Books to Prisoners believes that prisoners benefit from access to information.
An excessive restriction on reading materials infantilizes incarcerated adults and contributes to an environment of distrust between inmates and correctional officers that hampers rehabilitative goals. The costs outweigh the benefits.
In many states, unfortunately, The Department of Corrections maintains strict guidelines about allowable content in publications. These rules are often broadly worded, inconsistently implemented, and promote sweeping book bans under the guise of risk management. What defines “sexual content”? Is it appropriate or fair that this categorization has been used (and used many times, in many states) to deny National Geographic magazines, photography books, and drawing instruction manuals? At what point does a symbol have the potential to be so inflammatory that a publication containing the symbol may not be read by any inmate in a prison?
General guidelines can be accessed for many states by searching online. We would like to use this page, however, to draw special attention to the persistence of banned books lists in prisons. These are lists accumulated over time by prison mail rooms that result in automatic bans on certain publications. Prisons maintain these lists as filters for incoming publications; such policies favor restriction when any doubt about appropriateness exists. Prisoners have little leverage to remove books and magazines from lists, and the decisions that land publications on banned books lists are rarely reviewed.
Our hope is that one day these restrictions will be lifted. We need to challenge these overly inclusive lists as what they really are: Codified censorship for a vulnerable population.
In 2015, the ACLU obtained documents from the Arizona prison system that detailed hundreds of publication reviews. Some of their findings are collected here. Books that have been banned include atlases, books on drawing, and mythology books.
Take this fun quiz to find out a few of the books that Arizona has banned over the year.
A copy of Connecticut’s banned books list from 2013 can be read here. Bans include individual issues of The New Yorker, Adbusters, and Prison Legal News. She’s Come Undone – a book selected for Oprah’s Book Club – was initially banned before media attention reversed the decision
Received from a prisoner, we have a scanned copy of the banned books list for the state of North Carolina (updated in 2015). Read it here. Some highlights include:
591 banned titles
22 banned publishers
Banned titles like The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander), The Art of War (Sun Tzu), and all dictionaries.
The complete banned books list for Pennsylvania can be read here. It is updated quarterly.
All Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder RPG manuals are denied (reason: “writings which advocate violence, insurrection, or guerrilla warfare against the government or any of its facilities or which create a danger within the context of the correctional facility”)
Magic: The Gathering, Rifts: Book of Magic, Warhammer 40K, and World of Warcraft materials are also banned.
Read the report on banned books in Texas, compiled by the Texas Civil Rights Project, here. 11,851 titles were banned in Texas by 2012. Newer sources suggest that the list may have exceeded 15,000 titles by 2016. Bans include figure drawing books, John Grisham novels, and books about the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Materials that have been banned for containing “codes” include books on Wicca.
Read a partial list of banned books in Virginia from 2001, as reported by the Schilling Show, here. Banned authors include Louis L’Amour, James Patterson, and John Grisham. As of 2015, Virginia still maintains a banned books list for use at all facilities. No copy has been made available online, but guidelines for inclusion can be found here.
A frequently updated pdf of restricted publication can be found on the WA DOC site, here. It notably includes nonfiction books such as Trans Bodies, Trans Selves and The Dark Net.