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Intellectual Freedom on Lock Down Book Banning in US Prisons

Did you know?

Many books in the University of Florida Libraries' collections are banned in US prisons. In the State of Florida alone, incarcerated people have been banned from accessing over 20,000 titles. Some states have adopted approved-vendor policies, which restrict books to a small selection of pre-approved titles. In other states, only the Bible and other approved religious texts are permitted. Organizations like the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) track prison book banning and fight to protect the rights of incarcerated people through the legal system. In some cases and in certain states, these organizations have successfully overturning bans on individual titles, such as The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.

What methods are used to ban books in US prisons?

Across the US, states have developed different methods of banning or limited access to books and reading materials. Here are a few different ways:

Traditional Bans

One traditional and ongoing practice is the outright banning of individual books. This means that those books will not be admitted to the prison. States like Florida, Texas, California, and Illinois ban tens of thousands of books. These lists encompass a broad array of texts, such as dictionaries, atlases, how-to books for origami and drawing, language books, popular fiction, religious texts, non-fiction, and pornographic materials. Mississippi has the most aggressive ban of all. According to a 2018 lawsuit, inmates in Forrest County, Mississippi are only allowed access to the Bible and other approved Christian publications. All other books and periodicals are banned.

Content-Neutral Bans

In recent years, states have adopted new policies whereby inmates can receive books by mail only from approved vendors. There are several reasons for this: 1) shrinking budgets for prison libraries 2) overcrowding of prisons which increases the demand for reading materials 3) staff cannot keep up with the demand to screen materials mailed to inmates. As a way of dealing with the rising demands, these states no longer accept used books from organizations like Books to Prisoners or from inmates' family members. Instead, books must be purchased directly from state-approved vendors (such as Amazon, Books-A-Million, or Barnes & Noble). The burden on families and communities to purchase reading materials is burdensome. This is yet another cost to families with loved ones inside the prison system, as they already often pay to help their loved ones on the inside through commissary funds, to travel for visitations, to send & receive emails, to talk on the phone.

Vendor Supplied Books

Other states have started scrapping their 'rejected' lists altogether, opting instead for a small selection of pre-approved titles. Inmates can access print books or virtual libraries via tablets, which they must purchase from the prison. In 2018 New York was one state to implement to pilot such a policy in select prisons, reducing the accessible reading list to a mere 77 titles. After intense scrutiny, Governor Cuomo rolled back the pilot program.

Pay-To-Read eBooks

West Virginia is one state that has taken a novel approach to limiting access to literature in its prisons. Similar states with Vendor Supplied Books policies, West Virginia takes it a step further. Inmates can choose from a selection of pre-selected eBooks --- the real kicker? -- the are charged up to 5 cents per minute despite the fact that many of the titles are in the public domain.

How do prisons justify banning books?

The justifications given for banning books in prisons are often subjective. In some instances, no justification is given at all. The ALCU and HDRC, as well as PEN International, condemn "arbitrary and irrational" book banning practices as a form of censorship, violating the first amendment rights of incarcerated peoples. Many of the books on states' lists of reject books pertain to the histories and cultures of BIPOC communities, indicating discriminatory policies and screening processes.

The State of Florida provides a policy outlining the many reasons why a book may be rejected from admission to a prison library:

  • Describes construction or use of weapons, ammunition, bombs, chemical agents or incendiary devices
  • Describes methods of escape; contains blueprints, drawings or descriptions of corrections facilities; includes road maps that can facilitate escape
  • Describes procedures for the brewing of alcoholic beverages or the manufacture of drugs
  • Written in code or is otherwise not reasonably subject to interpretation by staff
  • Depicts activities which may lead to physical violence or group disruption
  • Encourages or instructs in commission of criminal activity
  • Dangerously inflammatory -- encourages riot, insurrection, disruption of the institution, violation of rules
  • Threatens physical harm, blackmail or extortion
  • Depicts sexual conduct
  • Depicts nudity in a way to create the appearance that sexual conduct is imminent
  • Contains criminal history or other personal information about another inmate
  • Contains an ad promoting three-way calling services, pen pal services, purchase of products or services with postage stamps, or conducting a business while incarcerated
  • It otherwise presents a threat to the security, order or rehabilitative objectives of the correctional system or the safety of any person.
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Now Entering the Restricted Reading Section

Stop! No turning back.

Continue scrolling at your own peril!

The books below have been placed on the 'REJECTED' list by one or more state prison systems. All books are available through the University of Florida Library system. Not a UF affiliate? No problem. Search WorldCat to find any of these books in a library near you.

Please note: The books here are a SMALL sample of the THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of books that incarcerated people are barred from reading. Intellectual freedom is a right (a right denied to people in carceral systems!). Access to information is a form a privilege and, therefore, power.

23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement by Keramet Reiter | Banned in Florida

Art of Punk by Russell Bestley | Banned in Texas

Assassination of Fred Hampton: how the FBI and the Chicago police murdered a Black Panther by Jeffrey Haas | Banned in Illinois

Assata: an Autobiography by Assata Shakur & Angela Davis | Banned in Missouri

Autobiography of Gucci Mane by Gucci Mane & Neil Martinez-Belkin | Banned in Iowa & Florida

Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley | Banned in Virginia

Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines | Banned in Texas

Bag of Bones by Stephen King | Banned in Texas

Beauty's Release by A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice) | Banned in Missouri & Texas

Black Girl Lost by Donald Goines | Banned in Louisiana

Black Gods: Orisa Studies in the New World by Gary Edwards & John Mason | Banned in Louisiana

Black Miami in the Twentieth Century by Marvin Dunn | Banned in Florida

Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon | Banned in Michigan & Missouri

Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison | Banned in Kansas

Burmese Days by George Orwell | Banned in Texas

Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Paul Butler | Banned in Arizona

Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess | Banned in Kansas

Concrete mama : prison profiles from Walla Walla by Ethan Hoffman & John McCoy | Banned in North Dakota

Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Art by Gary Keller | Banned in California

Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis by Elihu Rosenblatt | Banned in Florida

Dagon and Other Macabre Tales by H.P. Lovercraft | Banned in Florida

Defying the Tomb by Kevin Rashid Johnson | Banned in Virginia

Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank | Banned in Pennsylvania

Eight Men by Richard Wright | Banned in Texas

Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor | Banned in Texas

Fall of America by Elijah Muhammad | Banned in Illinois & Missouri

Finding Fish by Antwone Quenton Fisher & Mim Eichler Rivas | Banned in Michigan

Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles Blow | Banned in Texas

From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State : Race and the Death Penalty in America by Charles Ogletree & Austin Sarat | Banned in Texas

Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin | Banned in Connecticut, Florida, Montana & Texas

Groveland Four: the Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching by Gary Corsair | Banned in Florida

Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Attwood | Banned in Kansas

I am Cuban by Helena de Bragança & Lemis Tarajano Noya | Banned in Florida & Oregon

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison | Banned in Kansas

Justine by the Marqués de Sade | Banned in Iowa, Virginia, and Oregon

Kindred by Octavia Butler | Banned in Texas

Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis by Christian Parenti | Banned in Texas & Florida

Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror by the Equal Justice Initiative | Banned in Florida

Making Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Nicole Fleetwood | Banned in Washington

Meaning of Freedom by Angela Davis | Banned in Arizona

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden | Banned in Texas

Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave by Frederick Douglass | Banned in Illinois

Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth | Banned in Texas

New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander | Banned in Missouri, North Carolina & Florida

Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey & Amy Jacques Garvey | Banned in Florida

Police Brutality: An Anthology by Jill Nelson | Banned in Michigan & Texas

Politics of Chicano Liberation by Olga Rodríguez & Socialist Workers Party | Banned in Texas

Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker & Jules Scheele | Banned in Montana

Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton | Banned in Florida, Michigan & Illinois

Seize the Time: the story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton by Bobby Seale | Banned in Florida

Slavery and the Making of America by James Oliver Horton & Lois Horton | Banned in Texas

Slavery by Another Name: the Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas Blackmon | Banned in Illinois & Missouri

Spook Who Sat by the Door by Sam Greenlee | Banned in Illinois & Missouri

The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni by Nikki Giovanni | Banned in Virginia

The Color Purple by Alice Walker | Banned in Texas

The Rose the Grew from Concrete by Tupac Shakur | Banned in Michigan & Florida

The Wave by Walter Mosley | Banned in Virginia

Time to Kill by John Grisham | Banned in Oregon, Iowa, Michigan & Texas

To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton by Huey P. Newton | Banned in Florida

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee | Banned in Maryland

Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: a Resource for the Transgender Community by Laura Erickson-Schroth | Banned in Texas, Ohio, Oregon, Missouri & Washington

Ulysses by James Joyce | Banned in Virginia

When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner | Banned in Colorado

Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love by bell hooks | Banned in Missouri

Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal by Mumia Abu-Jama & Cornel West | Banned in Banned in Florida

See More

'Dangerous Reads' graphic
  1. Check out the great books listed above, available at the UF Libraries.
  2. See the work of visual artist Daniel McCarthy Clifford and his project "Section of Disapproved Books," complete with a spreadsheet coalescing the FOIA responses from state prisons and their rejected book lists.
  3. Visit the Books to Prisoners' Banned Books Lists page, which provides an overview of state bans. In some cases, current and past ban lists are provided, as well as lists of overturned bans.
  4. Browse the Civic Media Center's Stetson Kennedy Library -- an independent, non-corporate multimedia collection, including the largest zine collection in the Southeast!

Explore Carceral Studies @ UF

Carceral Studies Library Research Guide

Find a selection of books and other resources related to mass incarceration, prison abolition, immigration detention, policing and police brutality, prison labor, prison literature, and more.

Intersections on Mass Incarceration

What would a world look like without mass incarceration? The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country and disproportionately incarcerates people of color. Intersections on Mass Incarceration harnesses the power of the imagination to envision a more just world without the prison at its center. Become an Intersections Scholar!

References

Banned Books Lists. Books to Prisoners. No date.

Banning Books in Prison. Equal Justice Initiative. January 7, 2020.

Daniel McCarthy Clifford on the “Section of Disapproved Books." Weisman Art Museum. May 28, 2019.

Florida Administrative Code, Rule 33-501.401: Admissible Reading Material. Florida Department of State. June 9, 2020.

Gaines, Lee. Who Should Decide What Books Are Allowed in Prison? National Public Radio. February 22, 2020.

Hoover, Lisa. NY Backs Down on "Draconian" Censorship of Prisoners' Right to Read. Intellectual Freedom Blog. The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association. February 12, 2018. 

Katz, Bridget. New York Directive Restricts Inmates’ Literature Options. Smithsonian Magazine. January 9, 2018.

Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban. PEN America. September 2019.

Mastricolo, Patricia. Mississippi Jail Censors Everything Except the Bible. Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. October 29, 2018. 

Michaels, Samantha. Books Have the Power to Rehabilitate. But Prisons Are Blocking Access to Them. Mother Jones. January/February 2020

Pay-Per-Minute E-Readers in West Virginia Prisons Jeopardize Access to Literature. PEN International. November 22, 2019.

von Essen, Leah Rachel. The Ever-Growing Challenges of Getting Books into Prisons. Book Riot. March 5, 2021.

2021 ALA Banned Books Week graphic
Created By
Stephanie Birch
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