America’s Largest Book Ban Is Behind Bars

Join the Appalachian Prison Book Project and PEN America during Banned Books Week 2019 to learn more about censorship and banned books in prison.

A Rise in Prison Censorship

Departments of Corrections (DOCs) often claim that book bans and book restrictions are needed in order to maintain security.

Banned book lists from state DOCs such as in Florida have included coloring books, almanacs, Dungeons and Dragons guidebooks, Prison Legal News publications, and more.

“When free people, through judicial procedure, segregate some of their own, they incur the responsibility to provide humane treatment and essential rights. Among these is the right to read and to access information. The right to choose what to read is deeply important, and the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. The denial of intellectual freedom—the right to read, to write, and to think—diminishes the human spirit of those segregated from society.” — American Library Association’s Prisoners’ Right to Read: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights

Black History and Literature at Risk

Many prisons have challenged, censored, restricted, and banned books based on black history, empowerment, and prison literature, such as the following:

  • Prison Legal News
  • Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
  • Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand
  • Paul Butler, Chokehold: Policing Black Men
  • Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave
  • Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
  • Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate

Some restrictions have been removed, but access to these and other texts remains a concern and struggle for many within the prison system.

The Cost of “Free” Prison Tablets

Electronic tablets and e-readers in prisons are replacing prison libraries and free book donations. “Free” tablets have hidden costs and fees determined by private companies, reading material is censored, and access is limited.

For an example, see the Virginia DOC tablet policy:

  • The media device must be purchased from the DOC Contract Vendor
  • Audio files offered for sale through the DOC Contract Vendor will only be the radio edited version
  • Offenders may login to the kiosk up to 2 times per day with a minimum time of 1 hour between each login
  • Each session will last no more than 15 minutes
  • The system will time out after 2 minutes of inactivity
  • Offenders are limited to a maximum of 10 previews per 15 minute session, and each preview will last no more than 30 seconds
  • Only offenders who have purchased a media device can listen to previews

These “free” tablets have led to an increase in book bans from outside organizations.

An Example Book Ban in Kansas State Prisons

Thousands of books are banned, censored, or refused in various prisons across the United States. Many states give no reasons for rejection. The following books were banned in Kansas before the policy was repealed in August 2019:

  • Stephen King novels (including The Gunslinger and The Shining)
  • Michael Blake, Dancing with Wolves
  • Frédérie Vitoux, Cats: An Illustrated Miscellany
  • J. Lilly, Arborists’ Certification Study Guide
  • Bathroom Readers’ Institute, Uncle John’s Unstoppable Bathroom Reader
  • George R. R. Martin, the Game of Thrones series

While some banned book lists are slowly being repealed and replaced with an appellate process in which readers can challenge the rejection of a book, a private appeals process may hide future book bans and censorship in the shadows.

Support the Appalachian Prison Book Project

At APBP, we rely on donations and volunteers to provide books and educational opportunities to people on the inside. Get involved today to help us continue challenging mass incarceration.

By Kristin DeVault

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