Reading Between the Bars Appendix


I. Sample FOIA Request

Dear FOIA Officer Weitekamp,

I am writing to gain public disclosure of:

  1. The number and name of all books that were rejected or impounded by state prisons and jails between February 22, 2022 and today, January 31, 2023.

  2. What is the procedure for appealing rejections and impoundment both for incarcerated people and publishers/distributors? 

  3. The names and titles of the person or people who review the rejected books, after they have been identified by mailroom staff/ the names and titles of the person or people who have final authority to accept or reject the book or books.

  4. How is a book rejection communicated back to the sender as well as the intended recipient? 

  5. We would also like to know the timeframe for review of rejected books. What are the time limits in between each step (confiscation, communication with sender and recipient, appeal due date, decision due date)? 

  6. What is done with the book after the ultimate decision is made?

Many thanks for your assistance, in advance, for obtaining this information. Please make me aware, at your earliest convenience, of the timeline for this request and if I can provide clarification or supporting paperwork I am happy to do so. 


II. Volunteer Training for Prison Calls

Thank you so much for volunteering with us at Freewrite. This guide has our purpose for these calls as well as a step by step guide of what to say over the phone. There are also some tips and tricks for making the process as smooth as possible. Thank you again for your help! If you ever have any questions feel free to reach out to Juliana Luna.

All About Prison Calls 

Deadline: August 1st


    • We are currently writing a report on censorship in prisons to get a wide understanding of book rejection practices. Books are routinely rejected in prison mailrooms for both content reasons – sexually explicit, threats to security– and non-content reasons– not received directly from the publisher, hardcover. We are looking at rejections from the views of policy, incarcerated peoples testimonies, and what mailrooms state their rejection practices are. Calling facilities allows us to obtain another facet of banning processes. All the data received will be analyzed and included in our report to better inform about these practices and call for an end to censorship.
    • Prison calls to mailrooms show us a third view of rejection practices as what mailrooms say can often be different than what is stated in policies.
    • Jails often do not have uniform policies so calling is one of the only ways to receive that information. 

How To 

    • All of this can be done on this spreadsheet
    • Add Phone Number 
      • Google “ [name of town] [name of state] prison”
    • Call the Facility (see below)
    • Make Notes 
      • Add month and day write down as much as possible 
        • Example: “5/23- directly from publisher, no titles are flagged, nothing allowed having to do with escaping or would threaten the safety or security, no nudity, send in as many at once but limit in unit”

Calling the Facility 

    • It’s best to call in the mornings. So, depending on your timezone and the timezone of the facility, plan accordingly when to call. 
    • Two possibilities: reach someone or reach menu 
      • If reach menu: sometimes under “inmate services” or 0 for operator 
    • Reach someone: ask to speak to the mailroom, they should directly transfer you 
      • If asked you can say: I’m calling to request the guidelines for mailing books and literature to your facility
    • Once through to mailroom
      • Say: I’m calling to request the guidelines for mailing books and literature to your facility
      • Usually they will give some information but here are follow ups or questions to ask if they ask you for more information or don’t give you everything you need. You can let them answer each before moving on so as to not be overwhelming. 
        • Is there content that is not allowed?
        • Is there a list of disallowed titles/ unallowed titles? Is it a paper list you have to look through or is it digital?
        • Do publications need to come directly from a publisher?
        • Do publications need to come from specific vendors? If so, which ones?
        • Do inmates need prior approval before ordering? How long does prior approval last?
        • Are used publications allowed?
        • Are hardcover books allowed?
        • Is there a limit on how many books can be sent in?
        • Does there need to be a proof of payment slip with purchase?
        • Is there any specific way the book needs to be packaged i.e. in white paper (important for federal facilities)?

Tips and Tricks 

    • Being polite, short to the point, and casual, should get you all the information you need 
    • The line can ring for a long time. Just be patient and wait till you get to talk to someone. If you can’t reach anyone and it’s taken an hour then call the facility another day. 
    • Federal facilities will be the most inquisitive and sometimes a tad aggressive; it will be fine just try to get the information that you can 
    • If ever asked why you are calling: first state you have questions about general book restrictions 
    • If asked again you can say: you are calling for a publisher. You can tell them it’s PEN America and we publish “The Sentences that Create Us” if pressed
    • Sometimes they may ask if you have a specific person you’re trying to mail to, or a specific title of something trying to be sent in
    • Don’t get defensive
    • My go-to line if asked whether we are sending to a book or person specifically: 
      • Sorry, I am not sure. I am just a volunteer and told to find out general information about literature restrictions. 
    • We want to keep them talking to gain as much information as we can so ask all the follow up questions


    • This script can be used for all your calls! 
    • Most of the time you should just need to state you are asking about general book restrictions
    • Get as much information as you can and ask all the follow up questions 
    • If you need any help at all reach out to Juliana

We so appreciate your willingness to volunteer, and thank you for helping to understand censorship in prisons! 

III. Call for Submissions

PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program invites submissions of narrative essays detailing your experiences in receiving books inside. We are interested to learn more about challenges you’ve encountered in receiving books you’ve ordered directly or that have been gifted to you. Essays should use the first person (I, me, my) and describe which specific books were denied or impounded and the events that transpired after that. These could include: receiving paperwork from your facility, appealing that decision, being informed of the review status and either receiving the book or the rejection being upheld.

If you have any paperwork regarding notices of denial, appeals, or similar communications and would like to share, please submit them with your essay. If any or all of these events are not represented we still want to hear your story! For example, if you ordered a book and then never received it or any notification for why. Or, if you received notice but were never able to appeal. 

Please aim to keep your telling to four pages of handwritten text or two typed pages. All submissions will be read. These narratives will contribute to the creation of a pamphlet on appealing denials. All submitters will automatically receive a copy of the pamphlet. If you would prefer to remain anonymous please note that in your submission. Otherwise, if you are quoted, you will be cited as the author. Please send submissions to: 

PEN America Prison and Justice Writing 
Attn: Freewrite Project 
120 Broadway, 26th Floor North
New York, NY 10271

IV. Prison Book Program Survey

PEN America’s Freewrite Project is conducting research on the scope and scale of carceral censorship. As a member of an organization on the frontlines of this phenomenon, we are asking for your knowledge of this practice. If you don’t have an answer to a specific question, it is fine to skip it. If you have further information you would like to share or feedback on these questions please email.  We appreciate the time you take to complete this as well as the work you do for incarcerated people regularly.

  1. Name of Program
  2. Email address
  3. About how many returned or rejected packages does your program receive out of every 100 mailed? Please exclude packages that are returned because someone has been released or there was an error in the address, name or ID#. Please include transfers.

Mark only one oval.

  • less than 10
  • 20%
  • More than 20%
  1. What are the reasons listed for the return?

Check all that apply.

  • Person was transferred to another facility
  • Your program is not an “approved vendor”
  • No free books accepted
  • Person did not submit prior approval on time
  • Package was not wrapped in correct color paper, there were stickers on the exterior, or color of ink is not allowed
  • Number of books exceeds facility limits
  • Content was rejected
  • No hardcover books
  • No invoice or receipt
  • Other:
  1. How much do returned packages cost your program, out of total operating costs?

Mark only one oval.

  • Insignificant
  • 5%
  • 10%
  • More than 10%
  1. Does your program have the capacity to follow-up with facilities about restrictions?

Mark only one oval.

  • Yes
  • No
  • Sometimes
  1.   Does follow-up resolve the issue?

Mark only one oval.

  • Yes
  • No
  • Sometimes
  1.   How many facilities in your service area do not allow books from your program at all?

Mark only one oval.

  • None
  • 10%
  • 30-50%
  • More than half
  1.     What is the largest obstacle for your program’s delivery of free books to incarcerated people?