In the Spring of 2022, PEN America’s Research and Advocacy Manager Anthony Johnson interviewed Stevie Wilson on his experiences with book censorship while incarcerated. Here are his thoughts:

Anthony Johnson: Tell me why you became an advocate for access to literature in prison.

Stevie Wilson: Before incarceration, I was an avid reader and understood the power of language and reading. Upon incarceration, I quickly figured out that the DOC wasn’t going to provide the materials we needed for real growth and transformation. Reading had become a path to healing and growth for me, and I wanted to continue on that path. Moreover, I wanted other incarcerated people to be able to experience healing, growth and transformation also. This lead me to advocating for access to materials.


AJ: What is book censorship? And what does it mean to be censored?

SW: Censorship is violence. It is the forceful alienation and isolation of people. It is the denial of connection. It is the denial of relationships and dialogue. Or, as Toni Morrison would say, it is the denial of the dancing of minds. And what does it mean to be censored? It means being denied growth and healing. For how can we grow or heal without each other? Censorship is the tyrant’s tool. It is their way of keeping imprisoned folx ignorant and disconnected.


AJ: What are some of the ways carceral institutions censor books, and can you tell me about a time you have experienced book censorship?

SW: The DOC (Department of Corrections) uses a number of methods to deny imprisoned people books. First, there is outright denial/confiscation. The book is marked as unacceptable. Usually, prison officials claim the work is a threat to prison security. They have made this claim regarding works by Toni Morrison and Paulo Friere. Since March 2022, the prison I am at, Camp Hill, has outright denied 86 books. 37 of them have been books sent to me. So one imprisoned person has been the target of 43% of their book censorship. Second, there is non-distribution. I have been sent books and other publications and have never received them. This is the new wave of censorship behind the walls. If we don’t receive the books, we cannot appeal the censorship. Third, there are space/property limitations. What this means is the DOC will restrict imprison people’s property to a few boxes, no matter how many years one has been incarcerated. In practice, this leaves little space for books. If one has more than can fit into a records center box, one must send them home or destroy them. So space/property limitations work to ensure imprisoned people have few books. Fourth, the actual procedures one must use to obtain books are often daunting and frustrating. Imprisoned people must fill out paperwork, making sure everything is signed by the proper officials and sent to certain staff. And many jurisdictions restrict book orders to specific vendors. Fifth, many jurisdictions require not only approved vendors but also require all books to be new and softcover. So if the work isn’t out in softcover, imprisoned folks cannot obtain it. If it is used, which costs less, we cannot get it either. So imprisoned people have to purchase the more expensive book. These are just some ways the DOC is able to restrict access to books. 

Since being transferred, I have experienced censorship almost weekly. Books, magazines, newsletters, and zines are regularly denied. I have been told I cannot receive my very own published materials! In PA, there is no uniform standard for review. It is all arbitrary and local. The same books I had at two other PA prisons have been denied here. As I said above, Toni Morrison, Paulo Friere, and many others have been deemed security threats by prison staff here. Anything that mentions the Black Freedom Struggle is banned. 


AJ: Have you appealed a decision where you were denied access to a book? What was the outcome?

SW: In PA, if a book is denied and the imprisoned person doesn’t appeal the decision, that book is prohibited for every other imprisoned person too. So I always appeal these decisions. I have won quite often. So many of the reasons given are too ridiculous to be upheld. Often, they deny the materials without even reading them. They make assumptions based on the titles. I received a book entitled On Fascism. It was about how we can protect democracy from fascism. They denied it, saying it advocated the overthrowing of the government! I have appealed to the last stage and won but never received the materials. The process can take months to finish and by that time, the prison has trashed the materials.


AJ: How would you describe the impact access to literature or books, in general, had on your life during the time you were incarcerated?

SW: As I said above, reading was my path to growth. healing and transformation. I always credit Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Joe Beam, and Essex Hemphill with saving my life and healing me. That’s not hyperbole. In prison, the world becomes very small and foreign. Reading opens the world up to you and familiarizes you.


AJ: Are there ways that prison staff support access to literature?

SW: The materials we are given access to are not mobilizing. Most of it is what you can find in a middle school library. Any staff that advocates for greater access won’t be around long.


AJ: What books have impacted you the most while inside?

SW: It has been topics, more than books. Abolitionist materials like Are Prisons Obsolete?, Golden Gulag, Mariame Kaba’s work, Mia Mingus, Audre Lorde’s poetry and nonfiction, bell hooks, and all of Morrison.