Book bans in schools and libraries have been in the news lately, but books are also being banned in prisons without much public attention.
The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom focused on the criminal justice system, published a searchable database of the books banned in 18 state prison systems. Some states, like West Virginia, didn’t provide banned book lists, but the states provided book policies on how they ban books in the first place. Banned book lists are available for download.
News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Andrew Calderon about the project and what it means in West Virginia prisons.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Explain to me why prisons ban books in the first place?
Calderon: From the perspective of the policies that we reviewed, it seems that there is a really big concern on books being a threat to order or security, be it because the books themselves can be used to smuggle in contraband or because information can be transmitted in them in the forms of notes or highlights. Sometimes the policies also make it clear that the format of the book itself can be considered a threat. For example, there are some systems that ban spiral binding or hardcover books. It’s unclear to me based on the reporting that I’ve done to what extent books have been used in those ways. Either they’ve incited violence or been used as part of gang activity or something to be able to smuggle contraband or information, but it seems that the policies themselves elicit a very explicit fear of that happening.
We also spoke to many people who are trying to get books into prisons and have been doing so for decades. And from their perspective, the policies are overly restrictive and make it hard for both their programs, as well as family members of the incarcerated, to get much needed information into the facilities. For example, many people who try to get books into prison systems often rely on donations because price is a major concern. And there’s one example out of Wisconsin where a group sent in a number of new books that were beaten up by the mail carrier in the course of transport, and by the time they made it to the mailroom, the mailroom deemed them to be used because they were so mangled and sent them back.
Douglas: Is this something that’s gotten more restrictive in the last 20 years? Or are these policies that have been in place for a while?
Calderon: I don’t have a clear answer on that. But what I can say is that there is a sense among people who are working on this space that because of the environment around book bans, in general, across the country, especially in the education system, that there might be ways in which the prison systems will respond and themselves also become more restrictive, because ultimately they are public entities. And many of these prohibitions happen much less publicly than they do in schools. And so it’s possible that it’s already happening. And it’s just really hard for us to know.
From the policy review we did, we managed to get policies from 37 states. And we found that in four states plus the federal system, there’s an explicit ban on having a banned book list inside of the facilities. And so in those systems, it’s virtually impossible for us to know which books are being prohibited and which ones are being allowed into the facility.
Douglas: So they literally have a rule that says there can’t be a list of books that we’ve banned. But we are banning books.
Calderon: That’s right. I spoke with an official in Alaska, which is one of those states, and asked him about the pros and cons of this policy. And what he said to me was that he thinks that it’s better this way, because every single book is reviewed on a case-by-case basis and on its own merits. At the same time, he acknowledged that it does leave room for inconsistencies, but that in a system like Alaska is, which he said is small, it’s about 5,000 people who are incarcerated, and a small number of people who are working, they in part rely on institutional memory, to prevent those inconsistencies. And they also think that the appeals process for people who are incarcerated whenever they do receive a rejection, which is common in many states, can also be a corrective.
Douglas: Let’s talk about West Virginia for a minute. I know you don’t have a whole lot of specific information on the state but you did get West Virginia’s policy. What is the state policy on books in prisons?
Calderon: So for West Virginia, in particular, there were specific criteria listed for when a book should or should not be banned. That included some of the common things that we see in other policies like nudity, violence, etc. West Virginia also has an appeals process that allows people who are incarcerated who receive a rejection to appeal that process through the grievance system. And also in the policy, there’s room actually for the possibility that people in the mailroom who are reviewing the books who may not have all of the knowledge or understanding of the book necessary to be able to make a decision about whether or not it should be banned. And so there’s recourse for the mailroom to consult with legal counsel, as well.
There are also some specific deadlines that need to be observed, like the person who’s incarcerated has about 20 days to submit an internal grievance when they receive a rejection. And it’s important to note that because largely whether or not they receive the rejection in a timely manner, determines whether or not they’re able to file the grievance in a timely manner, which we’ve heard in some systems can sometimes be a problem as well.
Douglas: The way you’re talking about restrictions at the mailroom level, I would think decisions on what books can be allowed would be handled by a librarian, or by somebody in management, rather than just somebody in the mailroom who’s opening packages.
Calderon: We’ve heard from people who interact with the system, often when they’re sending books in, they’ll say that they often get rejection letters that show that there’s a complete misunderstanding of the substance of the book, or that in some cases, a book is rejected, just because the person who’s reviewing the book, the CO [Corrections Officer], doesn’t like the recipient, or has some problem with them, and will also reject it, just make it difficult for things to get to that person. That’s something that’s hard to prove, but it’s apparently not uncommon in the system for people to say that’s what’s happening.
Douglas: West Virginia is one of those states that does not maintain a list of banned books within the system. Is that correct?
Calderon: West Virginia is one of the states that explicitly bans the creation of a banned book list.
Douglas: Anything else you can tell me about West Virginia specifically?
Calderon: Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s in part because they don’t have a banned book list. If I had a banned book list, we’d be able to glean more about the system. And you know how these decisions are made when they’re made, the reasons that certain books are rejected, what kinds of books are rejected, and this speaks to, however well-meaning the policy of not having banned books are. To give credit to the institution or to be charitable to them, I’m sure that whoever wrote this down had some sense of the positives. But it does create an opacity that doesn’t allow us to glean what is happening inside of the system. And that doesn’t come without its disadvantages.
Douglas: What are some of the positive reasons for not having a banned book list?
Calderon: Well, from our conversation with an official from Alaska, he said that not having a banned book list in the state of Alaska makes it so that books aren’t just rejected outright because of their presence on the list, and that it forces the institution to review every book on a case by case basis to assess it on its own merits and to see whether or not it does or does not run afoul of the policy. I would assume that a similar logic might apply in other states that have decided to adopt this policy, as well. But it comes with the disadvantage that we simply can’t track what books are being banned and why.
Douglas: For the states that you do have data on, how big are these lists? I mean, what’s the scope of the problem?
Calderon: The frequency with which books are rejected varies from system to system. So as you can imagine, Florida and Texas have some of the largest carceral systems, therefore have some of the biggest banned book lists. And then you have other states that have much shorter lists, you know, maybe only a couple of 100 entries. There’s always the possibility of data, errors or issues with data collection, so maybe more books are being banned and they’re not being entered into the system.
There are many books that are being banned, because they’re considered inflammatory. But oftentimes, those are books that have to do with Black empowerment, Civil Rights, there are also books that we found that perhaps are not about history, but have also been considered dangerous, like yoga books, or books about meditation. Sometimes books are banned, not because of the substance of the book, maybe a Yoga Book is banned, because somebody in the book, there’s an image of them that exposes a part of their body, like their chest, and the person in the mailroom might deem that it’s too salacious for the the facility and so they will reject it.
For example, someone wrote to us to say that they wanted to send their brother a book of art by Ai Weiwei, a famous Chinese artist. And in one of the pages of the book the artist appears semi-nude. And they rejected the book in Arizona because of nudity.
Douglas: Is there anything we haven’t talked about?
Calderon: We’re really interested in building relationships with people who have experience in this system, either from the inside or from the outside. If they want to reach out to us, we have tried to make that easy on our website, if you go to TheMarshallProject.com.
We also have an email that people can use to send us any tips or to write to us about their experience, which is BookBans@TheMarshallProject.com.