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Incarcerated People Have Few Ways to Fight Back Against Censorship in Prisons

From arbitrary judgment calls to material bans, information censorship protects the carceral system at the expense of the incarcerated

by Tamar Sarai, Prism

In 1971, prisoners in Attica penned the Attica Manifesto during the now infamous five-day-long historic uprising at the facility. Among the list of over two dozen demands was an end to the “denial of prisoner’s rights to subscribe to political papers, books, or any other educational and current media chronicles that are forwarded through the U.S. Mail.” Almost 50 years later, the Illinois Department of Corrections made headlines in 2018 for banning “Blood in the Water,” a book about that very uprising, illustrating how incarcerated people across the country continue to contend with political censorship.

Despite book donation programs and potentially wider access to information through devices such as electronic tablets, censorship of reading material continues to pervade the carceral system, increasingly under the guise of preventing the flow of contraband materials. The political nature of many texts that wind up on banned books lists suggests that prison book censorship is intended to quell dissent and critique against the carceral system itself. At a time when discussions about prison and police abolition are becoming more mainstream and organizers are utilizing texts written by and about Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) to help educate the masses, ongoing censorship can cut off these modern-day freedom movements from incarcerated people, who have the most at stake.

The ongoing book censorship in prisons takes on even deeper significance against the backdrop of the current wave of conservative campaigns to ban critical race theory (CRT) in schools—despite the fact that CRT is not actually taught in pre-K-12 education. Over the past year, censorship in American schools in the form of book bans and the prohibition of coursework about all aspects of American history have drawn comparisons to the repression of information that occurs behind bars. For instance, in early January, Books to Prisoners, a Seattle-based nonprofit founded in 1973 that receives requests from and mails books to incarcerated people across the nation, tweeted out an image of a package of three books—including “Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary,” a biography of the late activist geared to middle and high school aged readers—returned to them by officials at South Central Correctional Facility (SCCF) in Clifton, Tennessee. In the photo, a slip of paper attached to the books reads “Malcolm X not allowed.”

Michelle Dillon, former program coordinator and current board member for Books to Prisoners, says that it’s important to recognize how book censorship in prisons and schools arises from the same impulses “to hide the reality of what this country is,” but cautions that drawing too close of a comparison dilutes the magnitude of what is happening within prisons.

“A person who’s incarcerated can’t just hop on Google [for] a piece of information they need,” Dillon said. “If the mailroom or the people who are making the funding decisions about libraries have decided that information is a threat to security or if it’s just not important enough to provide, the person who’s inside will not have access to it.”

In an op-ed written for The Washington Post a week after Books to Prisoners’ image was heavily circulated online, Dillon discussed other bans that have specifically targeted either books about Black American history or books simply penned by Black authors. These have included bans in Florida prisons of Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking text “The New Jim Crow” and bans in North Carolina prisons of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and James Baldwin’s “I am Not Your Negro.” In Wisconsin, Dillon noted further, a review committee banned publications about the Black Panthers while permitting “Mein Kampf.” As reported by Prism, the Texas Department of Corrections also allowed “Mein Kampf” and two books by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke while banning Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.”

Attempts to ban books at schools are a critical problem, but there’s a significant difference between bans at schools and bans at prisons: students can still work with parents, other adults, or friends to get access to censored material; for incarcerated people, there are few, if any, alternative routes they can go through to obtain information while within a prison facility. The limited access to information that incarcerated people struggle with isn’t a coincidence—it exists by design as a measure of protection for the carceral system.

“These aren’t random bans, and these aren’t innocuous bans,” said Dillon in an interview with Prism. “These are bans that stemmed from what the system considers to be a danger to itself.”

The Arbitrariness of
Prison Censorship

Organizations that help provide access to books for incarcerated people have been navigating issues around censorship for decades. Books to Prisoners receives about 1,000 book requests every month, the most popular among them being dictionaries and thesauruses, legal materials, foreign language learning materials, fantasy and horror, Native American studies and African American history, and fiction. Dillon says that facilities often don’t provide any reasoning for why specific titles are rejected, and some corrections departments don’t even maintain records of which books have been banned. That lack of documentation can further complicate efforts from advocates who wish to file grievances and fight back. However, it is clear that bans typically fall under two categories, defined by PEN America in their 2019 policy report “Literature Locked Up” as “content-based” and “content-neutral,” each posing its own unique challenge.

Content-based bans censor materials based on pre-set criteria, such as books with sexual content, violence, encouragement of anti-authoritarianism, or texts that in any way compromise “the security, good order, or discipline of the institution.” The authors of “Literature Locked Up” note that these criteria can be “construed so broadly that they essentially serve as convenient justifications for arbitrary bans.” The report cites particularly egregious examples such as an Ohio prison that rejected a biology textbook from a book donation group because the anatomical drawings were labeled as nudity.

Content-based bans can also vary tremendously from prison to prison because the final decisions on what content is or is not appropriate can be made on individual, prison-wide, or state-system levels. The individual preference of a mailroom guard can differ from another, just as the review committee of one facility might choose to censor a particular text that the committee of another facility would not.

Content-neutral bans, however, are implemented in prisons that aim to restrict book deliveries in a stated effort to prevent contraband materials from entering. Under these bans, incarcerated people are only able to purchase books through specific pre-approved vendors. The report’s authors argue that content-neutral bans are actually more damaging than content-based ones because they require incarcerated people to purchase books instead of receiving them for free from book access organizations such as Books to Prisoners or via mail packages from their loved ones. The cost they incur is both financial and emotional and rarely makes sense in the context of what such bans are purportedly aimed to prevent.

Advocates against prison mail and book censorship have long argued that it is correctional staff that serve as the main way drugs and other contraband materials enter into prisons. In New York City, city jails witnessed a contraband spike between April 2020 and May 2021 despite visitation being halted due to the pandemic. Further, data shows that while drug mail seizures spiked over the pandemic, they still account for less than a third of the total drug recoveries, suggesting that jail guards were the primary conduit for contraband.

Limitations of Prison Libraries
and e-Readers

The censorship of printed materials in prisons makes digital resources, often provided via e-books or tablets, a potential avenue for expanding information access to those inside. Tablets can feature movies, music, and books, but the selection offered to incarcerated people on these devices is often very limited. Given the scarcity of physical prison libraries, tablets can be particularly beneficial by giving more people access to popular texts at any given time. Throughout the pandemic, tablets have also proven helpful in enabling people to connect with their families without having to use shared phone banks that could increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Dillon however, said that the potential of what tablets could do has yet to be reached because of the profit concerns of those who operate them.

“Unfortunately, these tablets are controlled by private companies that don’t really have the best interests of incarcerated people in mind,” said Dillon. “Securus and Global Tel link [are] the two broad providers of tablets all across the country and their libraries so far, have just been drawn from Project Gutenberg, which are free books on public domain, oftentimes from the 1800s and early 1900s. So it’s certainly not current and certainly not comprehensive.”

At least 12 states have contracts with these major prison telecom companies which offer those incarcerated in their facilities “free tablets” but with egregious usage fees, such as California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) contract with Global Tel Link (GTL). CDCR receives a flat annual payment of $200,000 while GTL earns revenue from service charges on each tablet such as 20 cents per minute for video calls and $6 for 30-minute phone calls. In 2019, a “free” tablet contract between GTL and the West Virginia Department of Corrections made headlines and raised eyebrows for a clause that would charge incarcerated users 5 cents per minute while they read e-books. Wages in West Virginia prisons average anywhere from 4 cents to 58 cents per hour. The assumption is that in addition to any earned wages, incarcerated users receive enough money from family and loved ones to handle these costs, but the reality is far more questionable.

Dillon also notes that the rise of e-readers can dissuade prison systems from making further investments in physical prison libraries that are already sorely neglected. The inadequate offerings of quality texts in prison libraries exacerbates the impact of both content-based and content-neutral book bans. While searching public records to learn more about the status of prison libraries nationwide, Dillon found that in 2018, two prisons in Washington state were only open 20% to 30% of the time because of staff shortages and because the library was forced to shut down whenever the facility went into lockdown. In that same year, Dillon also found that the state of Illinois had only allocated about $350 for the entire year to purchase new books for facilities across the entire state. Despite the necessity of prison libraries, they’re often treated as an afterthought in prison budgets.

“I can’t even start to convey the extent to which prison libraries tend to be underfunded,” Dillon said. “Just like libraries outside, prison libraries often function as hubs for providing reentry material, ESL materials, all sorts of materials for people looking for growth and knowledge.”

While prisons are required to have law libraries where the incarcerated can conduct their own legal research, libraries offering other types of texts are not a guarantee. In states like New York where access varies, state prisons may have their own established libraries but city jails must rely upon partnerships with the public library system to provide texts.

Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) Justice Initiative is among those partnerships, providing access to requested books, magazines, and newspapers via mobile libraries that visit six Department of Correction facilities across the city on a weekly basis. While the program was halted during the pandemic they expect it to resume this month. Diego Sandoval-Hernandez, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Jail and Prison Services librarian, says that their team receives a wide range of book requests. While they are fortunate the city doesn’t have a list of banned titles or authors, Sandoval-Hernandez says that officers can still decide to arbitrarily ban books if they think they feature content that “may compromise the safety and security of a facility.” Captains at specific facilities have even targeted “urban literature” featuring storylines about gang violence. Some of those bans were reversed after the BPL team refuted their merits with other facility officials, but Joey Morris, Outreach Associate at BPL, noted how content-based bans continue to impact their work. Morris recalled how unpredictable it could be just bringing in the morning edition of the day’s newspapers for incarcerated people to read.

“When we would go in and bring the AM New York or the Metro, depending on the officer you encounter, they would [say] ‘oh, you can’t bring those in, we have to get those looked through,’ because they pass around the Daily News to the people incarcerated [in their facilities] but it’s always the previous day’s [edition],” Morris said. “They black out anything related to Rikers or gangs or things like that. So, some officers would let us bring in the AM New York and some would not.”

A Well-Informed Incarcerated Population Threatens the System

The censorship of local newspapers and the redaction of items related to the carceral system makes it clear that prison facilities view access to certain types of information as a threat. While bans are purported to keep out dangerous materials—whether physical substances or explicit content—they also block information that would allow those inside to better understand the inner workings of the systems that keep them imprisoned.

Texts such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander have faced countless instances of censorship, forcing publishers to publicly speak out in defense of their authors until such bans were gradually lifted. According to Prison Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center which routinely covers prison conditions and litigation against facilities or companies involved in the prison industrial complex, their own publication is one of the most censored resources in American prisons. Further, some facilities censor texts that are explicitly aimed at helping those inside defend themselves, such as Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The USA by incarcerated activist Mumia Abu Jamal.

The impact of censoring literature that openly critiques and gives broader context to the carceral system is immense: It quells opportunities for readers inside to exercise their rights within the system. That resistance can emerge either from individuals filing grievances and defending themselves with the aid of legal resources or working with one another and outside allies to forge campaigns to immediately improve conditions inside.

Additionally, studies have shown that increasing access to literature and educational programs inside reduces recidivism. If rehabilitation was truly the purpose of prison facilities, expanding access to books would be an important and crucial goal. But when entire towns and industries are reliant upon the consistent churn of people into prisons, anti-recidivism efforts threaten the system’s longevity.

While attempts to censor literature by Black authors and other authors of color, or books about movements for liberation, are ongoing, they haven’t quelled advocates’ efforts to harness the potential of those works to inspire new visions and alternative forms of justice. In addition to long-standing grassroots book donation programs such as Books to Prisoners and partnerships with public libraries, new initiatives have also sprung forth with a specific focus on bringing literature from marginalized voices into prison facilities.

In 2020, poet, lawyer, and MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ recipient Reginald Dwayne Betts founded Freedom Reads (formerly the Million Book Project), an organization committed to expanding access to literature for incarcerated people by building libraries and hosting literary programs inside prison facilities. The organization’s core program is Freedom Library, which brings artfully and innovatively designed library spaces into prison housing units with each featuring a collection of 500 carefully selected books. Freedom Reads aims to bring Freedom Libraries to facilities in every state and Puerto Rico, beginning with Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Connecticut. In addition to “expand[ing] on the idea of library book carts, by creating a space in prison for books, inquiry, imagination and community,” Freedom Reads also hosts reading circles, a Youth Book Club for those incarcerated in juvenile detention centers, and Going Inside, a program which brings popular authors into facilities for book readings and talkbacks.

Since 2019, Chicago artist and vocal abolitionist No Name has hosted a book club geared toward political education via texts written by authors of color. Every month, two texts are selected, and readers can join either online or in-person at city-based chapters to discuss them. The group also facilitates prison chapters by sending these texts inside and engaging with incarcerated readers via email. Featured texts have included Assata, the pivotal memoir by Assata Shakur, Salvation by bell hooks, and Heavy by Kiese Laymon. Periodically, the group will share handwritten letters penned by incarcerated book club members via social media featuring their thoughts and takeaways from the texts. In response to this February’s text, The Nation on No Map by William C. Anderson, James, an incarcerated book club member, shared that the text helped reshape his understanding of anarchism and its function.

“William states ‘Royalty, fame, and celebrity to some degree dictate power in this society. But they are not liberation and can never bring freedom,’” wrote James. “To me the proof is in the pudding, hence the millions of us who are still oppressed today while all these black celebrities are famous. I’m not knocking them but I’m just saying. I even feel like celebrities are even oppressed in a lot of ways, they just got a lot more money and fame. I think a lot of celebrities are operating to quell revolutionary ideas and movements by using their platform to preach the need for ‘reform.’ Reform ain’t what we need, we need revolution — abolition.” 

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice:

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