September 26, 2019
PEN protests prison prohibitions: book ban bemoaned
by Mike Lindgren
This week is officially Banned Books Week, in which we focus on the myriad ways that free expression is threatened here in America. And as famed advocacy group PEN America points out, one of the worst forms of censorship falls upon the most vulnerable populations: the 2.2 million incarcerated people in the United States.
In a recent policy paper—and, to be honest, we didn’t quite get all the way through its 28 pages—PEN condemns an arbitrary system that bans books from being donated or purchased for prisoners based on the books’ content. Sounds like a First Amendment issue to us! Where’s our lawyer?!
According to James Tager, the author of the report and PEN America’s deputy director of free expression policy and research, reading 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.” As if being imprisoned in the world’s largest carceral system weren’t bad enough—now they want to take away the right to read!? Talk about “cruel and unusual”!
Although the report mentions that reading has tangible benefits like reducing recidivism, to our minds this remains a moral issue—controlling what prisoners read is a form of violence, a stripping away of psychic freedom. The panopticon is with us always!
In its “recommendations” section, the PEN paper calls for the repeal of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996—one of those useless but tough-sounding laws that came from the pen of William Jefferson Clinton—as well as making banned books lists transparent to the public for review. You can also join us in signing a petition calling for Congressional hearings on this very un-American practice.
Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.