Prison Banned Books Week Toolkit

Thank you for joining forces with PEN America during our inaugural Prison Banned Books Week (October 25th-31st). Together, we’ll help people understand that prisons are the largest censors in the US and provide ways to participate in our advocacy campaign targeting state leaders and prison officials. 

In this toolkit, you’ll find elements to take part in and amplify awareness and actions.

PEN America is releasing Reading Between the Bars: An In-Depth Look at Prison Censorship on Wednesday, October 25th. The report’s main findings are:

  • In 2023, PEN America found 84 percent  of prisons 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. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. 

Social Media Campaign

Did you know Florida prisons ban over 22,000 books and incarcerated people in Missouri can’t get books as gifts? 

This #PrisonBannedBooksWeek, urge your legislators and DOC officials to stop prison censorship. 


People inside are denied literature that discusses what it’s like to be incarcerated. Prison officials claim these books threaten security.


These books are denied because of “sexually explicit” images. Sexually explicit is the #1 reason for prisons to censor content. But, it’s applied to art books, medical books, popular magazines and drawing guides. 

#BooksNot Bans

84% of prisons in the U.S. require books come from “approved vendors” which rarely include independent bookstores and always deny free books.



Use the sample email language below or edit to make it your own:

Hi {{firstname}},

Prison Banned Books Week is here. With prison censorship exponentially increasing it’s essential to make our elected officials know that we do not give free license for prison officials to stop incarcerated people from reading. Prison Banned Books Week is a time for us to tell prisons to stop prohibiting access to information and literature.

[Your Organization Name] is joining forces with PEN America and other organizations to advocate for a stop to prisons’ attacks on the printed word. We need your support to ensure our message is heard. 

Here’s how you can help: 

    • Send a letter to your state leaders urging them to support crucial legislation and pressure prison officials to cease censorship. 

PEN America has prepared an e-letter that you can send to your state legislators. All you need to do is click send. We’ve also added the ability to customize the letter, so we encourage you to add your personal touch and share your story.

Thank you for your advocacy. Together, we can let prison and elected officials know that books are not a threat. Go to to read the full report and articles written by incarcerated readers.

In solidarity,

[Your Organization Name]