Windows, Not Walls: Defending Incarcerated People’s Right to Read

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, Prison Libraries

By: Vicky Ludas Orlofsky

Freedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is also freedom to read. … Forbid a person to read and you shut [them] out of the marketplace of ideas and opinions that it is the purpose of the free-speech clause to protect. 

King v. Federal Bureau Of Prisons, 415 F.3d 634 (7th Cir. 2005)
Prison cell, black and white photo, by Ichigo121212 (via Pixabay)
Photo credit: Ichigo121212 (via Pixabay)

The right of incarcerated people to read and the fight to allow them to do so were explored in “Minds Unlocked: Supporting Intellectual Freedom Behind Bars,” at the 2019 ALA Annual Conference in Washington, DC. Presented by Erin Boyington, Adult Institutions Senior Consultant at the Colorado State Library, the session explained the system for librarians new to the subject and offered guidance for those who also work with incarcerated people. I was able to speak with Boyington via email following the conference, and her responses are edited and condensed below.

Prison Librarianship

Boyington has worked for Colorado’s state prisons since getting her MLIS from the University of Washington in 2013. She now serves as part of a team of four who work with over 40 institutions statewide. While prison librarianship was not part of her original plan, the opportunity of a job in the field when she needed one proved fortuitous: “Once I got there, the work was at once challenging and completely satisfying. I would go home every day tired out, feeling I had done good, worthwhile work.” She feels so strongly about her field that she often recommends it to MLIS students: “[P]rison librarianship will give you experience doing every aspect of the job. It was the perfect way to start my career. If you can succeed in a prison library, you can do anything.”

Boyington’s time working with prisons has given her a good understanding of the prison environment. State policies on allowable content are borne out of the context of that environment, which she notes is reactive, security-driven, and faced with an ever-present lack of essential resources, including staff (particularly experienced staff), budget, and time.

As a result of the prison staff’s desire to preempt every possible transgression, content regulations tend to be overly limiting and often subjective, so librarians and the public must be vigilant in defending incarcerated people’s right to read. Public pressure contributed to the unbanning of books like The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Paul Butler, and improved policy changes in Washington and New York. But new challenges arise regularly; in May 2019, an Illinois prison removed 200 books, mostly on the subject of race. 

Boyington’s work on the committee responsible for interpreting the allowable material policy led her to realize the importance of librarianship’s defence of intellectual freedom: “Everyone on the committee would look at the same picture and see something completely different. They would censor pictures of Oscar gowns in People magazine, when anyone at the facility could have just watched the red carpet live and gotten a 360-degree view of the same low-cut gown. The inconsistency drove me nuts, but it was genuinely difficult to interpret the policy consistently. People just don’t see the world the same way. … I lost a lot of arguments in those meetings, and made some not-great calls myself, but every now and then there would be a small victory. There was a lot of pressure to conform – and in those rooms I was often the youngest, the only woman, and I didn’t wear a uniform … [b]ut I’d rather be in the room than not, because when I wasn’t there I couldn’t be sure what would happen.” 

In her presentation, Boyington noted that to be best prepared for these issues of subjective challenges, librarians working with incarcerated people need to have a clear written policy for their library, signed by someone with the authority to do so, that states what is and is not allowed and how to address a challenge. The focus of a policy that bans certain publications must do so solely on the basis of safety and security, but should otherwise allow incarcerated people to exercise their freedom of speech and help prepare them to reenter society. 

Censorship Policies

State censorship policies include general criteria but not specific titles. While the state codes are usually available online, the lists of banned titles within each state are harder to come by (though Books to Prisoners has collected several). 

East Jersey State Prison, photograph, by Jackie Finn-Irwin (CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia)
East Jersey State Prison

In my home state of New Jersey, you can find the criteria in New Jersey Administrative Code § 10A:18-4.9, “Disapproved content in publications” (as of July 2019). Materials may be banned for the following reasons:

  1. Contains material that threatens prison security and order by inciting violence based on race, creed, religion or nationality;
  2. Contains information on explosives, weapons, controlled dangerous substances, escape plans, lock-picking, or other threats to prison security;
  3. Contains information possibly written in code;
  4. Subject matter includes information about activities against the law in NJ and/or the United States;
  5. Contains material that threatens prison security and order by inciting violence against prison personnel, inmates, visitors or volunteers; and
  6. Contains material that “[l]acks, as a whole, serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value” or depicts explicit and/or inappropriate sexual content (NJAC § 10A:18-4.9(a)6).

We know what the incarcerated people of NJ have not been able to read as a result of the successful 2017 challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the ban of The New Jim Crow in two NJ prisons. The ACLU gave NJ Advance Media and NJ 101.5 access to some of the official documents it received from the state as part of that challenge, including lists of banned titles for several state institutions. Some of the documents are unlabeled and/or undated, making it hard to know to which institution they refer or when they were applicable. ACLU staff attorney Tess Borden called the scanned sheets a “haphazard mess,” showing inconsistencies between institutions, which is why the state could say that the ban of The New Jim Crow was not statewide, but also blanket bans on magazines, which are counter to what Borden calls the institutions’ “constitutional obligation” to judge every issue on its merits.

What’s Allowed, What’s Not

Boyington provided sample text of the CO code (CO Administrative Regulation 300-26, Publications; new version effective July 2019) that contained the same or similar restrictions as those of NJ along with book excerpts that the session attendees could evaluate based on those criteria, including the first and fifth books in The Cartel series by Ashley and JaQuavis, The Bartender’s Best Friend by Mardee Haidin Regan, The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, SAS Urban Survival Handbook by John “Lofty” Wiseman, Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler, and The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.

The cover of The Cartel by Ashley and JaQuavis, 2012, via Amazon
The Cartel
by Ashley and JaQuavis

The NJ lists of banned titles have some items in common with those highlighted by Boyington. The Cartel series is often challenged due to explicit sex scenes, but not uniformly. The Cartel was acceptable in both states while The Cartel 2 is censored in CO and two NJ institutions. The same two NJ institutions also ban The Cartel 3, which is currently under review in CO. The Cartel 4 and 5 were both banned in CO but appeared to be acceptable in NJ, which highlights the subjectivity of these decisions. The Cartel series is part of the genre known as “urban fiction” or “street lit,” written about and for African-Americans, typically published and distributed by the authors in street stalls and bodegas rather than through major publishing companies (until the books sell enough copies for the big publishers to start paying attention). Like The Cartel series, books in this genre usually include explicit scenes of sex and violence. Boyington is troubled by “how many prisons have a blanket ban on these types of books, which are usually by and about people of color. The majority of prison staff are white, and it shows in the books that get banned. I’ve never seen a James Patterson book censored for sex or violence, but urban fiction almost always makes its way to the committee.”

The cover of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, 2012, via Amazon
The New Jim Crow
by Michelle Alexander

The 48 Laws of Power, a self-help guide to manipulation, was allowed in CO but banned in three NJ institutions. In CO, The Bartender’s Best Friend and The Zombie Survival Guide were allowed because they provided information but not plans, unlike SAS Urban Survival Handbook, which was more explicit in its instruction and therefore banned. Mein Kampf was allowed for historical value. In NJ, The Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, Parents magazine, books by Jay-Z, Russell Simmons, and DMX, 50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James, and How to Keep Your Kids Away from Gangs, a self-published book by former NJ gang member Al-Tariq Gumbs, each appeared on at least one list. Following The New Jim Crow challenge, NJ officials claimed that they were reviewing the policy and banned lists, but there has been no update since so it is unclear what titles are still banned in NJ prisons. 

Boyington observes that this uneven decision-making, based less on the book’s content than on how an individual facility interprets the CO policy, is a result of an “underlying assumption that people in prison aren’t sophisticated readers, that they’ll read a story about a fictional gang and be inspired to mimic the actions of the people in the story. Or that somehow it’s wrong for adults to read an explicit sex scene – sorry to break the news, but many of them have children. They know about sex (and they’re not all sex offenders). They’ve seen nudity before. They’ve experienced violence, gangs, crime, and other things depicted in fiction and nonfiction. If the censorship is about protecting prison staff from sexual harassment, there are already rules designed to do that. Books aren’t the problem, and censorship isn’t the solution.”

What You Can Do To Help

Boyington served as Association of Specialized Government and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASGCLA) Director-at-Large from July 2017 to July 2019. ASGCLA is a good source for more information for those looking to get involved or librarians who find themselves serving incarcerated people, especially the ASGCLA Library Services for the Incarcerated and Detained Interest Group. Boyington also mentioned the value of ALA’s Prison-l listserv, and cited “Prisoners’ Right to Read: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” (ALA, last amended January 2019) as a guiding document for the profession.

Boyington has advice for librarians who want to help defend the intellectual freedom of incarcerated people: “If you work in a public library outreach department, find a way to deliver services to your local jail, detention center, or prison. Build those relationships! Materials, obviously, are always in demand. Your library may not have the resources to start a satellite branch in a nearby facility (or maybe you do!). But you could ask authors or speakers to make an extra stop at the local facility when they come to your library, or offer summer reading program to people in facilities, or advertise fine forgiveness to the recently released. I would love to see storytime offered during prison visiting hours. Family literacy programs make a huge impact, and correctional officials are likely to see their value. Finally, a lot of prison librarians are paraprofessionals who don’t get enough training, time, or resources. They are stretched so thin that the idea of creating a simple STEM or reading program is beyond what they can manage. Partnering with them can make a big difference. Start small, and see where it goes.

“If you aren’t in a position to help a local facility, pay attention to the news when there’s a story about unjust censorship. Write a letter, make a phone call. Public pressure has led to the reversal of some truly bad censorship decisions all over the country. Each time that happens it’s a victory for intellectual freedom. There are also many wonderful nonprofits that provide free books to prisoners – support their work however you can!”

Attendee comments included mentions of the following advocacy organizations, and others have been cited in the text above:

There are also librarian-led efforts to provide access to books to children and adults held in immigration detention centers, including the REFORMA Children in Crisis Project.

Walls and Doors, Windows and Roads

The Prison Policy Initiative calculates that there are roughly 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US. The ability to read and remain connected to the world is an issue of daily importance to this population. Boyington’s work has showed her that “[t]he philosophy of corrections and the philosophy of librarianship are often opposed. Corrections are about control, secrecy, and security. Walls and doors. Librarianship is about freedom, providing access, and giving away information. Windows and roads.” Boyington’s knowledge of and passion for her work were inspiring to observe, and show that librarians should do everything we can to give incarcerated people the windows and roads they need. 


Vicky Ludas Orlofsky

Vicky Ludas Orlofsky has been the Instruction & Scholarly Communication Librarian at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, for more than five years. She has long had a personal and professional interest in issues of copyright, user privacy and intellectual freedom, which has informed her approach to instruction and reference. She lives in New Jersey with her family, and in her spare time, such as it is, enjoys bakeries, reading, and bullet journaling.

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