Banned Books Week has arrived, and literary nonprofit PEN America has released a new policy paper as part of their ongoing initiative fighting for the right of incarcerated people to read freely. PEN, which works to defend freedom of expression across the country and the globe, released a policy paper Tuesday on book bans within the U.S. prison system. The paper, “Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban,” is part of PEN’s larger Banned Books Week initiative to encourage Congress to take action against increasing restrictions on texts allowed within the prison system. PEN America’s report highlights not only the sheer magnitude of the issue—over two million Americans are currently incarcerated and thus subject to regulation around their reading material—but also the disorganized and discriminatory nature of the book-banning process.
In most states, prison officials are allowed to ban books at their discretion if they believe the content is obscene or inflammatory, in an effort to curb disorder, uprising or attempts at escape. PEN America reports that the usual grounds for restriction fall under the following broad categories: sexual content, nudity, or obscenity and depictions of violence, criminal activity, anti-authoritarian sentiment, escape or racial animus, or language that is taken to encourage any of the above. These categories, of course, are inclusive enough to be applied in completely irrational ways: Ohio prison officials blocked an incarcerated person from receiving a biology textbook, for example, on the grounds that it featured nudity; Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons and E=MC2: Simple Physics have been subject to a ban in Arizona; and a New York prison has tried to argue that “a book of maps of the Moon … could ‘present risks of escape.’” Few states have invited access to the list of books banned in their prisons—when such information is even available, considering the rate at which librarians, mail workers and other individuals working within the prison system are granted the authority to ban books without oversight or procedure—meaning there very well may be many even more egregious examples outside of the public’s purview.
It is clear, however, that prison officials disproportionately ban civil rights literature and texts that analyze and critique the U.S. criminal justice system. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which discusses racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, was banned in Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina, and Paul Butler’s Chokehold: Policing Black Men was banned in Arizona as of May 2019. New Hampshire state prisons have blocked a number of books delving into the prison industrial complex, as well as texts on the experiences of LGBTQ incarcerated people, and Michigan’s prison system has banned Frantz Fanon’s classic Black Skin, White Masks since 2000 under the rationale that it “advocates racial supremacy.” The PEN America report goes on to reflect on the dehumanizing effects of these wide-ranging bans:
Jarrett Adams, a criminal and civil rights attorney who himself was formerly incarcerated after being wrongfully convicted at 17, expressed to PEN America the importance of access to these types of books specifically: “Those books tell people who are incarcerated not to give up. I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for having been able to read certain books that addressed systemic racism and mass incarceration.”
Such arbitrary policies may contribute to a sense of alienation among incarcerated people, who receive the message that critical information is being deliberately kept from them. The quote from one formerly incarcerated person in Michigan, who ordered The New Jim Crow only to find that the prison’s mailroom staff had prevented him from receiving the book due to its “racial content,” is illustrative: “I feel like the reason why they tried to reject it is because they didn’t want me to have that kind of knowledge.”
The extensive report also takes up the issue of “content-neutral” bans, wherein officials restrict the delivery of books into the prison in an attempt to prevent an influx of contraband. PEN America argue that such bans may pose even greater of a threat to the right to read within the prison system. Content-neutral policies restrict the books available to those offered by the vendors a prison partners with, and pose extreme financial difficulties to the incarcerated thanks to exploitative additional costs. When families, friends and organizations are barred from sending books to prisons, incarcerated people must pay out of their own pocket for each book they receive—and from pre-approved vendors whose catalogues may be extremely limited, and who have complete control over the pricing of books.
James Tager, PEN America’s deputy director of free expression policy and research, authored the report. He says in a statement that “[w]e can’t rely on public outrage alone to ensure that the rights of people in prison aren’t routinely violated.” PEN America’s current efforts center on encouraging government officials to enact lasting structural changes. They urge officials and authorities to implement clearly defined book restriction policies that will undergo periodic review, and to release banned book lists to the public.
Read PEN America’s full report here, and get involved with their Banned Books Week events, initiative and petition to Congress here.