The right to choose what to read is deeply important, and the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. The denial of intellectual freedom—the right to read, to write, and to think—diminishes the human spirit of those segregated from society.
Intellectual freedom is an essential right to all members of society, and yet, the rights of incarcerated Americans to read, write, and think are constantly threatened through censorship. As readers of the Intellectual Freedom blog may know from previous coverage, censorship and book banning are long standing issues in prisons and jails. These issues affect not only physical items but also digital items. As many prisons forgo physical materials altogether and embrace e-reader and tablet programs, it is unclear what effect these changes will have on an incarcerated person’s rights to read, write and think. Can you ban an e-book? What does censorship look like in digital form?
To fully grapple with these questions, one must understand the larger issue of censorship and the role that selection can play to counter it. Censorship is a practice of suppressing or limiting access to certain ideas and resources. Book banning is an extreme form of censorship, whereby access to a particular item is challenged. If that challenge is successful, then the item is removed or restricted. In contrast to censorship, selection aims to ensure the integrity of a collection. It is an inclusionary practice and differs greatly from the exclusionary practices of censorship, which seek to restrict access to specific works or topics.
Within jails and prisons, censorship can often be arbitrary and difficult to track, since it occurs in multiple forms and at multiple levels, as emphasized in a 2019 PEN America report. While content-based bans account for the most high-profile cases, content-neutral bans can be even more insidious. They can prohibit incarcerated people from receiving books from friends or family members, and prevent book drives or organizations from providing materials. To prevent supposed contraband from being smuggled in through books mailed by donation programs, book sellers, and friends or family, incarcerated people can only order materials from pre-approved vendors. These vendors can be more expensive and offer less selection. As observed in previous OIF coverage, “censorship in prisons compounds the existing lack of resources.”
Despite having the potential to increase access to reading materials for incarcerated people, tablet programs have their own issues. As Katy Ryan, the founder of the Appalachian Prison Book Project (APBP) notes, companies like Global Tel Link (GTL) and Securus often have predatory contracts. Devices can be costly, averaging upwards of one hundred dollars even before any content is purchased. Even in prisons enrolled in free tablet programs, there can be hidden costs for tablet users who are charged for using the device; an hour of reading can cost up to three dollars. The selection of titles available to tablet users can also be limited and costly, especially considering that some of the titles offered for a fee are available for free in the public domain. Following reports of these hidden costs, some tablet companies have offered their e-book catalogs for use on their tablets at no cost.
However, e-book catalog offerings can be limited and outdated. Books Through Bars volunteer, Keir Neuringer, argues that “the books that are offered are not books that people are looking for in general.” Moreover, little information has been shared about how these companies are selecting items for both their free and for-pay catalogs, and what items they are leaving out.
Considering the relation between censorship and selection, this lack of transparency is worrying. Tablet programs have consequences for library services in prisons, especially debates about the elimination of physical book donation programs, postal mail, and prison libraries. By outsourcing their book selection and collection development decisions to third-party vendors, prisons and departments of corrections can also outsource their culpability for accusations of censorship. In light of news about recent patents filed by GTL and Securus related to surveillance technology, it is important that we continue to monitor this situation, as these developments can threaten not only every incarcerated person’s right to read but their right to think and write as well.
If a physical book is banned, it can be difficult to track. But if an e-book is banned, we might never know.
Reanna Esmail is the Lead Librarian for Instruction at Cornell University. Working in Olin Library’s Research and Learning Services Department, she coordinates the library instruction sessions for incoming Arts & Sciences students, oversees Olin’s information literacy program, and serves as the Library Liaison to the Latinx Studies Program and the Asian American Studies Program. Prior to her promotion in July 2021, Reanna was the Outreach and Engagement Librarian at Cornell and a Digital Assets Management Intern at the Corning Museum of Glass. She holds an MS in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an MA in English from the Freie Universität Berlin, and a BA in English from the University of California, Berkeley. As a library instructor, Reanna is particularly interested in critical digital pedagogy and providing services for various campus communities, especially those that have historically been underserved and underrepresented.