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Florida Tops the Nation for Number of Books Banned in Prisons

by Jo Ellen Nott

On December 21, 2022, after a year of records requests and research by criminal justice nonprofit The Marshall Project, a database of 54,000 banned books was compiled from prisons in 18 states. In news no one should find surprising, the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) leads the list with 20,000 titles not available to state prisoners. Florida doubles Texas in the number of banned titles.

Books whose themes include violence, fighting, sex and nudity are obviously big no-no’s for most prison systems. In Florida, DOC policy also rejects books that contain perceived safety threats, nudity, or descriptions of how to escape according to the Orlando Sentinel.

But The Marshall Project analysis found that for some of the banned books, the risk to prisons’ mission of safety and security was not obvious. One such title: Handbook on Surviving Solitary Confinement: A Survival Guide for the Targeted Prisoner. Another head-scratching inclusion on the banned-books list: Still We Rise: A Resource Packet for Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People in Prison.

The National Public Radio station out of the University of West Florida notes that Florida prohibits hundreds of books that simply describe the experience of incarceration. One of those banned books, Corrections in Ink, was authored by formerly incarcerated writer Keri Blakinger, who is lead researcher on the banned book analysis at The Marshall Project.

Blakinger’s book chronicles her struggles with heroin addiction while a student at Cornell University and her subsequent two-year incarceration. For telling that simple story, Florida considers her book “dangerously inflammatory” and “a threat to the security, order or rehabilitative objectives of the correctional system.” 

Other books banned in Florida prisons include not only Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf but also How to Make Money in Stocks, along with adult coloring books, foreign language textbooks and dictionaries, and books about how criminal justice affects African American males. One banned title, 1978’s The Turner Diaries, was also delisted by Amazon for its eerily prescient depiction of a White-supremacist attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Blakinger noted that after analyzing prison systems with long lists of banned books, they “are not generally safer or less chaotic than those who don’t ban many titles.”  Digital news website Axios asked DOC to comment on Blakinger’s analysis; the agency did not respond. 

In 2019, DOC’s Literature Review Committee met twice a month to screen books and magazines that Florida prisoners requested or ordered. The committee said it uses Admissible Reading Material rules to make its decisions. Those rules have sixteen categories of banned content and many subsections under the categories of sexual conduct and advertisements. But according to a report by the Tallahassee Democrat, it “was unclear who serves and how many members are on the committee,” and DOC “did not answer inquiries about the committee.”

Sources:  Axios, Tallahassee Democrat, The Marshall Project, Orlando Sentinel, WUWF

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