Prison Censorship in the Age of Epidemics

Censorship, Prison Libraries

By: guest contributor Erin Boyington, Intellectual Freedom Round Table member

It may surprise you to know that censorship is alive and well in our country. Or perhaps not, if you’re even passingly familiar with the plight of the 2.2 million American adults who are incarcerated today.

In 2019, there were many examples of censorship reported by news outlets, including Michigan Department of Corrections’ (DOC) counter-productive restrictions on computer books, Florida DOC’s dislike of Klingon and exotic chicken coloring books, and Arizona DOC’s unconstitutional ban on so-called sexually explicit materials. To me, the most illuminating story came from Danville, Illinois.

“Racially motivated” censorship

In Danville, Illinois, more than 200 books addressing issues of race in America were removed from a state-run men’s facility. Those books weren’t purchased by the state, but donated by the Education Justice Project (EJP), which offers college courses inside the prison. (In fact, Illinois is notorious for having spent next to nothing on educational books—in 2017, The Illinois DOC spent less than $300 on materials for 41,000 people incarcerated in 28 prisons.)

Because of the EJP’s director, Rebecca Ginsburg, the books were returned to the shelves and the Illinois DOC revised its book banning policy. Ginsburg was put under a microscope and even investigated by the facility during that time. She prevailed after five and a half months, but how will the future of her program be affected? Will she experience further retaliation?

Thanks to Ginsburg’s refusal to stay quiet, the Danville incident is one of the best-reported examples of how prison censorship actually works—the suddenness of the removal, conflicting messages from officials, and no established method to appeal to an outside authority.

Reversing the decision only happened after public attention, multiple legislative meetings, and brand-new leadership at Illinois DOC—plus an entirely rewritten censorship policy.

If it’s that difficult for a well-educated, passionate volunteer from outside the prison to get a fair hearing, just imagine yourself in the shoes of a staff member or inmate trying to make a change from the inside.

Still, it is encouraging to see that the arbitrary practices of prison censorship, when brought into the light, can be rolled back.

Content-neutral bans

A library in a Colorado state prison. Taken by Erin Boyington. ALT TEXT: An empty library in a Colorado state prison.

There’s another prison-specific form of censorship that made waves in 2019: content-neutral bans.

Correctional facilities often limit books sent by mail and prevent even trusted nonprofits like Books to Prisoners from sending donations (as the state of Arizona, a repeat offender in 2019, currently does, and as Washington’s DOC attempted to do).

In September 2019, PEN America published a study called “Literature Locked Up” that does an excellent job of articulating the way prison censorship works in the U.S. The study divides censorship into “content-based” and “content-neutral” types. The Danville incident was an example of content-based censorship, the type ALA tracks.

But the second type is the closed world of prison’s most effective way of banning books. PEN cites separate content-neutral policies in Georgia, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, and the federal system that placed limitations on approved vendors or banning families from sending packages.

Each content-neutral ban is usually designed to make correctional staff’s jobs easier at the expense of prisoners’ human and civil rights. The excuse of safety and security is presented with no data to prove that such restrictions actually make things safer.

And content-neutral bans restricting certain types of books, like hardcovers, are often enacted across the board with no proof that such materials are an issue beyond one or two isolated cases that could be better resolved by other means. (I saw this firsthand in Colorado several years ago when, without warning, hardcovers were banned for high-security populations.)

Content-neutral censorship in prison compounds the existing lack of resources. Nonfiction books are less likely to be released in paperback, leading to further deficits in educational content that can support learning and reentry planning. Worse, when such bans are put into place for existing collections, no additional funding makes up the shortfall when overnight all hardcover books are forbidden.

These types of content-neutral bans exist all over the country with no data to support the need for them beyond a correction official’s instincts.

COVID-19 and the digital divide

The COVID-19 pandemic is globally devastating, but it is also serving to hammer home the impact of the digital divide, particularly in prison. While many on the outside are busy with phone calls, video conferencing, social media, and streaming endless entertainment, people in prison suddenly lost the few things that sustain them: family visits, volunteer programs, and library access (assuming they were lucky enough to be in a facility with a library in the first place).

The incarcerated also have little to no access to trustworthy healthcare information to know what to expect in this scary, fast-changing new world. It’s a byproduct of putting the incarcerated “away” from society, out of sight and out of mind.

Overcrowding and human rights violations during the epidemic have led to recent COVID-caused riots in Italy, Russia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Colombia. In the U.S., there was a quickly suppressed riot at a Kansas prison and in Washington state prison.

The curtailing of human rights, including intellectual freedom, has devastating consequences for any society. We must do better.

Our future neighbors

No one will ever create one perfect policy to rule them all. That’s not the nature of censorship, nor is it the nature of corrections. Just as with culture at large, over the years censorship is on a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to another. A new warden or new officer can sometimes be the difference between what gets allowed and what gets banned.

And there are provable penological reasons to censor some types of content—for example, fighting manuals or recipes for brewing alcohol present real threats to safety.

The lack of accountability for censorship needs to change. Prisoners cannot defend their own rights—laws have been passed on purpose to make that nearly impossible, and lawsuits filed by publishers and prisoners alike have largely been unsuccessful. The burden of proof is placed upon them instead of correctional officials who merely need to imagine a security risk for their decisions to be upheld.

If the fact that the 2.2 million incarcerated adults are fellow human beings and fellow Americans isn’t enough to persuade people that this matters, then they should consider a statistic I learned in my first month of training as a prison librarian: 97% of those who are incarcerated will be released, usually within three years.

Who do you want your future neighbors to be? People who have been neglected and stripped of their human rights? Or people who were able to learn and grow because they had access to the resources they needed?

I know which one I choose.


Composed by Intellectual Freedom Round Table member. Follow us on Twitter @IFRT_ALA.

Erin Boyington

Erin Boyington is an Adult Institutions Senior Consultant at the Colorado State Library’s Institutional Library Development team, and has worked for prison libraries since 2013. She recently contributed a chapter about prison censorship for ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Stories from a Shifting Landscape. She is a co-leader of ASGCLA’s Library Services for the Incarcerated and Detained interest group.

The Intellectual Freedom Round Table (IFRT) provides a forum for the discussion of activities, programs and problems in intellectual freedom of libraries and librarians; serves as a channel of communications on intellectual freedom matters; promotes a greater opportunity for involvement among the members of the ALA in defense of intellectual freedom; promotes a greater feeling of responsibility in the implementation of ALA policies on intellectual freedom. 

One thought on “Prison Censorship in the Age of Epidemics

  • It had not occurred to me that prisoners would be deprived of intellectual freedom in the US. I grew up in Indiana in the 50s. My family, teachers, and (especially) the head librarian in our neighborhood public library encouraged children to take advantage of all of the library offerings. They believed in intellectual freedom, and they practiced it. What a gift to every child they nurtured. Thank you for your work for prison libraries and for incarcerated people.

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