In the wake of a series of recent reports on book banning in the nation’s prison systems, PEN America has published a new policy report that condemns the practice and issues an urgent call for reform.
Released as an initiative under Banned Books Week 2019, Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban by James Tager, PEN deputy director of free expression policy and research, examines the vast system of arbitrary restrictions that prevent more than 2 million prison inmates across the U.S. prison system from reading all kinds of books.
The publication of Tager’s report follows incidents in Washington state and New York state that reveal how even books by Nobel Prize winners can be banned as well as the lack of transparency and oversight over the decisions to ban a wide range of books. The report focuses on the disproportionate numbers of books on race and civil rights that are subject to restrictions—in effect, unconstitutional bans on content-specific material—and the lack of any kind of 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.
In fact, the report said, the Texas state prison system bans more than 10,000 books, including such acclaimed works as Salman Rushie’s Satanic Verses and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. In many cases, these bans, the report said, can often be instituted arbitrarily by a single prison officer or even a mailroom employee, with no review or possibility of being overturned.
Tager said the need for the report was driven by the rise in “unfair and arbitrary book bans nationwide. Literature offers a lifeline for incarcerated people in the midst of a dehumanizing system. We should be promoting access to literature in our prisons. Instead, our policies today are arbitrary, irrational, and at times needlessly cruel. We urgently need a course correction that upholds the right to read behind bars.”