The “arbitrary” restrictions placed on books in prisons have resulted in a “troubled state of the right to read” in U.S. prisons, according to PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression.
The PEN report was released as an initiative under Banned Books Week 2019. Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban was written by James Tager, PEN deputy director of free expression policy and research.
Some 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, with news reports finding that banned book lists totaled 20,000 in Florida, 10,000 in Texas and 7,000 in Kansas, according to PEN.
“The reality of book banning in American prisons is systematic and comprehensive,” said the PEN report. “State and federal prison authorities censor content with little oversight or public scrutiny. Often the ultimate decision-maker about a person’s right to read is housed in the prison mailroom.”
In Texas, restrictions have ruled out books by the authors Alice Walker, John Updike, Pablo Neruda, Joyce Carol Oates and Bob Dole. In Arizona, a book on sketching and a physics textbook were banned, the report said, according to a story in The New York Times.
The report focuses on the disproportionate numbers of books on race and civil rights that are restricted—creating unconstitutional bans on content-specific material—and the lack of an appeals process.
“The report also examines increasing efforts by state systems to mandate the use of secure vendors’ by inmates or family trying to get books into the prison; the use of vendors, the report finds, effectively suppress book donations and significantly restrict the range of books available to the prison population,” reported Publishers Weekly.
The report gives as an example a case in New York where, in 2017, the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision “started a pilot program that limited the books that people in prison could receive to those offered by five preapproved vendors,” according to The New York Times.
Books Through Bars, a nonprofit, said that would have limited the books available to “five romance novels, 14 bibles and other religious texts, 24 drawing or coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 guitar, chess, and how-to books, one dictionary, and one thesaurus,” according to the PEN report.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended that program in 2018. The department said in a statement this week that it did not ban books, and that “the program to limit the vendors was designed to stem the flow of drugs and other contraband into prisons.”
The PEN report concluded: “the book restrictions in American prisons are often
arbitrary, overbroad, opaque, subject to little meaningful review, and overly dismissive of
incarcerated people’s right to access literature behind bars. The result is a book banning system that fails incarcerated people, and fails to live up to our democratic and Constitutional ideals. ”
“It is time to re-evaluate the state of the right to read within American prisons.”