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Investigate Your State

How to Report on Banned Books in Prisons in Your State

Prisons are among the most restrictive reading environments in the United States.

Eight cropped book covers with shadows behind them appear in a grid against a cream-colored background: “The Egyptian Book of the Dead,” “The Hellbound Heart,” “Captive Nation,” “Black on Black Violence,” “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic” and “Effective Java.” The center of the grid shows a pointer cursor hovering above an image of a tool displaying which books are banned in Ohio prisons.

We spent over a year reporting on banned books in prisons, from a nationwide searchable table of banned book lists to Ohio's confusing book screening process.

Use this reporting recipe to investigate the issue of banned books in prisons, whether you are a journalist or a curious citizen.

Our work is only possible thanks to engagement from people close to or affected by book censorship in prisons. As you go through this recipe, if you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please reach out to the banned book team via bookbans@themarshallproject.org. If you publish your findings, we would also enjoy hearing about it through this form.


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Know why the issue of banned books in prisons matters

Book bans are a hot-button issue, with controversies erupting in public schools and libraries around the country. But even more restricted reading environments exist all over the U.S. — in prisons and jails, where incarcerated people’s access to books is already restricted.

About half the states’ corrections departments in the U.S. told The Marshall Project they keep prison book ban lists, which contain more than 50,000 titles of books facilities don’t want incarcerated people to read. Sometimes books are banned because the state believes they are too violent, sexual or pose a security threat.

This topic is another glimpse into what happens behind prison walls, emphasizing challenges incarcerated people face in accessing and holding onto books they could learn from.

The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering criminal justice in the United States, has published a searchable database with banned book lists from 19 states, including Ohio, along with policy summaries from over 30 states, and takeaways from their publication policy analysis.

See how to request book ban records from state prison systems

📝 Download a sample records request

Former Marshall Project reporter Keri Blakinger requested banned book lists and publication policies from state departments of correction across the United States, including the federal system, to kick off our reporting on prison censorship.

She used two tactics to start:

Blakinger recommends contacting the corrections department’s PIO to determine the best way to shape the information request. In a few instances, the PIO sent her the policy and banned book list without her needing to submit a formal request.

It is not always obvious where requests for data and documents should go. Some states had data portals, but they were often unclear and difficult to navigate. In other cases, there was just an email address specifically for requests.

Blakinger also recommends sending separate requests (one for the policy and one for the list) because the policy is often easy to find, and will be held up while the list is tracked down and prepared. She learned that there are sometimes two kinds of lists: a list of books coming from outside vendors or senders, and a list of books banned from the prison library. You should specify which one you want in your request.

The lists sometimes contain codes corresponding to the reason for the ban. When you talk to the PIO, ask if that’s the case in your state and request a data dictionary or key to decipher the codes. The format of the list should be a CSV or an Excel doc, whenever possible. Not a PDF. Those are often hard to parse and interpret.

There are states with no lists. These states must, however, document the receipt and adjudication of each book. So, another path is to request the rejection documents themselves. Some states won’t turn them over because they are about specific incarcerated people. Some will. These documents tend to contain the most instructive information about the reasoning behind a rejection.

Get tips to pitch stories and start reporting

📝 Download a sample pitch

Policies pertaining to book bans vary by state — and can even vary down to the facility level.

We spoke with books-to-prison programs, people who are formerly incarcerated, prison librarians, librarians working at the national and international level on issues of prisoner rights to information, and prison educators. Their proximity to the issue helped us identify local and national trends, and understand how fragmented and localized censorship is in prison.

Potential questions and angles:

We put together a pitch template to help you get a conversation started with your editor. You should personalize it for your newsroom as much as you need.

Download and understand the data

We currently have banned book lists from 23 states, and published 19 of them in our searchable database. You can download the lists from our Observable notebook, which also contains policy summaries that we created using ChatGPT-3.5 for 37 states. We explain how we did that here.

The states with banned book lists that we are still working on publishing are: Louisiana, Nebraska, Oregon and Washington. If you are in one of these states and want us to let you know when we have published the data for your states, please email us at bookbans@themarshallproject.org.

This video tutorial walks you through how to download and explore the data using Google Spreadsheets. It also describes some of the limitations of the data.


Quick guide to downloading and exploring the data:

Learn about editorial style and standards about reporting on incarcerated people

Media outlets have outsized power over the people we cover. That’s especially true for incarcerated people, who rarely have the agency or power to shape their own narrative. As a leader in covering the U.S. criminal justice system, The Marshall Project offers guidance for characterizing people who are in prison and jail.

See how people have used the book ban data and reporting

If you have used our work and want others to know about it, please share a link or an example with us using this form.

Embed the searchable table with my state’s banned books on my website

Here is code that can be copied and pasted in most web content management systems to display the searchable table of book bans in your state:

If you do not see your state, we might still be processing or securing a list. You can message us at bookbans@themarshallproject.org to confirm.

You can also learn how to request book ban records from state prison systems.

Read social media language related to this project

These examples show the way we framed our reporting and the conversation that it sparked. We recommend that you use these posts as reference points when crafting your own audience strategy, rather than copying the exact language, to best engage and serve your specific audiences.

Contact the banned books team

If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please reach out to the banned books team via bookbans@themarshallproject.org.

CREDITS

Community Listening & Writing Vignesh Ramachandran
Andrew Rodriguez Calderón
Ana Méndez
Nicole Funaro

Visual Design Elan Kiderman Ullendorff

Style & Standards Ghazala Irshad
Akiba Solomon

Video Tutorial Jasmyne Ricard

Development Ryan Murphy

Audience Engagement Ashley Dye

Editing David Eads
Andrew Rodriguez Calderón

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