Oct 29, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Prisons are banning thousands of books

Illustration of a stack of books with barbed wire wrapped around them.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Prisons have banned thousands of books, according to a new report, and the figure may be even higher than researchers can determine.

Why it matters: Prison book bans far exceed school and library book bans, per the report from PEN America, which found "single state prison systems censor more books than all schools and libraries combined."

  • The report, based on open record requests, interviews with prison mailroom staff and narratives from incarcerated people, reveals some of the tactics prisons employ to censor titles.

By the numbers: Though only 28 states keep an official record of the specific titles they ban, PEN America tracked down the most recent data available.

  • Florida bans 22,825 titles, the most of any state based on available data.
  • Texas was second, with 10,265 banned titles.
  • Kansas was third, with 7,669 banned books as of 2021, the latest data available.

A spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Corrections did not provide a comment on the study's findings before the publication of this story.

  • The Florida Department of Corrections told Axios in a statement that people incarcerated in its facilities "have access to thousands of publications, magazines and books."
  • The Texas Department of Criminal Justice did not respond to Axios' request for comment.

Between the lines: The most banned book category includes those deemed sexually explicit, a classification used to ban medical, art or drawing books and some popular magazines, according to Moira Marquis, lead author of the report.

  • "Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars," detailing how to make different recipes in a cell, is the most banned book.
  • The self-help book, "The 48 Laws of Power," was the second most commonly banned title. "The Art of War" was also commonly censored.

Be smart: Due to a lack of documentation across states and at the federal level, PEN America says the "true extent of carceral censorship is likely exponentially greater" than the figures reported.

What they're saying: "Prison censorship just absolutely dwarfs any other kind of censorship in our culture. It's really massive. It doesn't only target specific content or titles, it's really aimed at the medium of the written word itself," Marquis, senior manager of PEN America's Freewrite project, told Axios.

  • Marquis said prisons also censor books regardless of content, denying people hardcover, free or used books and books mailed by bookstores that the state or the facility hasn't approved.
  • PEN America is a First Amendment nonprofit advocating for writers' free expression. The organization works with incarcerated people.

For the Prison Book Program — a nonprofit based in Massachusetts that provides free books and print resources to incarcerated people in every state plus Guam and Puerto Rico — censorship heavily impacts its day-to-day work.

  • "We bend over backwards to follow [the prisons'] rules," executive director Kelly Brotzman told Axios.

Zoom in: Researchers found that "prisons are increasingly limiting the booksellers allowed to send books into prisons to a handful of 'approved vendors.'" 

  • Idaho does not track the specific titles they censor for not complying with the policy. In one year, the state rejected over 2,000 books deemed in violation.
  • A spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Correction told Axios that it does not collect book titles from censored vendors "because the process of removing each book's packaging, listing its title, then repackaging the book and purchasing postage to return it would be a needless and significant waste of staff time and taxpayer dollars."
  • "The books' titles are irrelevant. Our sole concern is the fact that they came from a vendor whose shipping practices allow for the possible introduction of contraband," the spokesperson said. The state's facilities send back any books from unapproved vendors.
  • In recent years, the department said it has seen increasing amounts of "drug-soaked mail" sent to its residents via books, magazines and newspapers, with the pages soaked in substances like fentanyl and meth.

Go deeper: Attempts to ban books at public libraries surge at record levels

Editor's note: This story was updated with a statement from the Florida Department of Corrections.

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