(NEW YORK)— Prisons censor staggering numbers of books and other reading materials, not just for their content but for a stunning range of capricious reasons including the size of a book or the color of mailed wrapping paper, according to a new report by PEN America. Reading Between the Bars: An In-Depth Look at Prison Censorship presents a comprehensive look at the tactics used by prisons to deny reading materials to incarcerated people.

PEN America strongly recommends an end to all prison book censorship and urges prison systems to expand access to literature for all incarcerated people. In response to its findings, PEN America, with partnering organizations, is launching Prison Banned Books Week starting today through next Tuesday.

“The extent of prison book banning is alarming and an attack on the written word itself.” said Moira Marquis, senior manager of PEN America’s Freewrite Project and lead author of the report.  “Censorship should not be a knee jerk tactic by authorities to address other prison concerns, such as spurious claims that books are a conduit for drugs. Yet we are witnessing vast amounts of time, effort and money expended in order to stop people from reading. This censorship must end.”  

This report expands PEN America’s earlier work documenting prison censorship. In Literature Locked Up, published in 2019, PEN America  first defined “content-neutral censorship” and documented its use across the United States. These are restrictions based not on the content of certain books but instead on all the other ways prison officials censor reading materials. 

The new report is based on freedom of information (FOIA) requests to prison systems in every state in the U.S., to the District of Columbia and to the federal Bureau of Prisons, as well as interviews with prison mailroom staff and narratives from incarcerated people. The research exposes censorship carried out in prisons where books are literally thrown in the trash by staff. Despite the patchiness of official state record keeping, the report documented extensive prison censorship of content, including medical and art books, dictionaries and other reference materials. The most common reason cited for censoring content was “sexually explicit,” which was used to deny popular magazines, drawing books, medical books and dictionaries. 

Florida leads the 28 states that collect information on censored titles with 22,825 banned, followed by Texas with 10,265 titles and Kansas with 7,699 titles up to 2021, the latest data available. 

Of these 28 states that record titles banned in prisons, a cookbook,  Prison Ramen, which is a collection of recipes for ramen noodles (some contributed by anonymous prisoners and others from recognized figures such as Shia LaBeouf), is most frequently banned (19 states). Prison Ramen was written by actor Clifton Collins Jr. and Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez, a former California inmate. The award-winning actor Samuel L. Jackson wrote the foreword to the 2015 paperback edition.  48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, the New York Times bestselling author of self-help books, follows as the second most banned title (18 states). The Art of War, a 5th century BC military text, is also frequently banned by prisons.  

PEN America also found prisons are increasingly limiting the booksellers allowed to send books into prisons to a handful of “approved vendors.”  This practice is a kind of content-neutral restriction, and has increased exponentially since 2015, when 30 percent of prisons wouldn’t allow books from nonprofits, independent bookstores, family and friends. In 2023, PEN America found 84 percent  of prisons surveyed now require that books are purchased from vendors the state or specific prisons opaquely select without publishing criteria for their choices or providing steps for booksellers to become approved. The scale of this censorship is widely unknown due to a lack of record keeping. Idaho uniquely keeps track of approved vendor censorship and, in the first year the policy was implemented, the state  denied one book for every four incarcerated people. 

Other major findings in the research revealed:

  • Approved vendor banning is on the rise and is outstripping content bans in limiting literature to incarcerated people.
  • The most common reason for content-based censorship is “sexually explicit” which in practice censors art, medical and drawing books among others.
  • A lack of documentation means that the true extent of carceral censorship is likely exponentially greater than the numbers featured in the report, which were found to be extremely high. 

The report finds these bans are largely capriciously enacted by mailroom staff, a position that requires no specific knowledge of literature. Even in systems with oversight committees, the bans made by mailroom staff are overwhelmingly upheld including when books are thrown in the trash. The practice is officially termed “giving permission to have the literature destroyed” in paperwork which incarcerated people consent to because the only other option is for them to pay to mail it “home.”

Bestselling author Robert Greene – whose books are banned in 19 state prison systems, according to the report – said everyone should be concerned about prison censorship: “It’s a form of control. It’s the ultimate form of power of manipulation. So the hypocrisy of saying, ‘this is a book that’s dangerous for you…’ whereas they’re [prisons] the ones that are completely controlling the dynamic and giving you access to only certain amounts of information is very frightening. That’s how totalitarian systems operate.”

The report features narratives from incarcerated people regarding the damaging impact of prison censorship on their lives as well as makes practical suggestions for how to unravel this web of suppression of information and literature. 

PEN America has a long record of opposing censorship of any information or  ideas, whether in prisons or elsewhere. For this reason, PEN America is calling for an end to censorship in prisons including content-based and content-neutral banning, both of which unduly limit incarcerated people’s access to reading materials and makes reading challenging if not impossible for them.

The report includes several policy recommendations focused on reducing barriers to access to literature in prison including endorsing the federal Prison Libraries Act (H.R. 2825) which urges state lawmakers to draft legislation in line with the recently updated American Library Association standards for prison libraries. Among other aspects, the Prison Libraries Act allows prisons to partner with local public libraries, and requires that prisons accept donated books–which many facilities currently deny. These cost saving measures should be supplemented by new allocations, necessary to address grossly inadequate materials. In addition, the report recommends legislation that would prevent prison authorities from limiting vendors and other content-neutral censorship tactics including censoring due to the size, the quantity or whether a person has written permission from a warden to receive literature. 

Join PEN America in calling for an end to the most pervasive censorship in our society by telling legislators and prison authorities #BookNotBans. 

About PEN America

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. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057