April 18, 2019

How far does censorship in prison libraries extend?


A recent Seattle Times report on the Washington Department of Corrections’ ban on book donations to prisons has people fired up and questioning the reasoning behind the ban and book censorship more generally in prisons. I did a lot of googling and the short answer I found is that the public doesn’t really know the extent of censorship in prison libraries, and it seems that prisons don’t want us to know. 

This topic was trendy in January 2018, when news that New Jersey, Florida, and North Carolina corrections officials banned The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. After protests from the public, the corrections officials lifted the ban, but provided no good explanation as to why the ban existed in the first place.

When sending books directly to an inmate, there are strict rules but no explanation on why the rules exist. The Elmira Correctional Facility, for example, has 6 rules for books:

Rule 1) Ship books and magazines from Amazon direct to the Elmira Correctional Facility

Rule 2) Only ship new books and magazines

Rule 3) Books must be delivered by USPS

Rule 4) Do not ship hardcover books to inmates

Rule 5) No violent themes or nudity

Rule 6) The general rule for shipping books to inmates is 1 parcel per month containing a maximum of 10 books.

Andrew Hart discussed his work as a prison librarian with Mental Floss. 

Today, roughly 1.5 million Americans are incarcerated in federal or state facilities that offer varying degrees of access to literature, from a few shelves full of worn titles to sprawling legal and recreational selections. When Hart decided to put his bachelor’s degree in criminology and master’s in library science to use at the Ohio facility, he was dismayed to find that the unit had only 600 books in its inventory.

“It was dimly lit and barely had any computers,” he says. “My heart just sank.”

Hart set about improving the library by opening up interlibrary loans—where inmates could request books from public libraries—and “hustling” for book donations from local merchants and other sources.

In a library blog, Hart wrote, 

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles for a prison librarian is money. Most of the time, the prison library is low on the list of the prison’s priorities and is overlooked. Book donations are a prison library’s lifeblood. Networking with local bookstores is a great way for a prison library to obtain books and replace out-of-date material clogging the shelves. When I received book donations, it was like Christmas morning in the library.

Andrew Hart, again, wrote an article for The Washington Post on his struggle, as a librarian, to censor the books his patrons were reading.

Each prison system has its own rules for determining whether inmates can access a publication in the library or through material sent in the mail from friends and family. Censorship starts in the mailroom, where books are screened for restricted content as described in a state’s code. Books suspected of being in violation are sent to a committee, which can place the material on a restricted list. Books, music and magazines are restricted for many reasons, including some obvious ones: advice on weapon-making, escaping confinements and making alcohol.

I would have liked to find more information from mailroom employees, committee members, and librarians other than Andrew Hart, but was unsuccessful. Katie Lewis, a researcher at Drexel University that researched Censorship and Selection in Prison Libraries, was equally unsatisfied with the lack of information on the subject. She concludes, and I agree,

Collection practices for prison libraries are not standardized in the United States, and the extent of censorship in prison libraries is not known.

Perhaps because the contemporary prison system in the United States is based on isolation, division and removal from society, there is a general lack in literature that explores the theoretical practices of censorship in prison settings.



Christina Cerio is the Manager of Direct Sales & Special Projects at Melville House.