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.
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.
Read the list, dated August 2018, of books banned by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation here.
This list ncludes 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).
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
An 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:
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.
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.
In North Carolina prisons, books disapproved from facilities will remain on the list for one year.
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.
Previous/other lists from North Carolina:
An older banned books list for this state, from 2015, can be read here.
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.
The complete banned books list for Pennsylvania can be read here. It is updated quarterly.
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.
Read the decisions from the TDCJ Director’s Review Committee about approved and disapproved publications. In June 2019, the Human Rights Defense Center obtained lists 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.
MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE FIGHT AGAINST CENSORSHIP
A selected list of recent coverage of the work by Books to Prisoners & our networks.
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 – “‘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