Prisons are the largest censors in the United States. Single state prison systems censor more books than all schools and libraries combined. As discovered in the PEN America report Literature Locked Up (2019), content-neutral banning, is a unique tactic of prison censorship. Content-neutral bans censor a piece of literature for reasons unrelated to its contents—if, for example, it is mailed from a bookseller that the prison has not approved, if it is hardcover and all hardcover books are prohibited, or because the package has a mailing label on it.
OUR LATEST REPORT
Prison officials commonly justify censorship as necessary for rehabilitation and the maintenance of safety and security. The rationale that censorship should be used to accomplish these goals is specious—and yet often receives little scrutiny. Read our latest report, Reading Between the Bars, for a thorough look at what is happening.
What We’re Doing
PEN America has teamed up with prison book programs, higher education programs in prisons and other nonprofits that send literature to incarcerated people to tell state and federal elected officials that we do not support prison censorship. We’re kicking off a letter-writing campaign that allows anyone to send an email to their state and federal representatives. We’re publishing a report to document the ever-accelerating banning of literature in prisons, amplifying the voices of incarcerated readers and aiming to raise awareness about this issue and offer ways to push back against it.
How You Can Help
Create your own video or posts on Instagram using #PrisonBannedBookWeek and #BooksNotBans and encourage your followers to do the same and tag @PENamerica.
Tell your state elected officials and officials in Departments of Corrections that they must oppose censorship in carceral institutions and create laws or policies to prevent it.
Test your knowledge
Think you know how to send books and reading materials to people in carceral settings? Take this simulation test and see how many items reach their intended recipient. How hard could it be?
Read and Share Their Stories
Incarcerated people suffer when they’re denied access to literature and learning. Read some of their stories here:
- “In solitary confinement, banned books are a lifeline” by Kwaneta Harris
- “In Prison, Books Are ‘Security Risks’: I Want to Expand My Knowledge. The Arkansas Department of Corrections Keeps Getting in My Way” by Richard Beebe
- “Censorship Starts in the Shakopee Prison Mailroom: There, Reading Material Gets Caught in a Web of Arbitrary Rules and Regulations” by Elizabeth Hawes
- “Why I Almost Went to Court to Learn Italian in Prison: After the Louisiana State Penitentiary Confiscated My Language Book and CDs, I Sued to Get Them Back” by John Corley
- “Ending Prison Censorship” by Moira Marquis
- “The Surreal Prison Censorship Regime” by Dylan Jeffries
- “Misadventures in Mail Censorship” by Robert Schaeffer
- “Censoring Women’s Health” by Kwaneta Harris
- “Ban the Bans: A better way to rid racism in prison” by Tomas Keen
- “I’m a prisoner fighting censorship. Here’s why our access to books matters” by Daniel Pirkel
PEN America has teamed up with prison book programs, higher education programs in prisons and other nonprofits that send literature to incarcerated people to tell elected officials that we do not support prison censorship.
Know Your Rights Campaign
Justice Arts Coalition
San Francisco Public Library
The Free Black Women’s Library
Study and Struggle
Urban Library Institute
National Prison Writing Archive
Library Services to the Justice Involved
Riker’s Memory Project
Cornell Prison Education Program
Noname Book Club
Asheville Prison Books
Big House Books
Appalachian Prison Book Project
The Hull Family Foundation
Seattle Books to Prisoners
Midwest Books to Prisoners
LGBT Books to Prisoners
Alabama Books to Prisons
Chicago Books to Women in Prison
Wisconsin Books to Prisoners
Prion Health News
American Prison Writing Archive