“The Coloring Book Looney Tunes,” “Learn to Draw Disney Winnie the Pooh,” and “Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game Catalog” may sound like innocent books to the ordinary reader, but all three of these books (and many more) are currently banned in Florida’s prisons.
Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information. The banning of books in prison is a form of censorship that government officials use because they object to their content, ideas or themes. Book censorship in prisons is an explicit instrument for hindering rehabilitation in the criminal legal system. Furthermore, the lack of transparency and the permissible discretion of prison officials to ban books is used as a tool to further limit incarcerated persons’ freedom of thought.
Book censorship is a serious threat to the access of information and ideas for incarcerated persons. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) regulations require prisons to reject books only if they are “detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity.” While there is a stated requirement, banning access to reading material is ultimately left to the discretion of each prison governor. The large reliance on discretion results in a multitude of books being banned due to implicit (and explicit) biases. Studies of book censorship in prisons show that in Wisconsin, nearly every publication about the Black Panthers was declared inadmissible, while both Adolph Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and Alfred Rosenberg’s “The Myth of the Twentieth Century” were allowed in the same prisons. Other notable examples include Texas prisons banning Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” and Florida prisons banning books that teach Arabic, Japanese and American Sign Language. Given these notable hypocrisies, censorship in prisons persistently targets incarcerated persons who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. While some prisons, such as those in Kansas, give very brief and dissatisfactory reasons for banning their books, many do not even give an explanation at all (such as in Florida and Georgia).
Books are a very important part of prison. Having limited access to the Internet (and overall connection to the outside society), books are one of the only ways for incarcerated persons to connect to society. Reading offers incarcerated persons a chance to prepare for life beyond prison. In fact, studies have repeatedly shown that education significantly reduces recidivism rates. Books can have an incredible influence on incarcerated persons. In his book “The Sun Does Shine,” former unjustly incarcerated person, Anthony Ray Hinton, explains how much the book club he created helped him through his time on death row. Books allowed Hinton and his fellow incarcerated persons to form a community and to briefly escape the reality of being on death row. Chris Wilson, who served 16 years of a life-in-prison sentence, is a strong advocate for free and uncensored access to books in prisons. Wilson explains that books provided him the tool to turn his life around when he first was incarcerated and helped him become a better person through education.
Book banning decisions are subject to much discretion. Prison governors have presented reasons for banning that have been “wide-ranging, from perverse to absurd to constitutionally troubling, with bans being applied in ways that defy logic.” One example of such absurdity is a prison official in Ohio denying a prisoner a biology textbook because it contained “nudity.” Given the power of books to improve lives, prison governors should be required to provide transparency in their reasoning to ban certain materials.
Unsurprisingly, decisions concerning book censorship in prisons are rarely reviewed or overturned. In Procunier v. Martinez, the Supreme Court ruled that prisons must offer administrative appeals for censorship decisions. While this means that the original “book banner” cannot be involved, the appeal need not be reviewed by parties independent of the prison system, nor does the Court provide criterion for the qualifications of the reviewers. This internal review system fails to operate as a significant check for censorship. Additionally, facilities very rarely make lists of their banned books publicly available and even less frequently do they make the reasoning for banning certain books available. The lack of transparency suggests that censorship could be even more extensive than originally thought, which makes advocating for incarcerated persons’ rights even harder.