A book with a map of North America

The Types of Books We Cannot Send to Prisons (and Why)

Book donations are the heart of APBP. We operate off of the generosity of our donors and are always grateful for the book donations that come our way.

However, the reality is that not all books can actually make it into prisons. Between the six states that we serve, there are varying guidelines surrounding the types of books that can be donated, ranging from their physical appearance to the actual content of the book.

The many regulations prisons and jails have in place regarding book donations make it tricky to ensure the books we donate get approved for delivery to the incarcerated people who want to read them. And because of that, we can’t accept every book.

It’s a huge help when the books we receive from donors have been reviewed to ensure that they meet the standards of the prisons we serve and follow our book donation guidelines. But when you want to donate books to APBP, how can you tell if they are a good fit?

5 Types of Books We Can’t Accept

We’ve created a list that can clear up some confusion. Here is what you need to know about the types of book donations APBP cannot take.

1. Hardcover Books

The physical type of book is one of the biggest areas under review in assessing its eligibility for donation. Most prison and jails do not allow hardcover books, so we can only accept paperback donations.

2. Heavily Damaged Used Books

We are more than happy to receive used books. They make up an overwhelming majority of the books we get. Unfortunately, not all prisons accept used books. Often, the books must come from a direct publisher or approved supplier—and these costs are put directly on the incarcerated person and their families.

The good news is that most prisons and jails where we send books do allow used books. However, all of them have high standards when it comes to the condition of the book.

Any used books we receive must be in fairly good condition and free of any major damage. We cannot accept any books that have damage such as

  • Missing or torn covers
  • Pencil or pen marks such as writing, underlines, or highlights
  • Yellowed pages
  • Yellowed pages

Books in this condition are rejected by prisons and jails across Appalachia.

3. Books with Inappropriate Content

It’s no surprise that there strict rules regarding the content of books we can donate to individuals. But it’s important to note how the content-related reasons books are banned or rejected from prisons are vast and that the regulations are often inconsistent—ultimately omitting a lot of potential titles from eligibility.

At the baseline, materials that contain any sort of explicit content including profanity, violence, or nudity are off the table. PEN America revealed that the primary reasons books are flagged for content violations include the following:

  • 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

Often, it’s accredited to the idea that the imagery or messaging can incite violent or unruly behavior that may disrupt the safety and security of the prison.

This regulation projects further and restricts the donation of any books that contain documents such as maps—even imaginary ones.

In a court case over censorship inspired by a group of prison book clubs, they cited an instance of a New York prison that rejected a book with maps of the Moon based on the belief that they were likely to inspire an escape plan. APBP has even had a Lord of the Rings book rejected from a prison because of the detailed maps that depict Middle Earth, the fantasy novel’s imagined world for the adventures of its elves, hobbits, trolls, and ogres.

In judging the content based on its ability to incite unwanted or dangerous behavior, the power over censoring people in prison’s accessibility to educational materials is often seen exercised disproportionately.

The regulation surrounding nudity, for example, works just as hard to ‘protect’ incarcerated people as it works to deprive them of valuable educational materials. Any books containing pictures of naked bodies, paintings of naked bodies, or even sculptures of naked bodies are entirely prohibited. In Tennessee, prison officials even went as far as to refuse a person in prison a requested book about the Holocaust, as some pages contained nude pictures of victims.

4. Books with Metal Pieces

Any book that has staples, a spiral edge/spine, paperclips, or other metal pieces like metal edges or covers is prohibited. Prisons and jails generally will not accept books with metal binding or features.

5. Books with Other Physical Media

Books that are accompanied by CDs, DVDs, cassette tapes, and any other type of video or audio recording cannot be donated to people in prison. Even if the disc or tape is removed, the plastic film or any form of the packaging used to hold them is also often prohibited— regardless if that packaging is removed.

Older how-to books or educational books  (one of the most popular types of books APBP receives requests for) are more likely to contain these additional materials. If you are looking to donate this genre of book, be sure to check that additional forms of media are not included.

How to Donate: The Types of Books We Are Looking For

Since 2004, APBP has donated over 50,000 books, and without book donations from our generous supports, we couldn’t do this important work. Incarcerated individuals’ rights to education and reading are always in need of support, and while these regulations can make things a challenge, we must continue to fight to promote the accessibility of educational materials and work to move books into imprisoned hands.

On our website, you can find a list of the top types of book donations we always need, which includes paperback dictionaries, law or medical dictionaries, and how-to-books. Additionally, take a look at our WordPlay wish list to see a few of the books we need most.

Wondering if your books are a good fit for donating to incarcerated folks? Contact us. We’re happy to answer your questions.

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