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Analysis

5 Things We Learned About Prison Book Ban Policies

We added policies to our searchable database of banned books. Here’s what we’ve found (so far).

Last year, we published a searchable database of the books banned in 18 state prison systems, and wrote about the futility of restricting what people read behind bars.

Our audience asked why some states didn’t provide banned book lists and how prisons decide which books to ban. In response, we added summaries of 37 book policies to the tool. The policies and the banned book lists are also available for download.

In reviewing the policies, we found patterns that reveal the challenges that incarcerated people face when trying to access books and information.

Even when there is an appeal process, it can be long and burdensome.

In nearly all the policies, there is a process to appeal a book rejection for senders, publishers, and the incarcerated recipient. Most of the policies say all parties should be notified of a rejection, with predetermined amounts of time to appeal.

An annotated version of the state of Virginia’s policy on publications and mail highlighting various stages in the review and appeals process.

Appeals processes vary in complexity from state to state. The summaries in our searchable database explain the appeal process in states where we could obtain them, including required forms and time periods for notification and response.

Sometimes, appeals succeed. That's what happened recently when Keri Blakinger, a former Marshall Project reporter who now works for the Los Angeles Times, appealed Florida’s decision to ban her memoir, “Corrections in Ink.”

A prison book program sent a copy of Blakinger’s memoir to a facility in Florida. Officials there rejected it, claiming in a September 2022 notice that it was “dangerously inflammatory” and that it “presents a threat to the security, order, or rehabilitative objectives of the correctional system or the safety of any person.”

Blakinger began an appeal process that ended up taking five months. A statewide Literature Review Committee twice upheld the decision to ban the book, despite letters of support from PEN America, the American Civil Liberties Union and a handful of individual readers. Finally, the matter went before Ricky Dixon, the head of the state's prison system, who overturned the ban in February 2023.

Have you also gone through any state’s appeal process? We’d like to learn more from you — please write to us at bookbans@themarshallproject.org

At least 24 states restrict who can send books.

Over two-thirds of the policies that we reviewed required books to come directly from a publisher, bookstore or a pre-authorized vendor (often Amazon). Many states also require proof of purchase, like a receipt.

This makes it difficult for incarcerated people to receive books their families purchased or that were donated. Dana Blanchard, programming and donations coordinator for Haymarket Books, an independent nonprofit book publisher based in Chicago, says that sending books to corrections facilities is “as arduous as it is unclear.”

“You often do not know if the book you sent made it to the person on the inside,” Blanchard says. “You might get a rejection letter, and then you have to decide if you have the resources to fight it. But in many cases, there is just silence.”

Blanchard says that frequent rejections discourage people from sending books inside.

“It’s hard for us — and we interact with corrections departments across the country on a regular basis. I can’t imagine what it must be like for families. At some point, you get so many rejections that you just give up.”

States and systems with such restrictions include: Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Some systems don’t track the books they ban.

At least five states and the federal system specifically prohibit the creation of a list outlining which books are banned and why. This lack of record keeping means that every decision is made on a case-by-case basis, usually at individual prisons.

We spoke with Sidney Wood, deputy director of institutions at the Alaska Department of Corrections, about the pros and cons of their policy.

Wood believes that it “makes the process fairer because each book is evaluated on its own merits, rather than being denied outright based on it being on a list.” He says that “it is certainly possible that without a list, the policy will be applied inconsistently since each decision is made on a case-by-case basis, without a way to systematically reference prior decisions.”

He thinks that the ability of incarcerated people to appeal rejections can be a corrective to those inconsistencies, however. “If they feel the decision is unfair, there are three levels of appeal,” Wood explained.

He said the department also relies on institutional memory and the fact that there is a relatively small population of about 5,000 people incarcerated in Alaska’s system at a time. “The folks who vet publications — myself included — do it for quite a long time and will remember if we saw them before.”

The states and systems that explicitly prohibit banned book lists are Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, North Dakota and West Virginia, as well as the federal government.

Books with notes or alterations can be rejected.

At least four policies explicitly prohibit books with notes or any other kinds of alterations. This means that used books with markings are likely to be rejected, even if the notes do not pose a threat to security or safety. And some states reject books that get damaged in transport or appear used, without explaining this in a policy.

Kelly Brotzman, managing director of Prison Book Program, which has been sending books into prisons since its founding in 1972, said that roughly 90% of their books are used, despite the fact that most facilities don’t accept used books. The program sends the books with receipts that say “$0” or “free” to fulfill the requirement that all books show proof of purchase.

“But even when we send a new book that's in good condition with a receipt, it gets absolutely beaten by [mail carriers] and the facility rejects it because it’s ‘used,’” said Brotzman. She pointed to rejections her program received from Connecticut in 2023 and Wisconsin in 2022, highlighting the Midwestern state as being “among the pickiest about condition.”

The departments we found that explicitly prohibit mailing books with alterations are Illinois, Indiana, Vermont and Virginia.

In a Virginia prison diversion program, the facility has complete discretion over access to books.

Virginia established Community Corrections Alternative Programs (CCAP) in 2019, with the goal of diverting some people from incarceration in prisons to probation in facilities that offer drug treatment and other reintegration programs.

But people who are diverted to those facilities are not allowed to possess books at all without the approval of the facility superintendent. The state's policy attributes this to “the short duration and intense nature” of the alternative programs.

The programs are operated by the state corrections department and typically last between 22 and 48 weeks. Participants must pay their own room and board (up to $84 per week). Those who are employed in the community must turn over their earnings to the facility, which are then used to pay restitution, court costs and fines, as well as the program costs. After leaving CCAP, income people earned while in the program that did not go toward fees is returned to them.

Possession of a contraband item, like a book, is considered a Category 2 infraction, which can result in expulsion from the program, garnished wages, and other penalties, like additional work or loss of phone or visiting privileges.

In response to questions about access to books for people in CCAP, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Corrections said that “there is no criteria” other than the discretion of the facility superintendent. However, “it’s likely the Superintendent would consider the criteria that are used by the [officials] in the prisons.”

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