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  • Susan Stoderl

Adult Literacy | Prisoners Are More Likely to Re-Offend with Book Banning in Prisons


Jail Cell
Prison Book Bans

PEN America, through a FOIA request of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the departments of corrections in all 50 states and the District of Columbia censor literature, investigated the rationales for censoring books in prisons. The rationales are like those used to target public schools and libraries. Pen America published a comprehensive report in October of this year entitled “Reading Between the Bars.”


State-banned prison book lists can contain thousands of titles, with all imprisoned persons prohibited from reading them across the state. Besides content, the sender, or the physical appearance of the reading material can cause the material to be banned. Some prisons require the prison administrator’s permission to approve a prisoner to receive materials. Other restrictions include limiting the number of books per month, the number of books a prisoner can have at one time, returning books to sender if not packaged according to their rules, and requiring books to be purchased from a state-approved business. This keeps friends, family members, churches, community groups, prison book programs, independent bookstores, and lesser-known publishers from sending books. It also prohibits free and used literature from being distributed.


The states with the most banned titles were Florida (22,825 titles up to September 2023), Texas (10,265 titles up to February 2023), Kansas (7,699 titles up to 2021), Virginia (7,204 titles up to 2022), and New York (5,356 titles as of 2019).


Another disturbing fact is that high-level prison officials are not responsible for creating the statewide banned lists. Instead, the mailroom staff decides what is to be banned. Mailroom staffing requires only a high school diploma. Prisons have a very high rate of turnover, so the staff deciding what is to be banned are often untrained. Mailrooms are often understaffed and only open for limited hours.


Seventy percent of prisoners are unable to read at even a fourth-grade level. If the prisoners have no books or education, then how are they going to stay out of prison when released? How are they to make a living? Literacy reduces recidivism rates. In California, they found that prisoners given access to higher education lowered recidivism by 43%, increased the chance of employment by 13%, and saved $5 for every $1 spent on education.


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