Known Knowledge Have in Common? Censorship, the ACLU, and Arizona Prisons,” ACLU, Sept. 30,
2015,https://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights/whatdo-batman-and-onion-book-known-knowledge-have-

ENDNOTES

common-censorship-aclu-and

9 Prison Book Clubs Amicus
10 Id.
11 Id.

12 Id.

13 See, e.g., Texas Civil Rights Project, Banned Books in
the Texas Prison System: How the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Censors Books Sent to Prisoners, 2011, 8 (https://
www.prisonlegalnews.org/media/publications/texas_civil_rights_project_prison_book_censorship_report_2011.
pdf) (“If the publication is on the [banned] list, the prisoner receives it. If not on the list, the mailroom officer decides
if the book has ‘objectionable’ content.”)
14 See e.g. Tammi Arford, “Captive Knowledge: Censorship and Control in Prison Libraries.” PhD diss., Northeastern University, 2013, 143 (https://repository.library.
northeastern.edu/files/neu:1905/fulltext.pdf); Christopher
Zoukis

15 See “Banned Books List”, Books to Prisoners, http://
www.bookstoprisoners.net/banned-book-lists/ (“11,851 titles were banned in Texas by 2012 . . . in November 2017,
The Dallas Morning News obtained a second list of banned
books which indicated that more than 10,000 books were
still banned . . . These bans, as other news coverage indicates, at times may have exceeded 15,000 titles.”)
16 Dianna Wray, “Texas State Prisons: You Can’t Read
The Color Purple but Mein Kampf is Fine,” Sept. 28,
2016,https://www.houstonpress.com/news/texas-stateprisons-you-cant-read-the-color-purple-but-mein-kampfis-fine-8808379; Banned Books List”, Books to Prisoners,
http://www.bookstoprisoners.net/banned-book-lists/
17 “Banned Books List”, Books to Prisoners, http://www.
bookstoprisoners.net/banned-book-lists/

18 Sherman Smith, “Corrections secretary eliminates
banned book list for Kansas prisons, deploys new policy,” Topeka Capital-Journal, Aug. 21, 2019, https://
www.cjonline.com/news/20190821/corrections-secretary-eliminates-banned-book-list-for-kansas-prisons-deploys-new-policy
19 Id.

20 See “Banned Books List”, Books to Prisoners, http://
www.bookstoprisoners.net/banned-book-lists/; Publications: Mail -> Banned Book Lists, Prison Legal News,
https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/publications/tag/
banned-book-lists/

21 Correspondence with Michelle Dillon, Public Records
Manager and Development Coordinator, Human Rights
Defense Center & Former Program Coordinator, Books to
Prisoners, Sep. 9, 2019.

22 Dan Slater, “Texas Prisons Banned My Book About
Texas Prisoners,” Slate, Sept. 27, 2016, https://slate.com/
news-and-politics/2016/09/texas-prisons-banned-book-

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

22

PEN America

policy-is-a-national-disgrace.html
23 Id.

24 Texas Civil Rights Project, Banned Books in the Texas
Prison System: How the Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Censors Books Sent to Prisoners, 2011, (https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/media/publications/texas_civil_rights_project_prison_book_censorship_report_2011.pdf)

25 Kelly Jensen, “New Hampshire Prisons Ban Books
Critical of Prison System, Award Winners,” BookRiot,
May 28, 2019, https://bookriot.com/2019/05/28/newhampshire-prisons-ban-books/

26 Dan Slater, “Texas Prisons Banned My Book About
Texas Prisoners,” Slate, Sept. 27, 2016, https://slate.com/
news-and-politics/2016/09/texas-prisons-banned-bookpolicy-is-a-national-disgrace.html
27 Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Why Are American Prisons So Afraid of This Book?” The New York Times, Jan. 18,
2018, https://www.wral.com/why-are-american-prisonsso-afraid-of-this-book-/17270981/?comment_order=forward.

28 Interview with Jarrett Adams, criminal and civil rights
attorney, Sept. 19 2019.
29 Aris Folley, “Arizona Prisons Ban Inmates from Reading Book on Racism in Criminal Justice,” The Hill, May
22, 2019, https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/
news/445139-arizona-prisons-ban-inmates-from-readingbook-on-racism-in
30 Mark Hayward, “Topics too dangerous for NH prisons: Attica, tattoos, Ramen noodles,” New Hampshire
Union Leader, June 1, 2019, https://www.unionleader.
com/news/crime/topics-too-dangerous-for-nh-prisons-attica-tattoos-ramen-noodles/article_128631e6-f158-5e74bb1a-e352117b80ae.html

31 The author of “Blood in the Water,” historian Heather
Thompson, sued the Illinois Department of Corrections
last year for similarly prohibiting the book from reaching incarcerated people, saying “My book underscores
the sanctity of both correctional officer and prisoner lives,
and covers an important event in American history that I
have the right to share with any American who wants to
learn about our country’s past.” Kevin Gosztula, “Illinois
Department of Corrections Sued for Censoring Book on
Attica Uprising,” Shadowproof, Sept. 13, 2018, https://
shadowproof.com/2018/09/13/illinois-department-corrections-sued-censoring-book-attica-uprising/
32 Sharda Sekeran, “Frantz Fanon's Daughter to Michigan Prisons: Take 'Black Skin, White Masks' Off the
Banned Book List,” ColorLines, Jul. 26, 2019, https://
www.colorlines.com/articles/frantz-fanons-daughtermichigan-prisons-take-black-skin-white-masks-bannedbook-list; https://fenton.egnyte.com/dl/6qdzTHJ5j0/

33 Dara Sharif, “It’s ‘Racial’: Illinois Prison Banned
Books on Black History and Empowerment From Inmate
Program,” Aug. 16, 2019, The Root,https://www.theroot.

ENDNOTES

com/it-s-racial-illinois-prison-banned-books-on-blackhi-1837321399; Peter Nickeas, “It’s the racial stuff: Illinois prison banned, removed books on black history and
empowerment from inmate education program,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 15, 2019, https://www.chicagotribune.
com/news/ct-illinois-prison-books-removed-inmate-education-20190815-6xlrmfwmovdxnbc3ohvsx6edgu-story.
html
34 Peter Nickeas, “It’s the racial stuff: Illinois prison
banned, removed books on black history and empowerment from inmate education program,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 15, 2019, https://www.chicagotribune.com/
news/ct-illinois-prison-books-removed-inmate-education-20190815-6xlrmfwmovdxnbc3ohvsx6edgu-story.
html
35 Id.

36 Jonah Engel Bromwisch, “Why Are American
Prisons So Afraid of this Book?”,The New York Times,
Jan. 18, 2018, https://www.wral.com/why-are-americanprisons-so-afraid-of-this-book-/17270981/?comment_order=forward
37 Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 427–28 (1974)

38 E.g. Illinois (see Section 525.220 of the Illinois Administration Code Publications Review Officer)

39 See e.g. Dianna Wray, “Texas State Prisons: You Can’t
Read The Color Purple but Mein Kampf is Fine,” Sept. 28,
2016,https://www.houstonpress.com/news/texas-stateprisons-you-cant-read-the-color-purple-but-mein-kampfis-fine-8808379 (describing Texas’s review system)
40 Interview with Paul Wright, Founder and Executive
Director, Human Rights Defense Center, August 26, 2019.

41 Statistics provided by the Human Rights Defense
Center on Sept. 11, 2019, upon review of publicly available
information:
1991-2011 list: 3,361 out of a listed 12,443 entries listed
as approved (successful appeal rate of 27%)

2012-current list: 2,452 out of a listed 10,316 entries listed as approved (successful appeal rate of 23.77%)

42 Interview with Paul Wright, Founder and Executive
Director, Human Rights Defense Center, August 26, 2019.

43 Statistics provided by the Human Rights Defense
Center on Sept. 11, 2019, upon review of publicly available
information.
44 Correspondence with Michelle Dillon, Public Records
Manager and Development Coordinator, Human Rights
Defense Center & Former Program Coordinator, Books to
Prisoners, Sept. 11, 2019.

45 James Call, “Banned behind bars: 20,000 books can't
be read by Florida inmates; the list may surprise you,” Tallahassee Democrat, Aug. 9, 2019, https://www.tallahassee.
com/story/news/politics/2019/08/09/banned-behind-bars20-000-books-cant-read-florida-inmates/1934468001/

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

23

PEN America

46 Interview with Michelle Dillon, Public Records Manager and Development Coordinator, Human Rights Defense Center & Former Program Coordinator, Books to
Prisoners, August 26, 2019.

47 Correspondence with Michelle Dillon, Public Records
Manager and Development Coordinator, Human Rights
Defense Center & Former Program Coordinator, Books to
Prisoners, Jul. 19, 2019.

Endnotes: Section II

48 See generally Taylor Elizabeth Eldridge, “The Big
Business of Prisoner Care Packages,” The Marshall Project/Vox, Dec. 21, 2017, https://www.themarshallproject.
org/2017/12/21/the-big-business-of-prisoner-care-packages (noting pricing issues with secure-vendor-approved
packages generally).

49 Interview with David Fathi, Director, National Prison
Project, ACLU, August 20, 2019.
50 “New York State’s Efforts to Restrict Access to Books
in Prisons Shows Troubling Disregard for Right to Read,”
PEN America, Jan. 8, 2018, https://pen.org/press-release/
new-york-restricts-books-prisons-right-read/
51 Books Through Bars, Statement Against 4911A, Jan.
3, 2018, https://booksthroughbarsnyc.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Statement-against-4911A.pdf

52 New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, About DOCCS, http://www.doccs.
ny.gov/ (“The New York State Department of Corrections
and Community Supervision […]is responsible for the confinement and habilitation of approximately 46,375 individuals under custody held at 54 state facilities.”)

53 Vivian Wang, “Cuomo Halts a Controversial Prison
Package Policy,” The New York Times, Jan. 12, 2018,https://
www.nytimes.com/2018/01/12/nyregion/prison-package-policy-suspended.html
54 “Restrictive Policy in Various Federal Prisons Represents a Misguided and Destructive Disregard for the
Right to Read,” PEN America, May 2, 2018, https://
pen.org/press-release/restrictive-policy-prisons-misguided-disregard-right-to-read/

55 Ann E. Marimow, “Federal prisons abruptly cancel policy that made it harder, costlier for inmates to get
books,” Washington Post, May 3, 2018, https://www.
washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/federal-prisonsabruptly-cancel-policy-that-made-it-harder-costlier-forinmates-to-get-books/2018/05/03/1b3efcde-4ed8-11e8b725-92c89fe3ca4c_story.html
56 “Restrictive Policy in Various Federal Prisons Represents a Misguided and Destructive Disregard for the
Right to Read,” PEN America, May 2, 2018, https://
pen.org/press-release/restrictive-policy-prisons-misguided-disregard-right-to-read/
57 Randy Ludlow, “Departing prisons director: Ohio has
too many behind bars,” The Columbus Dispatch, Aug. 28,

ENDNOTES

2018, https://www.dispatch.com/news/20180828/departing-prisons-director-ohio-has-too-many-behind-bars; Jeremy Pelzer, “Ohio’s prisons agency vows to lift restrictions
on book donations to inmates,” Cleveland.com, May 16,
2019, https://www.cleveland.com/politics/2019/05/ohiosprisons-agency-vows-to-lift-restrictions-on-book-donations-to-inmates.html
58 Pelzer, “Ohio’s prisons agency vows to lift restrictions
on book donations to inmates,” Cleveland.com, May 16,
2019, https://www.cleveland.com/politics/2019/05/ohiosprisons-agency-vows-to-lift-restrictions-on-book-donations-to-inmates.html
59 Id.

60 Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, https://
www.cor.pa.gov/Inmates/Pages/Tablets.aspx; Pelzer, “Ohio’s prisons agency vows to lift restrictions on
book donations to inmates,” Cleveland.com, May 16,
2019,https://www.cleveland.com/politics/2019/05/ohiosprisons-agency-vows-to-lift-restrictions-on-book-donations-to-inmates.html

61 Samantha Melamed, “One review of Pa. prisons’ pricey ebooks: ‘Books that are available for free, that nobody
wants anyway’,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 21, 2018,
https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/pennsylvania-department-corrections-books-through-bars-philly-newjim-crow-malcolm-x-20180921.html; see generally Wendy
Sawyer, “How much do incarcerated people earn in each
state?”, Prison Policy Initiative, April 10, 2017, https://
www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/04/10/wages/
62 Samantha Melamed, “One review of Pa. prisons’ pricey ebooks: ‘Books that are available for free, that nobody
wants anyway’,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 21, 2018,
https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/pennsylvania-department-corrections-books-through-bars-philly-newjim-crow-malcolm-x-20180921.html
63 Samantha Melamed, “Under Pressure, Pa. Prisons
Repeal Restrictive Book Policy,” The Philadelphia Inquirer,
Nov. 2, 2018, https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/
pennsylvania-book-ban-doc-books-through-bars-wetzel-20181102.html

64 “Maryland’s New Prison Policy on Access to Literature
a Step in the Wrong Direction,” PEN America, May 29,
2018, https://pen.org/press-release/maryland-policy-access-books-prison-wrong-direction/; Ann E. Marimow,
“To cut prison drug smuggling, Maryland is restricting
inmates’ access to books,” Washington Post, May 27, 2018,
https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/
maryland-imposes-new-limits-on-book-orders-forprisoners/2018/05/24/7783c62e-5e90-11e8-9ee349d6d4814c4c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.247505d495eb

65 Christine Zhang, “Maryland’s Prison Population
Drops to 1980s Levels, Continuing a Multiyear Decline,”
The Baltimore Sun, Apr. 24, 2019, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/crime/bs-md-prison-population-ve-

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

24

PEN America

ra-20190423-story.html

66 ACLU Calls on Prison System to Reverse Rule Severely Limiting Access to Books in Violation of First
Amendment, ACLU-Maryland, May 31, 2018, https://
www.aclu-md.org/en/press-releases/aclu-calls-prison-system-reverse-rule-severely-limiting-access-books-violation-first; Lauren Lumpkin, “Maryland prisons rescind
controversial policy that advocates say restricted inmate
book access,” The Baltimore Sun, June 12, 2018,
https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/bs-md-maryland-prisons-overturn-book-policy-20180612-story.html

67 Lauren Lumpkin, “Maryland prisons rescind controversial policy that advocates say restricted inmate book access,” The Baltimore Sun, June 12, 2018,
https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/bs-md-maryland-prisons-overturn-book-policy-20180612-story.
html; see also Ann E. Marimow, “In a reversal, Md.
Prison Officials Lift Limits on Access to Books for
Inmates,” Washington Post, June 11, 2018, https://beta.
washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/in-a-reversal-md-prison-officials-lift-limits-on-access-to-booksfor-inmates/2018/06/11/bd37a182-6dad-11e8-bf86a2351b5ece99_story.html

68 Joseph O’Sullivan, “Washington corrections officials
reverse ban, will allow prisoners to get used books in the
mail,” The Seattle Times, Apr. 10 2019, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/washington-correctionsofficials-reverse-ban-will-allow-prisoners-to-get-usedbooks-in-the-mail/

69 Washington State Department of Corrections, Population/Caseload v. Forecast Report, Aug. 2019 https://
www.doc.wa.gov/docs/publications/reports/400-RE001.
pdf71

70 Shelby Copeland, “ACLU says Georgia sheriff is illegally denying books to prisoners,” CNN, Apr. 11, 2019,
https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/11/us/georgia-county-jailbook-ban-trnd/index.html; Re: New Policy Banning All
Books and Publications at Chatham County Detention
Center, ACLU-Georgia, Apr. 10, 2019, https://www.acluga.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/aclu_lettertochathamcountysheriff_countyattorney.pdf
71 Shelby Copeland, “ACLU says Georgia sheriff is illegally denying books to prisoners,” CNN, Apr. 11, 2019,
https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/11/us/georgia-county-jailbook-ban-trnd/index.html; Re: New Policy Banning All
Books and Publications at Chatham County Detention
Center, ACLU-Georgia, Apr. 10, 2019, https://www.acluga.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/aclu_lettertochathamcountysheriff_countyattorney.pdf
72 Interview with David Fathi, Director, National Prison
Project, ACLU, August 20, 2019
73 Interview with David Fathi, Director, National Prison
Project, ACLU, August 20, 2019.
74 See e.g. Michigan Department of Corrections Policy

ENDNOTES

Directive 05.03.118, at “Prisoner Incoming Mail,” para. Z,
available at https://www.michigan.gov/documents/corrections/05_03_118_645850_7.pdf

75 See, e.g., Sarah Fowler, “Books banned at Mississippi prisons,” Clarion Ledger, December 12, 2017, (https://
www.clarionledger.com/story/news/local/2017/12/12/
books-banned-mississippi-prisons/919185001/).
76 Joseph O’Sullivan, “ Washington corrections officials reverse ban, will allow prisoners to get used books in
the mail,” The Seattle Times, Apr. 10, 2019, https://www.
seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/washington-corrections-officials-reverse-ban-will-allow-prisoners-to-getused-books-in-the-mail/

77 State of Washington Department of Corrections,
UPDATED-Used Publications, Apr. 10, 2019, https://
assets.documentcloud.org/documents/5816599/Updated-Used-Publication-Memo-4-10-19.pdf

78 Joseph O’Sullivan, “Corrections officials’ claims of
contraband in used books mailed to Washington inmates
don’t add up,” The Seattle Times, Apr. 10, 2019, https://
www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/correctionsofficials-claims-of-contraband-in-used-books-mailed-towashington-inmates-doesnt-add-up/
79 Id.

80 Id.

81 Daniel A. Gross, “New York Makes it Harder for Inmates to Get Books,” The New Yorker, Jan. 9, 2018, https://
w w w.new yorker.com/books/page-turner/new-yorkmakes-it-harder-for-inmates-to-get-books

82 Ann E. Marimow, “In a reversal, Md. prison officials
lift limits on access to books for inmates”, Washington
Post, June 11, 2018, https://beta.washingtonpost.com/
local/public-safety/in-a-reversal-md-prison-officialslift-limits-on-access-to-books-for-inmates/2018/06/11/
bd37a182-6dad-11e8-bf86-a2351b5ece99_story.html
83 David McFadden, “Inmates’ advocates press Maryland
to scrap book restrictions”, AP News, June 2, 2018, https://
www.apnews.com/a1f817fd705542de957ff71d5350b879
84 Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Examples of
Drug Introduction into Facilities, https://www.cor.pa.gov/
Initiatives/Documents/PA%20DOC%20Drug%20Finds.
pdf
85 Jodi Lincoln, “Incarcerated Pennsylvanians
now have to pay $150 to read. We should all be outraged,” Washington Post, Oct. 11, 2018, https://beta.
washingtonpost.com/opinions/incarcerated-pennsylvanians-now-have-to-pay-150-to-read-we-should-allbe-outraged/2018/10/11/51f548b8-cbd9-11e8-a85c0bbe30c19e8f_story.html?nored irect=on. See also Emily
Nagin, “The Underground Group Supplying Pittsburgh’s
Prisoners With Books,” LitHub, July 24, 2019, https://
lithub.com/the-underground-group-supplying-pittsburghs-prisoners-with-books/ (noting that the examples
of contraband-smuggling that PA DOC provided “seem

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

25

PEN America

designed to titillate and shock. Drugs transferred from a
vagina to a carton of chocolate milk?”)

86 Daniel A. Gross, “New York Makes it Harder for Inmates to Get Books,” The New Yorker, Jan. 9, 2018, https://
w w w.new yorker.com/books/page-turner/new-yorkmakes-it-harder-for-inmates-to-get-books (quoting Bianca
Tylek of the Corrections Accountability Project); Correspondence with Michelle Dillon, Public Records Manager
and Development Coordinator, Human Rights Defense
Center & Former Program Coordinator, Books to Prisoners, Sept. 16, 2019 (“the focus needs to be on detection
techniques in the mail rooms, not on continuing to punish
the many innocent book readers because of the supposed
culpable few who may be trying to use these objects as vessels”).
87 Correspondence with Michelle Dillon, Public Records
Manager and Development Coordinator, Human Rights
Defense Center & Former Program Coordinator, Books to
Prisoners, Sept. 16, 2019 (“The reported number of cases
is clearly vanishingly small, if these are the only points of
evidence that can be found despite an obvious motivation
of prisons to divulge all incidents that may have occurred”)
88 Interview with David Fathi, Director, National Prison
Project, ACLU, August 20, 2019.

89 E.g. Karla Starr, “When Did Used Books Become
Contraband?” Seattle Weekly, Aug. 14, 2007, https://www.
seattleweekly.com/news/when-did-used-books-becomecontraband/ (quoting a state official at Airway Heights
Correction Center justifying their approved vendor restriction policies by saying “We have a library, it’s not like
[incarcerated people] don’t have access to any books.)
90 Interview with Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Deputy Director, American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, Sept. 18, 2019.

91 Interview with James LaRue, former Director, American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom,
Sept. 18, 2019.

92 Library Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions,
Association of Specialized, Government, and Cooperative
Library Agencies (A Division of the American Library
Association), http://www.ala.org/asgcla/resources/librarystandards
93 Id.

94 Communicating with Prisoners – Public Interest
Analysis, U.S. Prison Library Statistics About 2000 (including a “Prison Libraries and Book Holdings and Circulation after 1980” dataset).
95 Id.

96 Monica Humphries, “For Prisoners, Reading is So
Much More than a Pastime—It’s a Way to Change Their
Lives,” NationSwell, Mar. 28, 2019, http://nationswell.
com/nyc-books-through-bars-prison-education/
97 Correspondence with Jeanie Austin, Jail and Reentry
Services Librarian, San Francisco Public Library, Sep. 11,

ENDNOTES

2019.

98 Monica Humphries, “For Prisoners, Reading is So
Much More than a Pastime—It’s a Way to Change Their
Lives,” NationSwell, Mar. 28, 2019, http://nationswell.
com/nyc-books-through-bars-prison-education/
99 Correspondence with Jeanie Austin, Jail and Reentry
Services Librarian, San Francisco Public Library, Sep. 11,
2019.

100 from p E.g. Jake Rossen, “Cell Service: Inside the
World of Prison Librarians,” Mental Floss, Jan. 11, 2018
(Like public librarians, [prison librarian] Hart organized
book clubs, wrangled donations, and set up a shelf full of
recommended reading . . . Hart set about improving the
library by opening up interlibrary loans—where inmates
could request books ublic libraries—and ‘hustling’ for book
donations from local merchants and other sources.”)
101 Lee V. Gaines, “Illinois Prison System Spent Less
Than $300 on Books Last Year,” Illinois Newsroom, Apr.
16, 2018, https://www.nprillinois.org/post/illinois-prisonsystem-spent-less-300-books-last-year#stream/0
102 Id.

103 David McFadden, “Inmates’ advocates press
Maryland to scrap book restrictions,” AP News, June
2, 2018, https://www.apnews.com/a1f817fd705542de957ff71d5350b879; Christine Zhang, “Maryland’s prison
population drops to 1980s levels, continuing a multiyear
decline,” The Baltimore Sun, April 24, 2019, https://www.
baltimoresun.com/news/crime/bs-md-prison-population-vera-20190423-story.html
104 Id.

105 Stephen Dark, “Why Prison Libraries Matter for Inmates, Jailers and Book Donors,” Deseret News, May 31,
2018, http://www.ilovelibraries.org/article/why-prison-libraries-matter-inmates-jailers-and-book-donors

106 Nicholas Thieme, “Georgia Prison Libraries Short
on Books and Titles, AJC Analysis Finds,” The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, May 11, 2019, https://www.ajc.com/
news/crime--law/georgia-prison-libraries-short-booksand-titles-ajc-analysis-finds/aKi5FxMIcLpYY92JoQBjPL/
107 Id.

108 Id.

109 Id. As another state example, see Kristi Eaton,
“Oklahoma’s Prison Libraries Struggle to Meet Demand,”
NonDoc, Apr. 11, 2019, https://nondoc.com/2019/04/11/
oklahoma-prison-libraries-need-books/

110 E.g. Karla Starr, “When Did Used Books Become
Contraband?” Seattle Weekly, Aug. 14, 2007, https://www.
seattleweekly.com/news/when-did-used-books-becomecontraband/ (explaining that “how long a library is open
for and how much access inmates have aren’t the same
thing” at Airway Heights Correctional Center, a Washington State prison facility)

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

26

PEN America

111 Interview with Paul Wright, Founder and Executive
Director, Human Rights Defense Center, August 26, 2019.

112 Joseph O’Sullivan, “Washington Correction Officials
Reverse Ban, Will Allow Prisoners to Get Used Books in
the Mail,” The Seattle Times, April 10, 2019, https://www.
seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/washington-corrections-officials-reverse-ban-will-allow-prisoners-to-getused-books-in-the-mail/
113 Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 84 (1987); Thornburgh
v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 407 (1989); King v. Fed.
Bureau of Prisons, 415 F.3d 634, 637 (7th Cir. 2005).

Endnotes: Section III
114 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a)–(b).

115 Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e
(2012).
116 See, e.g., Margo Schlanger, Inmate Litigation,
116Harv. L. Rev. 1555, 1565–68 (2003) (describing legislative aims of PLRA and perceptions of frequent and frivolous litigation by incarcerated people).
117 Id. at 1649.

118 In the first five years after the passage of the PLRA,
there was a 43% decrease in litigation even as the prison
population rose by 23%. Schlanger, sup
ra note 7, at 1694. Recent data analysis has shown that
litigation continued to decline, then plateaued around
2007. Margo Schlanger, Trends in Prisoner Litigation, as
the PLRA Enters Adulthood, 5 UC Irvine L. Rev. 153, 156
(2015).

119 Many of these were passed around the same time as
the PLRA, as state legislatures feared that the heightened
federal standards would lead to an influx of prison litigation in state court. For more information and a detailed
breakdown of state statutes, see Schlanger, supra note 7,
at 1635–36
120 See,e.g., Darryl M. James, Reforming Prison Litigation Reform: Reclaiming Equal Access to Justice for Incarcerated
Persons in America, 12 Loy. J. Pub. Int. L 465, 480 (2011);
Schlanger, supra note 7, at 1650 (“Essentially, then, the
sky’s the limit for the procedural complexity of difficulty of
the exhaustion regime.”).
121 For additional examples, see Margo Schlanger &
Giovanna Shay, Preserving the Rule of Law in America's Jails
and Prisons: The Case for Amending the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 11 U. Pa. J. Const. L. 139, 148 (2008).
122 Sherman Smith, “Corrections secretary eliminates banned book list for Kansas prisons, deploys new
policy,” Topeka Capital-Journal, Aug 21, 2019, https://
www.cjonline.com/news/20190821/corrections-secretary-eliminates-banned-book-list-for-kansas-prisons-deploys-new-policy
123 Correspondence with Michelle Dillon, Public Re-

ENDNOTES

cords Manager and Development Coordinator, Human
Rights Defense Center & Former Program Coordinator,
Books to Prisoners, Sept. 9, 2019.

124 Interview with David Fathi, Director, National Prison Project, ACLU, August 20, 2019.

125 Black Agenda Radio, “Slavery is Model for US Prison Book-Banning,” Sept. 9, 2019, https://soundcloud.com/
user-208734627/slavery-is-model-for-us-prison-bookbanning

126 James E. Robertson, “One of the Dirty Secrets of
American Corrections”: Retaliation, Surplus Power, and
Whistleblowing Inmates, 42 U. Mich. L. Reform 611,
613–14 (2009) (https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1259&context=mjlr).
127 Id.

128 Interview with David Fathi, Director, National
Prison Project, ACLU, August 20, 2019.
129 E.g. Illinois, Title 20, Section 525.230, at (c).

130 Interview with Paul Wright, Founder and Executive
Director, Human Rights Defense Center, August 26, 2019.
131 482 U.S. 78 (1987).

132 See e.g., Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 415
(1989).
133 See e.g., Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 415
(1989).
134 Id. at 531 (internal quotation marks omitted).

135 Beard v. Banks, 548 U.S. 521, 552–53 (2006) (Stevens,
J., dissenting)

136 See e.g. “Prison Library Offers A Place To Escape”, NPR News, May 29, 2011, https://www.npr.
org/2011/05/29/136765589/prison-library-offers-a-placeto-escape; Tyler Wetherall, “How Sharing Books with
My Dad in Prison Made Life Bearable for Both of Us,”
LitHub, June 4, 2019, https://lithub.com/how-sharingbooks-with-my-dad-in-prison-made-life-bearable-forboth-of-us/
137 Stephen Dark, “Why Prison Libraries Matter for
Inmates, Jailers and Book Donors,” Deseret News, May
31, 2018, http://www.ilovelibraries.org/article/why-prison-libraries-matter-inmates-jailers-and-book-donors

138 Correspondence with Jonathan Rapping, founder
and president, Gideon’s Promise, Sept. 17, 2019.
139 Interview with Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Interim
Director, American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, Sept. 18, 2019.

140 Interview with Dan Schaffer, member, Books
Through Bars collective, September 11, 2019.

141 Robert Bozick, et al, “Does Providing Inmates with
Education Improve Postrelease Outcomes?” RAND.org,
July 3, 2018, https://www.rand.org/pubs/external_publications/EP67650.html

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

27

PEN America

ENDNOTES

142 Id.

143 Ephrat Livni, “To reduce recidivism rates, give
prisoners more books,” Quartz, Oct. 1, 2016, https://
qz.com/796369/to-decrease-recidivism-rates-give-prisoners-more-books/
144 Id.

145 Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 427–28 (1974)
(internal citations omitted).

Endnotes: Section IV

146 “Prisoners' Right to Read: An Interpretation of the
Library Bill of Rights,” American Library Association,
June. 29, 2010, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/
librarybill/interpretations/prisonersrightoread

147 “Tell Congress: Stop the largest book ban in America,” Action Network, https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/
tell-congress-stop-the-largest-book-ban-in-america?source=pen-america&referrer=group-pen-america&redirect=https%3A%2F%2Fpen.org%2Fseptember-2019-petition%2F

148 Human Rights Watch, No Equal Justice: The Prison
Litigation Reform Act in the United States, 2009 (https://
www.hrw.org/report/2009/06/16/no-equal-justice/prison-litigation-reform-act-united-states)
149 American Bar Association, Criminal Justice Section,
“Report to the House of Delegates: Recommendation,”
approved by the House of Delegates February 12, 2007.
150 John J. Gibbons; Nicholas deB.Katzenbach, Confronting Confinement - A Report of the Commission on
Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, 22 WASH. U.
J.L. & POL'Y 385, 562 (2006).
151 See, e.g., Letter from Reggie B. Walton, chairman, National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, to
Representatives Bobby Scott (DVA) and Randy Forbes
(R-VA), January 24, 2008.

152 See e.g. Husna Haq, “Can books help to redeem
prisoners?” The Christian Science Monitor, May 14,
2014, https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-andverse/2014/0514/Can-books-help-to-redeem-prisoners;
“Reading offers Brazilian prisoners quicker escape,”
Reuters, June 26, 2012, https://www.reuters.com/article/
us-brazil-prison-reading/reading-offers-brazilian-prisoners-quicker-escape-idUSBRE85O0WR20120625
153 Husna Haq, “In Brazil's prisons, inmates shorten
sentences by reading,” The Christian Science Monitor,
June 26, 2012, https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2012/0626/In-Brazil-s-prisons-inmatesshorten-sentences-by-reading

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban

28

 

 

Disciplinary Self-Help Litigation Manual - Side
Advertise Here 2nd Ad
CLN Subscribe Now Ad 450x600