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Why and How Censorship Thrives in American Prisons

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Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Censorship in prisons is the biggest First Amendment violation in America. Yet it remains one of the least talked about and least examined.

“[W]ith prisons, we’ve created an opaque system. Until recently, not many people witnessed the day-to-day activities inside of prison and thus our perceptions have been guided by the most outlying vignettes—fictional portrayals of prison life, like in Oz, or media coverage of riots and other violence. So when prison censors tell us that something is ‘necessary to maintain security,’ it’s easier to believe that security could be easily compromised and that these guards have the expertise to assess the risk correctly,” said Michelle Dillon, a representative of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) and Books to Prisoners.

Paul Wright, Director of HRDC, is more direct about why there’s such tremendous censorship in prisons. “[W]e live in a fascist police state where the control of the population through armed state violence is paramount and that includes restricting the flow of ideas and writing and reading itself,”

“It is steadily increasing and this mirrors society at large with the exponential expansion literally and figuratively of the police state and the surveillance state and this ranges from the obvious (more cops, prosecutors, guards, more prisons, more jails, etc.) to the technological of having better, cheaper means to surveil, control even kill people,” he added.

As part of Banned Books Week in 2019, PEN America drafted a policy paper that goes deep into the realities of censorship in American prisons.

“It’s become increasingly clear to us how widespread and systemic this problem is, and how the national trend is towards more restrictions on the right to read, not less. We wanted to try to help re-orient the conversation—towards the necessity of upholding the right to read, and pushing back against these restrictions,” said James Tager, Deputy Director of Free Expression Policy and Research at PEN America. “One of the reasons we felt so strongly about the need for this report is to highlight how this is an issue of access to literature, not just a prison reform issue. We want readers and writers across the country to get upset about this.”

Key findings include the reality that books about race and civil rights are among the most likely to be banned; that there’s no meaningful insight into what and how books are banned (this job is often relegated to the mailroom and arbitrary decision making occurring therein); and what “content-neutral bans” are, as well as how being selective in the vendors from which incarcerated individuals can receive books further hinders access.

PEN America notes that, despite the fact those in prison can argue for their First Amendment rights—particularly when it comes to book bans and censorship—many do not because of the fear of retribution.

As more reports surface about the reality of prison censorship, and more organizations—nonprofits, newsrooms, legal, and others—step forward to advocate on behalf of the populations behind bars, more needs to be said and done about one of the biggest hindrances to change. Prison book donation policies across the U.S. vary by state, are inconsistent, and willfully create barriers that make even understanding the vastness of the problem incomprehensible.

The lack of open reporting, of open access to banned books lists, and the silence to those inside the system, as well as outside it, further harms this sensitive population who, as research continues to show, are less likely to experience recidivism when given access to books.

“This period is one of the first times when these restrictions are being examined by a wide audience; in other words, a lot of the conferred latitude has happened by simple lack of both internal and external oversight,” said Dillon.

Prison Book Censorship by State

A letter included in the book “Dear Books to Prisoners,” a compilation of letters sent from incarcerated individuals to prison book donation organizations, reads: “[It’s] the only chance of hope to escape the madness prisons are known for. I am free as I chase word by word, page by page! 500, 1000, even 2000 pages are never enough.”

Policies and Procedures Vary, are Inconsistent and Non-Transparent

Each U.S. state operates their prison systems independently, meaning that the policies about what they do and don’t allow in the mail for people who are incarcerated vary. The policies tend to be state-wide, and as outlined in the PEN America report:

“[P]rison officials generally have broad latitude to ban books based on their content, including the prerogative to develop their own rationales for why a book should be blocked. They usually do so on one of several grounds:

  • Sexual content. nudity, or obscenity
  • Depictions of violence or language perceived to encourage it
  • Depictions of criminal activity or language perceived to encourage it
  • Depictions of escape or language perceived to encourage it
  • Encouragement of “group disruption” or anti-authority attitudes or actions
  • Racial animus or language perceived to encourage hatred

As the report states, many of these guidelines are not inappropriate. But because the decisions about materials are made within the prison—either in mail rooms or by committees comprised of those who work for the system—there is significant latitude in interpreting these policies. We’ve seen this in prison censorship cases in states like Ohio and New Hampshire, as well as in Washington state, where it became clear that scanning for single words without context led to the removal of material with no rhyme or reason, despite claims that it was because of contraband being smuggled in the books.

That latitude thrives in the prison system. Operating as a hierarchy means that censorship can happen across many arenas, without communication between and among individuals within a given prison—and even more so on a state level, despite state-wide policies meant to be uniform. PEN notes that “content-based censorship often occurs in the prison mailroom or in the prison library—on the individual level. In the prison mailroom, individual officers are empowered to decide whether a book will be allowed to reach its intended recipient, or not,” and there aren’t formal processes for such decisions. The decisions don’t require explanations or meaningful insight. This means there may be zero documentation as to why or how certain titles were deemed unacceptable.

Trager notes that by virtue of the system operating like a system, censorship becomes an ingrained part of the process. But it doesn’t need to.

“[J]ust because censorship thrives in such a system, does not mean we need to accept it as another fact of life. More meaningful review mechanisms, more transparent and clearly-defined rules over what constitutes grounds to ban a book, more consistent application of these rules, a standard of review that recognizes and values the literary merit of a challenged book, training and regulations that explicitly incorporate First Amendment principles…all of these represent steps we should take to help ensure that the urge to censor is not running rampant in our prisons.”

In addition to individual-level censorship, there’s institution-wide censorship. As PEN describes: “Individual prisons may create their own institution-specific rules about which books are allowed. As a result, certain books may be allowed in one prison and banned in another. ”

There’s also state-wide censorship. PEN notes that this is where banned books make a state list, following the removal from individuals or individual institutions. They explain: “State departments of correction may have a list of banned books, which often include thousands of banned titles. Such lists often codify and formalize the practices of prison mail rooms towards certain books, turning institution-wide norms into an automatic statewide ban.” It’s at the state level where states like Arizona, Florida, and Illinois, among others, have developed such lengthy lists of banned books.

These banned books lists are not made public, except for in a small number of states. Those states don’t make them readily available, though, requiring Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests to acquire them. What a FOIA request might include, though, is anyone’s guess—and updates to lists that do exist aren’t necessarily made public or accessible, either.

Organizations working on behalf of incarcerated populations, and not to mention the general public (including loved ones of those who are incarcerated), are left in the dark as to what books are allowed and which aren’t. It’s quite likely that despite how much information has been requested and collected by advocacy groups, there are even steeper realities of censorship in American prisons of which we’re completely unaware. A lack of documentation, oversight, and procedures further hinder the First Amendment rights of those behind bars.

The Human Rights Defense Center has tracked state-by-state policies. According to their records as of writing, only two states have their banned books lists available online: Pennsylvania and Washington state. Pennsylvania updates their list quarterly, and Washington is known to update theirs “frequently.”

The work done by HRDC, particularly through their legal actions, as well as various prison book groups and advocates has forced some states to become more transparent about their policies.

“Prison book programs are better networked and can share information about suspected restrictions and we have more people who are interested in prison advocacy in general. Digital portals and email have made public record requests easier than the days of physically mailing letters back and forth, so we have better access to these banned books lists,” says Dillon. She notes that states like Colorado and Washington have made changes to their own policies in the wake of litigation.

An ACLU-led lawsuit in 2000 reached a settlement in 2004 in Colorado, which led to more open records about the scope of prison censorship, while Dillon notes that Washington is responsive, particularly to prison book advocates, because “[they] have been sued into oblivion by HRDC.” A complete list of HRDC-led litigation in the manner of prison censorship gives some insight into where, why, and how some states are less opaque in their polices and processes.

Such is not the case in other states. Alaska’s DOC required $2000 for access to prison book ban logs when requested by the HRDC, with similar charges requested by Kentucky and Idaho. Alabama requires $25 for any public records request sent to their DOC, meaning that it costs $25 to be told they probably don’t have them (as Dillon notes, they had to be persuaded not to charge another $25 for a follow up explanation). New Mexico, like many states with little oversight into their processes, regularly misunderstands information requests, sending organizations like the HRDC into a nonstop email chain with no answers to their initial inquiries.

When books are banned, there’s no precedent for how review occurs, were one requested. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that prisons must have an appeals process wherein the original reviewer isn’t part of the final decision, but as PEN notes, “there is no requirement that this reviewer be independent of the prison system, nor are there any other meaningful criteria regarding the reviewer’s qualifications. The result is a review system that fails to operate as a serious check on prison censorship.”

And further, with the power in the hands of the states, there are additional complications when it comes to record maintenance.

“[P]ublic record laws, being state-based, are often very weak and so it’s difficult in general to get information from a state. Because of the general culture of policing and prisons, which creates an ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and prison advocates may be seen as opposition trying to undermine prisons and the livelihood of staff, or to criticize them; it’s a defensive position. Or maybe because there’s no national requirement for data collection, especially on this issue, so a lot of prison systems are genuinely at a loss how to respond to a request for non-existent data,” said Dillon.

Authorized Distribution of Books in Prisons

Another challenge is the means by which books are allowed to reach the incarcerated. PEN calls these “content-neutral bans” and defines them as “often implemented as part of a ‘Secure Vendor’ program, by which the prison allows incarcerated people to purchase packages only from certain pre-approved vendors. Because these restrictions are based not on the content of certain books but instead aimed at restricting books-as-packages.” These, PEN states, are actually far more damaging than the blanket book bans.

A letter published in “Dear Books to Prisoners” from Books to Prisoners. Demetrius shares what books have meant to him while incarcerated, with a pull quote on the left reading “Sometimes I feel without the books I receive I might go crazy.”

With “content-neutral bans,” as seen with banned books lists, the information varies state by state. They include:

  • Forcing incarcerated individuals to pay for books directly
  • Being unable to receive books in the mail from friends and family
  • Relying on third-party organizations like Books to Prisoners and Books Through Bars to supply books
  • Permitting the incarcerated to only purchase books from specific vendors, which gives vendors a monopoly and opportunity to overcharge for their materials.

“Content-neutral book banning policies are becoming more and more restrictive, and it seems like every few months we find out another policy has been quietly rolled out somewhere in the country,” says Trager.

What each state determines as an appropriate vendor indeed sometimes makes little sense at all. In some states, such as Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming, set up one of their requirements—and in some cases the sole allowance—books to be sent from the publisherA number of the previously-listed states, along with a handful of others, include “book stores,” “approved vendor,” and “book distributors” among their restrictions. Some states, like Louisiana, allow each facility to determine from whom books may be received (though in Louisiana, family are not approved).

Jackie Snow, volunteer with D.C.’s Books to Prisoners program, which has been in operation since 1999 and sends nearly 6,000 packages a year to people in prison across 35 states, notes that these vendor limitations are one of the biggest emerging censorship issues.

“We are seeing more prisons try to do tablets or restrict to certain vendors (who they might get some sort of financial incentive for each sale). A lot of the stated concern is about contraband being smuggled in via books. Our group goes out of the way not to send any books that prisons worry about, like books with water damage, which could be dissolved drugs, or any coloring books with pages already colored in, which is also a way drugs have been smuggled in. More prisons are restricting the books we can send to only being in new condition, which makes our work a lot harder since most donations are not brand new books. Being in D.C. doesn’t help since most of these issues are decided state level,” she said.

Requiring a book come from the publisher is a significant hurdle for prisoners, and it privileges some materials over others. In some states, it’s made more difficult with language that doesn’t distinguish what publishers are allowed to send materials and which aren’t.

“It’s a huge obstacle for people who are incarcerated and limits their access to a full range of reading materials. This is also a big component of the litigation by the Human Rights Defense Center, since so many prisons have an inclination to: (a) Disbelieve that a publisher is actually a publisher (think of all the tiny publishing houses out there) and will falsely reject books because of this rule, and (b) Not understand that many publishers don’t necessarily sell directly but may sell to book stores who then provide books from a central distribution hub,” explains Dillon.

Wright adds, “The reality is it deprives friends and families of the ability to share books and to the extent prisoners are overwhelmingly poor and their families are as well it imposes additional barriers to access books and information. The corollary to this is policies that ban used books, even if they come from book vendors or sellers.”

New Hampshire’s policy for books to prisoners, for example, notes that materials “may be introduced into the mail by a bona fide
publisher or bona fide bookstore and prepaid by direct subscription only.” The policy does not note what “bona fide” means when it comes to a publisher or to a bookstore.

In 2018, New York’s limitation to books from publishers brought light to how restrictive these policies and relationships can be. The approved list of publishers included only six options. The policy was overturned, in part because of significant media attention and the work of advocacy groups like Books Through Bars NYC.

Michigan’s current policies for books to prisoners are among some of the most restrictive and most challenging to shift. No used books are allowed, and new books must be purchased through one of three vendors approved by the state. The vendors include Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller, Prison Legal News/Human Rights Defense Center, and Schuler Books & Music. Additionally, those with visual impairments are allowed materials from National Library of Congress, Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and American Printing House for the Blind  and those seeking certain non-used religious publications have a list of approved vendors as well.

The HRDC is currently pursuing legal action against the Michigan Department of Corrections for its censorship to the incarcerated.

As was seen in Ohio earlier this year, these pre-approved lists of vendors can lead to more questions about the nation of the relationships between the institution and the vendor. If a vendor has a monopoly, they can increase the prices of their materials to the already-vulnerable population who likely could not afford the book.

Public outcry has been beneficial in these censorship cases, as has been seen in places like Washington state.

“It’s heartening that many of these policies are scrapped or revised after public outcry, “says Trager, “but we cannot have public outrage as our most effective means of oversight. We need systemic change to address a systemic problem.

“I personally do believe that advocates are being more vocal about this issue. But we have to remember that there is little public visibility into this. There is zero doubt that there are many more instances of arbitrary or irrational book banning in our prisons, of which we are woefully unaware,” he adds.

What are Prisoners Allowed To Have?: Restrictions on Material Quantity, Types

As a result of the lack of transparency about books being banned in prisons, the creators of the censored books are often unaware that their books have been restricted. Authors who write books for this population, hoping to offer them guidance, insight, education, and hope, frequently do not know their titles have been withheld, unless they seek out the banned book lists by state. Even then, with documentation inconsistent and frequently out of date, the reality of the situation can be unknown.

Terri LeClercq, the author of Prison Grievances, which was banned in Kansas and Illinois until intervention, finds her book still unavailable in other state institutions.

Written for those experiencing incarceration, LeClercq worked with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice while writing her book over the course of ten years.

“After staff in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reviewed my early draft and made very helpful suggestions (no censoring at all), I finally (10 years from beginning to publication) got it self-published and ready for sale. A lawyer friend here offered to buy a copy for each TDC unit. The very first book I sent to a correspondent was banned. I learned that because he said he didn’t get it. He checked the mail room, and they said it was on the banned list so they destroyed it,” she said, noting that ‘destroyed’ in this instance meant the book disappeared all together without explanation. It was not returned to her, and when she followed up, the mailroom reached out to the incarcerated correspondent, asking if he could afford the postage to return it to sender (“No one can, of course,” added LeClercq).

“Having a 10-yr project, written directly for the very audience that was not allowed to get it, was a tremendous blow. I had had ups and downs in the project […] But this was the bottom of hell.”

Her awareness of the situation—and her investment in helping those who are incarcerated know their rights—has led to further work on prison censorship. With the help of a student assistant, she pulled together a state-by-state list of the quantity and quality of books prisoners are allowed and where those books may be acquired.

Alabama Prisoners are allowed to receive only 2 books per month in the mail
Alaska prisoners allowed 5 books at a time, only new books
Arizona Recently banned books on racism in justice system and imprisoned black men, unspecified specific restrictions on books
Arkansas Unspecified restrictions on number of books per prisoner
California Books must be soft-covered, prisoners allowed up to 10 books at a time, when they receive new ones they must return old ones
Colorado Unspecified restrictions on number of books per prisoner
Connecticut New books only, Unspecified restrictions on number of books per prisoner
Delaware restrictions on size of books allowed, limits based on storage in facility
Florida Limit to 4 personal books, 4 subscriptions
Georgia unspecified limit on number of books
Hawaii Books, magazines, food items, etc., may not be sent to an inmate
Idaho Books must be soft-covered, publications can be new or used
Illinois One prison recently removed 200 books on the subject of black history and empowerment, no limit of publications sent through mail, maximum of 5 publications per visit and cannot be wrapped, packaged, or otherwise contained in any way
Indiana Prisoners can only receive publications from publishers
Iowa All publications must be unused, sent directly from reputable publishing firm or book store
Kansas Prisoners allowed up to 12 books and 10 magazines
Kentucky Prisoners can receive publications from an authorized mail order
distributor of published materials
Louisiana Prisoners are not allowed to receive publications from family, no hard-cover books, each facility sets its own rule
Maine Publications must be sent directly from publisher
Maryland Prisoners are allowed 1.5 cubic feet of books and papers
Massachusetts Publications must be sent directly from publisher, book club, book store, or through Prison book Program
Michigan Publications must be new and sent through approved Internet vendor or publisher
Minnesota Publications must be shipped through publisher
Mississippi Paperbacks only, limited to 3 per month, subscriptions and newspapers sent from publisher, distributor, or vendor
Missouri Limit of 6 books per package
Montana Books must be soft-cover, limit of books depends on prisoner classification
Nebraska Publications must be sent directly from publisher or bookstore with paid receipt
Nevada New and soft-cover only
New Hampshire Publications must be sent directly from publisher
New Jersey Limit of 12 books, publications must be sent through publisher
New Mexico Soft-cover books only; 3 books, 3 magazines, 2 religious books
New York Publications should be sent through publisher
North Carolina Publication restrictions based on security level of facility, pre-approved publications only, Minimum Custody: any reading material from any source; Medium or Close Custody: reasonable number directly from publisher or distributor; prisoners in a control status that prevents it cannot receive any publications
North Dakota No used or previously read materials will be allowed to be sent
Ohio Publications must be sent directly from publisher, a package must be limited to 1 box that does not exceed 30 pounds, box size must not exceed 12″ x 24″ x 28″
Oklahoma Publications must be sent directly from publisher, books preferably new, no specified limit to number of books
Oregon Publications must be sent directly from publisher or distributor
Pennsylvania Publications should be sent through publisher
Rhode Island All packages must be delivered by USPS, only new paperback books
South Carolina Up to 5 pages per envelope, prisoners in intake status or restricted housing are not allowed to receive publications, publications must be sent through publisher and paid for beforehand
South Dakota Publications must be sent through publisher, limited to 5 small newspaper clippings and up to 10 extra sheets of paper
Tennessee Publications must be sent through publisher
Texas Publications must be sent through publisher, limited to space prisoner has
Utah Books may only be purchased through prison commissary
Vermont Soft-cover books only, prisoners can make requests to a supervisor or caseworker, publications must be sent through publisher
Virginia Books larger than 11 inches by 14 inches are not allowed, Publications must be sent through publisher
Washington Publications must be sent through publisher, only new paperback books
West Virginia Publications must be sent through publisher, only new books
Wisconsin Prisoners are allowed up to 25 publications at a time
Wyoming Publications must be sent through publisher, hardback books and other publications are not allowed

While all of those who are incarcerated have access to a Law Library, most also have access of some capacity to a leisure library. But the extent of those libraries is, as PEN reports, varied and inconsistent, “The American Library Association has a recommended set of standards for adult correctional institutions. They suggest a minimum of 15 books per person, or at least 5,000 titles for smaller institutions. In 2000, U.S. prison libraries held only 7 books per prisoner, according to one estimate. Since then, with the dramatic increase in mass incarceration over the past two decades, it is widely understood that prison library book acquisitions have fallen even further behind this standard, although comprehensive data is unavailable.”

The report continues, outlining the realities of prison library funding:

“Prison librarians—like any other librarians in under-resourced locations—may find themselves ‘hustling’ for book donations to sufficiently stock their shelves.100 Meanwhile, funds for prison libraries are often the first to go when state officials cut budgets. In Illinois, for example, an Illinois Newsroom investigation found that, in 2017, the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) spent a total of $276 on new books. For a system with 28 facilities, that’s less than ten dollars per prison. […] the state of Maryland has approximately 129,000 books in its libraries, or approximately 7 books per incarcerated person. The state spends approximately $16,000 per year for new books – for an incarcerated population of more than 17,000 people. […] In Georgia, an investigation this year by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed the book catalogues at 12 state prisons. Among their findings: four prisons had less than four books per person, with the prison library at one prison offering fewer than 2,000 books for approximately 1,000 prisoners.”

Even within those poorly funded, under-staffed libraries, the reality is even starker. The books on shelves do not reflect those who are incarcerated. As PEN notes, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted their report, “Although nearly two-thirds of Georgia inmates are black, more than half of libraries have no books on Martin Luther King Jr., and two-thirds of them don’t have anything on Malcolm X.”

And prison librarians, despite their own best intentions, can become part of the system as well. LeClercq found this to be the case when her book was finally allowed in Texas facilities.

Following a meeting and discussion with Texas Senator John Whitmire, who she notes is one of the few senators working on prison legislation, LeClercq’s book was reinstated. “The next Monday the head of TDC called and told me he had given approval for the book to be placed in the general libraries. It was, although in a crazy turn of events, some of the librarians seem to place it on bottom shelves, unlisted. Some unit libraries then decided readers could use it for only 15 minutes—it’s a 5th grade graphic novel, but who could absorb all that legal information in 15 minutes? Not me, for sure, and I read rather fast. It’s as if the prison culture has pervaded even the people who are supposed to help inmates, like librarians.”

“Authors can do nothing. Zero. Zip. We can’t learn which prisons have banned us […] This hidden and nefarious censorship will continue and will grow,” says LeClercq.

The quantity of material each individual is allowed to have while incarcerated is not only limited by financial realities—imposed by forcing them to purchase materials through outside vendors—but they’re limited, too, in the format of books. Hardcovers are more expensive than paperbacks. New books more costly than used. Further still, the restriction to a certain number of books per person, in conjunction with underfunded and poorly developed prison libraries only hinders their First Amendment rights more deeply.

Advocacy groups like Books to Prisoners, Books Behind Bars, and others, all serve a crucial role in getting books into the hands of those who are incarcerated. But, in addition to the inconsistent policies and book bans which happen without clear reasoning or process, the fact that many state policies disallow used books to get into the hands of individuals is a challenge. Michigan is one of the states that does not allow any used books into their facilities—either for individuals in the system or the libraries—and, as noted previously, their restriction to only three vendors for purchasing titles has meant that not only are prison book donation groups not active in the state, but the HRDC has stepped in to sue the state over prison censorship.

State policies remain vague here, too. North Dakota disallows books that have been “previously read” (as something separate from “used”), while New Mexico sets a hard limit on the number of books, magazines, and religious texts (what separates a book from a religious text in this case and/or what restrictions does that place on certain religious faiths). The ability to leave these up for interpretation gives significant opportunity for overreach on the part of the Wardens or those they assign responsibility to, as has been seen before and will continue to be seen in the future.

And for advocacy groups and prison book donation organizations? The ever-shifting policies are compounded by the fact each group is often treated differently by the same facilities.

“We’re all volunteers with full time jobs and other obligations. In the past, various prison book programs have tried to create centralized lists of known restrictions at prisons, but we just ended up with more confusion because it turns out that every prison treats every group differently. One group might be accepted at a prison; another group might be restricted to ‘new books’ only; another group might be fully banned. In many states, like New Mexico and both Washington and Ohio until recently, every warden was given latitude to make their own rules. A new warden would mean a new set of rules…but, of course, we weren’t generally privy to either regime changes or policy updates. It is a mess, and that’s why we’re all fighting to get better standards and oversight so that we don’t have to waste time, energy, and postage money on finding out that a prison has changed its rules yet again,” said Dillon.

What Can Be Done?

“I put together a list of books I wanted and wrote letters to hundreds of organizations and famous people I read about in magazines asking if they would donate one of those books to the Patuxent library. Can you imagine how special that was to hear the library got a new book and realize it was one I asked for, and that someone donated it because of me?

“I didn’t just live for that library. I lived because of that library. The Patuxent prison library saved me from crushing despair. It saved hundreds of other guys, too.”

Chris Wilson, formerly incarcerated author

Because of better tools of communication, connection, and time, awareness of the depths of prison censorship is growing. This means that, thanks to the work of advocacy groups, on-going legal challenges, and reports like those done by PEN and similar groups and individuals, more information exists. And this information means that the average citizen can get a better handle on how they can act and stand up for the rights of those experiencing incarceration.

“In my capacity with Books to Prisoners, we do this work for several reasons. Many of us are librarians, book store employees, and other pro-book people; we want to see the joy of reading spread as far as possible. We also do this because—especially as we work with these groups longer—we see the profound isolation and deprivation experienced by people in prisons and we want to remedy that in even this very small way. There are a variety of perspectives in books to prisoners programs, from those who see this as prisoner support and abolition work, to those who operate from the framework of rehabilitation and want to see prisoners gain access to tools for job training and higher education in order to “better themselves” and decrease recidivism,” said Dillon.

She noted that the most commonly requested books include dictionaries, Spanish language learning, black history and fiction, how-to-draw, manga & comics, vocational training (including plumbing, etc., as well as how to start a business), genre fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, and horror in particular), ancient history, mythology, occult, legal self-help, and games (sudoku, crosswords, D&D).

What’s the average person to do? In what ways can the work continue to push forward?

Know Who Is In Charge of Prison Oversight In Your State

Step one is getting to know who is in charge of prison oversight and speaking up against these behaviors on a state level.

“[T]hese actions and abuses continue because we continue electing politicians who endorse or appoint the people who do them. Governors are responsible for the prisons, sheriffs generally for the jails. If there is a political price to pay these practices may stop. […] it doesn’t take a huge amount of support or outcry to get prisoncrats or jail officials to back down on small limited issues. The reality is we have a police state with little in the way of accountability or transparency at any level, not just around censorship,” said Wright.

Likewise, understand what the policies are within your state when it comes to book censorship. Reach out to your state’s DOC and ask for them. Ask about policies and procedures, as well as lists of titles and reasons. As noted, the chances of receiving an answer easily are slim to none; but collective action and effort move the needle.

One way to make this process a little easier is to develop a series of email templates asking for information that can be copy and pasted. Keep those, as well as all correspondence, in a file for record keeping.

As Wright notes, understand your state governor’s stance on prison oversight. Again, write letters. Know what policies local and state-level sheriffs follow and know the chain of command—who does the sheriff report to? That’s who to write to when answers don’t come back and/or you want to know more and are seeing nothing from the sheriff.

We’ve seen the power of elections and the necessity in voting. This is not just true on the national level. In many ways, those state and local elections are equally, if not more, imperative.

Donate (Time/Talent/Money) to Organizations Doing The Work

Dillon emphasizes that the fight begins locally.

“The average citizen can start by connecting with a local prison book program, higher ed in prison, or other prison advocacy group, if there is one in your area. If there’s a prison book program that you can join, help answer requests for books; learn firsthand about the difficulties of providing books—the arbitrary returns, the proactive self-censorship to try to avoid assumed restrictions, the dedication of other activists. Use that community as a potential launching point to collaborate on a statewide campaign if you find that one is necessary (for example, we’re having issues with overall book access in Indiana and Michigan right now, and nearly every state could use a push to create better publication review committees and publicly available lists of censored materials).”

Whatever talents you have, those can be put to use in protecting the First Amendment rights of people in prisons.

“[A]re you a great graphic designer? Do you know state politicians who might be interested in talking about these issues? Can you write persuasive letters? This is a community fight, so find your community first,” Dillon added.

Organizations like the HRDC are great places to donate money, particularly as they have long and successful track records of litigation. Their work has a traceable paper trail and leads to changes as seen in states like Washington.

Snow says, “There are a couple dozen programs like ours across the country, all powered by donations and volunteers. I recommend this volunteering to anyone. The letters we get can be thoughtful, funny, or a small delight when someone asks for a book by your favorite author that you can fill, and the notes we get back are wonderful. Even if you don’t live near one of these groups to volunteer your time or drop off books, buying books from wishlists like ours is something that keeps us going.”

“[T]here is something free that interested people can do: keep an eye on their state’s rules around sending books to prisons. Many states are trying to restrict packages just from vendors like Amazon, or even going to tablets that force inmates to buy the expensive technology and books that can be marked way up, even books in the public domain. We have had success pushing back, most recently in Maryland, but it will be an ongoing fight that people can help by contacting their representatives and Governors to let them know they don’t agree with policies like these,” added Snow.

Be The Voice

“Public outrage has been instrumental in reversing recent policies across the country. It’s vitally important to help demonstrate to prison officials that the American people do not support overbroad and arbitrary restrictions on literature, or policies that severely limit access to books. Overall, people should absolutely be speaking with their elected officials about this,” says Trager. He adds that local reporters played a significant role in uncovering book bans and bringing them to the attention of the public—the endnotes of the PEN America report highlight the value that local media outlets have in making these acts of censorship known.

“This is a story that is often first uncovered at a local level, sometimes well before it reaches more national attention,” he adds.

When the realities of prison censorship come to light, it’s too easy for those without the knowledge or understanding of the depths of the problem to make light of the situation. But it’s not joke. Certainly, books can be weapons and can be tools used for transporting illegal substances into prisons. But these instances are exceptionally uncommon.

What’s far more common is for the First Amendment rights of the incarcerated to be denied.

It’s been proven that access to books reduces recidivism. People make mistakes and commit crime. They serve the punishment given to them by a judge and/or a jury. During this time, they have an opportunity to better themselves in whatever ways necessary so they’re prepared for life on the outside again, be it in six months, six years, or sixty years.

For vulnerable populations within an already-vulnerable population—black men and women experiencing incarceration in particular—having access to materials about the prison system, racial justice, and their rights is crucial. Already unjustly targeted, they face further challenges in and out of the school-to-prison pipeline, due to bigotry, racism, classism, and denial of tools for rehabilitation. Listen to those in this community and rally in support of their rights.

Trager adds, “We need to shine a light on how useful, inspiring, and dignity-enhancing book access is for those who are incarcerated. Pragmatically, access to literature has been shown to help reduce recidivism rates. But we need better protections to support the right to read and access to books in prisons. We need more meaningful review mechanisms, more transparent and clearly-defined rules over what constitutes grounds to ban a book, more consistent application of these rules from prison officials. We need a standard of review that recognizes and values the literary merit of a challenged book, training and regulations that explicitly incorporate First Amendment principles and affirms the basic right to read…all of these represent steps we should take to help ensure that the urge to censor is not running rampant in our prisons.”

Further Reading

If you want to know more and go deeper, there is a range of incredible material available. Here’s a small selection of outstanding reading: