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, actually, used many times across 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 lists are accumulated over time by prison mail rooms and typically 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.
Two lists of books banned in Arizona prisons–dated just 20 days apart–were obtained by the Human Rights Defense Center in June 2019. The second list shows that the Arizona DOC halved the items on the list. The alteration in the list of banned books was presumably prompted by two events during 2019: successful litigation by the Human Rights Defense Center that challenged the application of “sexual content” as a reason for rejection in Arizona prisons, and a separate threat of litigation by Prof. Paul Butler and the ACLU regarding a ban by the DOC on Butler’s book, Chokehold.
The list dated June 10, 2019 can be read here.
The list dated June 30, 2019 can be read here.
Previous lists from Arizona:
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.
In 2017, AZCentral.com received a list of additional bans. Read those here; bans include books on making friendship bracelets, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and a Buddhist art coloring book.
Take this fun quiz from The Marshall Project to find out a few more of the books that Arizona has banned over the years.
In June 2019, the Human Rights Defense Center received a list of disapproved publications from California. It can be read here.
Previous lists from California:
Read a list dated August 2018 of books banned by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation here. This list includes many art history books, the cinema reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and titles by George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones).
The Human Rights Defense Center received several lists about disapproved and appealed publications from the Colorado Department of Corrections in September 2019.
Fully censored publications (from October 15, 2018 to September 2019)
Overturned publication rejections (2013-2019)
Facility review committee decisions (books that were allowed after review, 2013-2019)
The ACLU prevailed in litigation against the Colorado DOC in 2004. Part of the settlement established rigorous guidelines for review of incoming publications as well as strict oversight to ensure adherence. This is almost certainly the cause of these above-average review policies and data-keeping practices in Colorado. Read more about the 2004 settlement here.
Read the list of books banned in Connecticut prisons, obtained by the Human Rights Defense Center in June 2019, here. Bans include Game of Thrones books, coloring books (which are claimed to “describe or encourage physical violence or group disruption”), and books about the music industry.
Previous lists from Connecticut:
As reported by The Atlantic and National Journal, 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. Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone – a book selected for Oprah’s Book Club – was initially banned before media attention reversed the decision.
A list of books banned in Florida prisons from 2012 onward, obtained by the Human Rights Defense Center in July 2019, is available here. Books banned as being “security threats” include Klingon dictionaries, a coloring book about chickens, and more.
Previous lists from Florida:
HRDC simultaneously received a list of book bans dating from 1991 through 2011. Read that list here.
Previous lists from Illinois:
A list of books banned in Iowa prisons, obtained by the Human Rights Defense Center in June 2019, is available here. Books on this list that are marked with a “D” were denied after review, while books that are marked with an “A” were accepted; the ratio of books on this list that were ultimately accepted (including books that are often banned in other states) is extremely high, which indicates that Iowa has good review policies.
In 2018, a group of prisoners in Iowa sued the state over a new rule prohibiting material that is “sexually explicit or features nudity,” a broad rule that has been used repeatedly in prisons across the country to deny access to art books and medical information. Read about the case at Hyperallergic.
Bans include classic novels such as A Clockwork Orange, role-playing manuals (including Rifts, Pathfinder, Star Wars, and Dungeons & Dragons), many instructional books on drawing, and many books which are critical of the prison system, including Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis.
After the list from May 2019 was publicized, Kansas prison officials made a public statement that the list would be abolished and the incoming publications policies would be reviewed. Read more: https://www.cjonline.com/news/20190821/corrections-secretary-eliminates-banned-book-list-for-kansas-prisons-deploys-new-policy
The Human Rights Defense Center obtained a list of books banned in Louisiana prisons in July 2019. Read it here. Bans include Game of Thrones, many tabletop RPGs (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons), and award-winning graphic novels. Additionally, Louisiana (like Michigan) unfortunately bans Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.
Previous lists from Louisiana:
A list of books banned in Louisiana prisons, obtained from a public records request in July 2018 by nola.com, can be read here. The list includes a wide array of subject matter, including political material, non-Christian religious material, books on anti-racism, and even books about re-entry for people getting out of prison.
A list of books banned in Michigan prisons was obtained by Bridge Magazine in 2019: bans include career preparation books on computer coding, web design, and basic wiring (a skill now taught by Michigan DOC itself).
The list can be read here.
However, another impediment to book access for Michigan prisoners is the DOC’s ongoing policy that blocks access to used books and restricts purchases to a handful of vendors. Read the full policy here.
Previous lists from Michigan:
In 2017, Muckrock obtained a list of books banned in Michigan prisons (dated from 2014). This list can be read here. Bans include work by post-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon as well as instruction books on learning to code on computers.
Bans include Blood in the Water (a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Attica uprising), acclaimed novel The Lovely Bones, and several books which are critical of the prison system, including Prison Nation, Locked Up But Not Locked Down, Coming Out of Concrete Closets, and The Factory: A Journey Through the Prison Industrial Complex.
In preparation for legal actions to restore access to The New Jim Crow in 2018, the ACLU of New Jersey obtained documents relating to banned books and magazines in New Jersey prisons.
Read these documents here.
The Human Rights Defense Center obtained a list of books banned by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety in September 2019. Read it here. Many acclaimed books by black authors are on this list, including Kindred by Octavia Butler, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin.
Previous/other lists from North Carolina:
A list from January 2018 is available here. This list includes many award-winning and influential books, including The Color Purple and The New Jim Crow (by Michelle Alexander, since removed from the list after public outcry). Read more at WUNC.
In North Carolina prisons, books disapproved from facilities remain on the list for one year.
In June 2019, the Human Rights Defense Center obtained a list of books banned in Ohio prisons. The list can be read here. Bans include Blood in the Water (a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Attica uprising), trans resource Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, and several books which are critical of the prison system, including Moral Injury and Nonviolent Resistance.
In their article about this list, Salem Reporter highlighted the relative number of books about technology and computers which were restricted, but also a useful process which we call upon other prison systems to replicate: the implementation of a three-person committee formed of information technology workers to review each incoming publication which mail room staff have attempted to ban. Such oversight in all prisons and for all materials would help to prevent many needless and ill-informed bans across the country.
A publicly available banned books list for Pennsylvania can be read here. It is updated quarterly.
Unfortunately, per the incoming publications guidelines for the Pennsylvania DOC, “The only publications that appear on the Department’s Reviewed Publication List are those that have received final content review either as the result of an inmate grievance or a publisher appeal.” Thus, since the available list is restricted only to the books which were able to be appealed by a prisoner or publisher, the actual number of rejected publications is likely to be much higher (but, frustratingly, the full list of rejected and disapproved titles is not made available by the PA DOC).
At the time of the original posting of this list (2015) all Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder RPG manuals were denied in Pennsylvania (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 were also banned. Beginning in 2016, administrators rescinded the ban and Books to Prisoners applauds that sensible decision. Frustratingly, these books are still banned for Wisconsin prisoners, in which state a court has upheld the misguided idea that Dungeons & Dragons somehow present a threat and encourage “gang activity.” Read more about that decision here.
The Human Rights Defense Center obtained a list of books banned in South Carolina prisons. This list–which is also the first known public list for South Carolina, obtained October 2019–can be read here. Bans include Prison Legal News, the South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission Report, Teen Vogue, and several books on learning how to crochet.
In Texas, the TDCJ Director’s Review Committee makes decisions about approved and disapproved publications. In June 2019, the Human Rights Defense Center obtained lists from the Director’s Review Committee from January 2018 through the date of the organization’s public records request.
In accordance with guidelines at the time of production of these lists, bans are apparently cumulative, so the bans shown on these lists are in addition to any previously banned publications which may not have been removed. Therefore, please refer to previous lists for additional context–we presume that, although Texas’ guidelines for rejections were improved in 2013, bans remain extensive.
Previous lists from Texas:
Despite the outcry over the original list, in November 2017, The Dallas Morning News obtained a second list of banned books which indicated that more than 10,000 books were still banned. Read that list here.
In early 2018, Muckrock obtained yet another list which outlined decisions made by TDCJ during 2017, which can be read here. The list of contentious books for a single year exceeded 40 pages of materials. Although many books were listed as being eventually approved by the system, many more were not.
Bans in Texas have included 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.
Yet somehow, despite all of those bans, Mein Kampf was apparently still allowed for prisoners in Texas through at least late 2017, as covered in many news outlets. These bans, as other news coverage indicates, at times may have exceeded 15,000 titles.
In early 2018, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced that its policies on incoming publications were under review.
In June 2019, the Human Rights Defense Center obtained three lists of books, magazines, and miscellaneous printed materials banned in Virginia prisons.
Additional note from HRDC: Please note: In the files Virginia sent, some of the right-most columns were misaligned and boxes may be in the wrong place. Keep this in mind as you’re reading through the lists.
Previous lists from Virginia:
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. A full copy of the banned books list has not been made available online, but guidelines for inclusion can be found here.
A frequently updated PDF of restricted publications can be found on the WA DOC site, here. As of 2018, the list included notable nonfiction books such as Trans Bodies, Trans Selves and The Dark Net.
In September 2019, the Human Rights Defense Center obtained three lists of books banned by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Wisconsin infamously banned tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons under the pretense that it would “encourage gang behavior.”
The lists obtained by HRDC reflect this ongoing bias as well as problematic biases against materials that address black history and politics; materials by Mumia Abu-Jamal are banned as “security threat group materials” while the DOC has explicitly approved Mein Kampf.
MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE FIGHT AGAINST CENSORSHIP
A selected list of recent coverage of the work by Books to Prisoners & our networks.
Book Riot – “Why and How Censorship Thrives in American Prisons” (October 21, 2019). https://bookriot.com/2019/10/21/censorship-in-american-prisons/
Seattle PI – “‘Threats to Security’: Fifty Shades, Boy Scouts Handbook and Other Books Rejected From WA Prisons” (September 24, 2019). https://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/Threats-to-security-50-Shades-of-Grey-Boy-14464576.php
PEN America, Special Report – “Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban” (September 24, 2019). https://pen.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/literature-locked-up-report-9.24.19.pdf
The Firestorm Collective – “Prisoner Solidarity: A Conversation with Asheville Prison Books” (September 23, 2019). https://www.patreon.com/posts/prisoner-with-30163183
ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, Blog – “Windows, Not Walls: Defending Incarcerated People’s Right to Read” (September 11, 2019). https://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=18499
Washington Post Magazine – “Coloring Books, Klingon Dictionaries and Other Books Banned by State Prisons” (September 10, 2019). https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/coloring-books-klingon-dictionaries-and-other-books-banned-by-state-prisons/2019/09/06/96b00e86-c03c-11e9-9b73-fd3c65ef8f9c_story.html
Black Agenda Report – “Slavery is Model for US Prison Book-Banning” (September 10, 2019). https://www.blackagendareport.com/slavery-model-us-prison-book-banning
CJOnline – “Corrections Secretary Eliminates Banned Book List for Kansas Prisoners, Deploys New Policy” (August 21, 2019). https://www.cjonline.com/news/20190821/corrections-secretary-eliminates-banned-book-list-for-kansas-prisons-deploys-new-policy
WILL (Illinois Public Media) – “The Reason Why Hundreds of Books Were Removed From an Illinois Prison Library” (August 15, 2019). https://will.illinois.edu/news/story/the-reason-why-hundreds-of-books-were-removed-from-an-illinois-prison-library
Bridge – “Michigan Prison Inmates Need Job Skills, But Technology Books are Banned” (July 18, 2019). https://www.bridgemi.com/public-sector/michigan-prison-inmates-need-job-skills-technology-books-are-banned
Salem Reporter – “Oregon Prisons Ban Dozens of Technology and Computing Books Over Security Concerns” (June 18, 2019). https://www.salemreporter.com/posts/891/oregon-prisons-ban-dozens-of-technology-and-programming-books-over-security-concerns
KCUR – “7,000 Books and Magazines are Banned in Kansas Prisons. Here are Some of Them.” (June 17, 2019). https://www.kcur.org/post/7000-books-and-magazines-are-banned-kansas-prisons-here-are-some-them#stream/0
Slate – “Why are Books Banned in Prison? Sex, Drugs, and a Critique of Systemic Oppression” (June 15, 2019). https://www.salon.com/2019/06/15/why-are-books-banned-in-prison-sex-drugs-and-a-critique-of-systematic-oppression/
WILL (Illinois Public Media) – “‘It’s Heartbreaking’ Authors Criticize Removal of 200 Books From an Illinois Prison Library” (June 6, 2019). https://will.illinois.edu/news/story/its-heartbreaking-authors-criticize-the-removal-of-200-books-from-an-illino
Newsweek – “Kansas Prisoners Banned From Reading ‘A Game of Thrones’ Along With Thousands of Other Books” (May 31, 2019). https://www.newsweek.com/kansas-prisoners-banned-reading-game-thrones-along-thousands-other-books-1440556
Book Riot – “New Hampshire Prisons Ban Books Critical of Prison System, Award Winners” (May 28, 2019). https://bookriot.com/2019/05/28/new-hampshire-prisons-ban-books/
NPR – “Arizona Prisons Urged to Reverse Ban on ‘Chokehold’ Book” (May 22, 2019). https://www.npr.org/2019/05/22/725822827/arizona-prisons-urged-to-reverse-ban-on-chokehold-book
Annotated Podcast (Book Riot) – “Why Would a Prison Ban a Map of Westeros?” (May 20, 2019). https://bookriot.com/2019/05/20/why-would-a-prison-ban-a-map-of-westeros/
Book Riot – “Ohio Becomes Latest State to Attempt to Stop Book Donations to Incarcerated” (May 9, 2019). https://bookriot.com/2019/05/09/ohio-prison-book-ban/
The Seattle Review of Books – “‘Access to Information is Not an Easy Thing to Come By in Prisons'” (April 24, 2019). https://seattlereviewofbooks.com/notes/2019/04/24/access-to-information-is-not-an-easy-thing-to-come-by-in-prisons/
The Seattle Times – “Corrections Officials’ Claims of Contraband in Used Books Mailed to Washington Inmates Don’t Add Up” (April 10, 2019). https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/corrections-officials-claims-of-contraband-in-used-books-mailed-to-washington-inmates-doesnt-add-up/
The Stranger – “Washington Prisoners May No Longer Be Able to Receive Donated Books” (April 1, 2019). https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2019/04/01/39782896/washington-prisoners-may-no-longer-be-able-to-receive-donated-books
Prison Books Clubs – Amicus Brief in support of HRDC Supreme Court Petition. (October 2018). https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/18/18-355/67506/20181019133857149_No%2018-355%20Amicus%20Brief%20of%20Prison%20Book%20Clubs%20Supporting%20Petitioner.pdf
The Philadelphia Inquirer – “One Review of PA Prisons Pricey Ebooks: ‘Books that are available for free, that nobody wants anyway'” (September 21, 2018). https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/pennsylvania-department-corrections-books-through-bars-philly-new-jim-crow-malcolm-x-20180921.html
The Washington Post – “Incarcerated Pennsylvanians Now Have to Pay $150 to Read. We Should All be Outraged.” (October 11, 2018). https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/incarcerated-pennsylvanians-now-have-to-pay-150-to-read-we-should-all-be-outraged/2018/10/11/51f548b8-cbd9-11e8-a85c-0bbe30c19e8f_story.html