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You Can’t Read in Prison

you can't read in prison - an article about censorship in prisons by Amy Manikowski for

Censorship in Prisons

Recently, there has been news coverage of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander being banned in New Jersey Prisons. The book, which argues that the US criminal justice system today functions as a form of racial control similar to the Jim Crow laws of the pre-Civil Rights era, was taken off of the banned list in New Jersey shortly after the story broke. The book was also banned in North Carolina prisons, but after receiving a letter from the ACLU in January 2018 concerning the ban, officials from the State confirmed that ban would be lifted. 

While North Carolina will allow prisoners access to The New Jim Crow, there are still many banned publications, including A Game of Thrones, Fifty Shades of Grey, How to Draw the Human Figure, The Color Purple, 2017 Road Atlas, certain issues of magazines such as Healthy Living, Harper’s Bazaar, Women’s Health, Esquire, Vogue, and many tattoo books.

Texas prisons ban over 10,000 publications, including The Color Purple, which won not only the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but also the National Book Award, the best-selling economics books Freakonomics, Annie Proulx’s popular short-story Brokeback Mountain, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle which was a National Book Award Winner, and Race: How Blacks and Whites Feel about the American Obsession by Studs Terkel. Yet this same state system allows American Psycho, Lolita, and many white supremacist titles including Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler.

Even if a book is not included on a current banned list, packages shipped to inmates are searched and censored, giving the mail room and prison guards final say over the distribution of material.

To make things more complicated, prisons can be run by different entities, including State and Federal Government, along with private for-profit companies, so regulations vary even within states.

Effects of Banning Books:

The United States has the largest percentage of incarceration in the world, with over 2.2 million people currently imprisoned – almost 1% of the population.

Access to information, especially for the purpose of education and rehabilitation, seems like a right that would be protected, but prisons regularly exercise censorship of reading materials and any packages coming to inmates, along with material that is allowed in the prison library. Knowledge is power, and censorship of reading material as a way of isolating inmates from information and infantilizing them.

Yet, a  2013 study by the RAND corporation shows that inmate education decreases recividism by 40% – in other words, the more educated an inmate is, the less likely they will end up back in jail after getting out. According to the National Institute of Justice a study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics study in 2005 showed that three quarters (77%) of released inmates were rearrested within 5 years. An increase in education and access to information could greatly decrease the amount of people incarcerated. This would be better for our society on so many fronts – the most blatant positives for the general public are a cost savings of tax dollars spent on prisons, as well as a decrease in crimes. 

Right now the education of incarcerated people is hampered by their inability to access needed materials, including textbooks. Many texts are not available in softcover, or affordable in new condition, not to mention the obstacles put in place by censorship. 

How to Send Books to an Inmate:

Generally, books have to be new, softcover, and shipped from an approved vendor. Again, regulations vary and some prisons have a long list of approved vendors, while others one have a few select companies of their list. That means books sent by individuals, small bookstores, or even directly from publishers can be denied. Most prisons require books to only be delivered via USPS.  Some prisons also limit the amount of books an inmate can receive, or possess overall. 

If you want to send reading or educational material to an inmate, It’s best to look up the particular prison and see their specific mail regulations and how to address the packages to help ensure they get to the intended person. If you can’t find the information on the prison’s webpage you can call the prison and ask for instructions.

Other ways to help get books to inmates are partnering with organizations such as:

  • Books through Bars (,
  • Books to Prisoners (,
  • The Prison Book Program ( and the
  • Prisoners Literature Project (
  • Asheville Prison Books ( (from one of our local booksellers, Downtown Books & News in Asheville, NC!)

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