NEW YORK—A highly restrictive new policy being implemented in various federal prisons represents a misguided and destructive disregard for incarcerated people’s right to read, PEN America said in a statement today. 

In recent months, at least two federal penitentiaries have implemented a new policy that prevents incarcerated people from receiving any books from outside sources: publishers, bookstores (including online retailers,) book clubs, or friends and family. The two facilities—the United States Penitentiary in Atwater, California, and the Victorville Federal Correctional Institution, also in California—each hold over 1,000 prisoners. A third facility, Coleman Correctional Complex in Florida, with a population of over 7,000, is reportedly preparing to implement the policy in mid-May. It is unclear whether the Federal Bureau of Prisons, responsible for prison policies affecting almost 200,000 incarcerated people within the United States, has plans in place to implement this policy on a larger level.

The new policy requires incarcerated people to submit book requests through an expensive and restricted ordering system. According to at least one publicly available memorandum outlining the new policy at one prison location, incarcerated people will be required to pay an unexplained “30% markup” in addition to the retail price and shipping costs. In an April 27 report from In Justice Today, incarcerated people affected by the policy have said that it has resulted in not only an increase in prices, but long wait times for book arrivals.

“This policy is a discriminatory and destructive attack on access to literature and other reading and educational materials for thousands of people in prison, shutting them off from works that can reduce recidivism and better connect them to the outside world,” said Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs for PEN America. “Forcing incarcerated people to pay potentially exorbitant prices for books they could receive for free from friends, family, or charities, the policy makes it effectively impossible for many incarcerated people to access books not available in prison libraries. Regardless of whether this is intended as a nationwide policy or to be adopted piecemeal by individual institutions, this misguided and severe restriction on access to books needs to be halted and rescinded as soon as possible.”

PEN America has run a national prison writing program for over 40 years, including an annual Prison Writing Contest available to anyone incarcerated in a federal, state, or county prison. Under this policy, PEN America would be barred from directly sending people in prison copies of its Handbook for Writers in Prison, a detailed guide to writing designed specifically for writers in prison. 

 PEN America was also one of a series of groups that protested Directive 4911A in New York State, a pilot program that similarly restricted access to books mailed directly to people in prison. Governor Cuomo announced his decision to rescind Directive 4911A in January of 2018.


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.

Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Coordinator: [email protected]