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Book Bans in Prisons, Why Censorship has Become a Dangerous Tool Against our Democracy

Posted by Sara Cooper | Oct 25, 2023 | 0 Comments

Book bans are not just in schools anymore, extend that to prisons across the country. A report made by PEN America, free speech organization that has been tracking book bans nationwide came out with results that are sad yet not surprising.

Last Wednesday, PEN America released “Reading Between the Bars: An In-Depth Look at Prison Censorship,” that looks over the process prisons use in whether to determine which books can be accessed by prisoners, many being thrown out or not even considered for further steps of examination.

“The extent of prison book banning is alarming and an attack on the written word itself,” said Moira Marquis, senior manager of PEN America's Freewrite Project and lead author of the report. “Censorship should not be a knee jerk tactic by authorities to address other prison concerns, such as spurious claims that books are a conduit for drugs. Yet we are witnessing vast amounts of time, effort and money expended in order to stop people from reading. This censorship must end.”  

The report used the referral of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to receive information from prison systems and conduct interviews with prison staff. Much more is of course not able to be included in the analysis in their words, because of the lack of tracking done by each state.

Florida was the top in prison book banning among the 28 states that track the information, banning 22,825 titles. Texas came in second at 10,265, and Kansas third at 7,699, based on the latest information available from 2021, according to PEN America.

PEN America discovered that most books that were censored in prisons were due “sexual content,” but that also included medical dictionaries and drawing books getting banned for example.  

According to The Hill, “The most banned book was “Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars” by Clifton Collins Jr. and Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez, a collaboration between an actor and former inmate that examines different ways to cook ramen noodles. A self-help book by Robert Greene called “48 Laws of Power” is the second most banned.”

“It's a form of control. It's the ultimate form of power of manipulation. So the hypocrisy of saying, ‘this is a book that's dangerous for you…' whereas they're the ones that are completely controlling the dynamic and giving you access to only certain amounts of information is very frightening. That's how totalitarian systems operate,” said Greene, whose books are banned in 19 state prison systems. 

PEN America also found prison systems are increasingly banning books from nonprofits or independent bookstores and only allowing state-approved vendors, according to The Hill.

“The few approved vendors are a way for state prison systems to restrict titles in a “content-neutral” way,” according to PEN America.

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