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Reading Between the Bars

PEN America Experts Report – Senior Manager, The Freewrite Project; Juliana Luna, Intern, The Freewrite Project. Published October 25, 2023. “…Carceral censorship is the most pervasive form of censorship in the United States. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the departments of corrections (DOCs) in all 50 states and the District of Columbia censor literature – and the rationales they employ for censoring books are vast and varied.  Prisons ban specific titles, based on the alleged threat of their content – a tactic similar to that of book banners who have targeted public schools and libraries in the past two years. Prison banned book lists in many states contain thousands of unique titles; any incarcerated individual in that state is barred from reading any title on the list.  In addition to content-based bans,  there is a second, even more pervasive form of censorship unique to prisons: content-neutral restrictions, which categorically reject and restrict literature based not on its content but a host of other factors, including but not limited to the sender, a book or magazine’s appearance, or whether the incarcerated person obtained permission to receive it from a prison administrator. This content-neutral censorship is not what many first think of when they hear the phrase “book ban.” However, these policies have the effect of denying incarcerated people literature by limiting book deliveries per month per person, limiting the quantity of literature in a person’s cell or locker at a time, returning literature to senders if they’re not mailed in white paper or other specific packaging requirements, limiting literature purchases to a small list of state “approved” businesses, prohibiting the delivery of free books, used books … Prison censorship is distinguished not just by its targeting of specific titles or topics, but by the sheer number of tools in the censors’ toolbox.  Prison officials commonly justify censorship as necessary for rehabilitation and the maintenance of safety and security. The rationale that censorship should be used to accomplish these goals is specious—and yet often receives little scrutiny…”

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