NEW YORK—The state of Ohio’s prison policies banning used books from its prisons represent a misguided effort, as well as a troubling sign of the erosion of the right to read in American prisons, PEN America said today.

On May 3, 2019, the non-profit Central Ohio Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee publicly shared a copy of a November 2018 memo from the Toledo Correctional Institution stating that used or damaged books had been deemed “a threat to the security of the institution and will no longer be permitted to be sent in” under any circumstances. Such a ban eliminates the ability of non-profit organizations, family, or friends to send used books to people in prison. Previous reporting from WOUB indicates that at least four prisons in Ohio have had this policy in place since at least early 2018. Ohio, reportedly one of the largest state prison systems in the nation, incarcerates approximately 50,000 people.

In recent years, with the stated aim of blocking contraband from entering prisons, various states as well as the federal prison system have attempted to dramatically restrict book deliveries to incarcerated people, or shut down such deliveries entirely. In the past two years alone, PEN America has joined others in decrying such policies in New York, Maryland, and around the country. After public outcry, some of these policies have been rescinded or amended.

“Used books sent to people in prisons, through non-profits or through family and friends, represent a free or cost-effective option for them to access literature,” said James Tager, Deputy Director of Free Expression Research and Policy. “The benefits of this access are tremendous, in terms of self-education, a person’s ability to engage with the outside world, or even to simply pass the time. But these restrictive policies make such access impossible. We urge Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio, Director Annette Chambers-Smith of Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and other state authorities to reverse these policies, and to re-evaluate how policies like these may negatively affect the lives of thousands of incarcerated people. In many cases the bans are rescinded after public outcry, a sign of how important it is for conscientious readers and writers across the country to speak up and speak out against these misguided and harmful policies.”

PEN America has long championed the restorative, rehabilitative, and transformative possibilities of the written word through programs including the Prison Writing Program, founded in 1971, and its recently-launched Writing for Justice Fellowship which commissions writers to illuminate critical issues related to mass incarceration. PEN America has also spoken out against the troubling advancement of both content-based and content-neutral book bans in prisons across the country.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: [email protected]