In The New Jim Crow, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander examines the ways in which today’s mass incarceration is a continuation of America’s history of racist policies.

It’s been hailed for introducing a wide audience consisting of the public, policymakers, and politicians to the devastating impact of mass incarceration. But when it was released, the very people affected by incarceration were unable to get their hands on it.

It was banned in prisons in North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, and New Jersey. One person who was incarcerated in Michigan at the time tried to order the book and was rejected, and felt “the reason why the tried to reject it was because they didn’t want me to have that kind of knowledge.”

“Literature Locked Up”, a  report from PEN America released as part of Banned Books Week, highlights some of the examples in which various states censor material that deal with racism, injustice, civil rights, and LGBTQ experiences of incarceration. The New Jim Crow is one prominent example, but the list of books kept from the hands of 2.2 million incarcerated people is extensive. 

In January 2019, Illinois corrections officials pulled about 200 books off the shelves from Danville Correctional Center. This included Race Matters by Cornel West, Colored People: A Memoir by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and My Daddy Is in Jail, a children’s book. An official was reported to have said it was the “racial stuff” that prompted the books’ removal. That’s a content-based book ban. 

Another way of keeping books out of the hands of incarcerated people is content-neutral book bans. Content-neutral bans include wide-reaching restrictions on books being delivered from unapproved sources, including packages from family. Prison officials cite security concerns, though evidence suggests those concerns are faulty. 

When the Seattle Times analyzed the data gathered on the incidents regarding books and contraband, it found a report of an inmate being “book’d” for possessing “contraband,” an incident in which Officer “Booker” discovered “contraband,” and an incident in which an inmate reported finding a shank lying on a bookshelf. These were mistakenly grouped into reports of contraband in books, and ultimately only three of the 17 incidents actually had anything to do with smuggling contraband in books.

Decisions to ban books are often made behind closed doors. Only two states, Washington and Pennsylvania, offer public results of their literature review committees’ decisions. Elsewhere, the decisions can often seem arbitrary and come with little meaningful oversight, despite a Supreme Court-mandated administrative appeals process.

Incarcerated people who seek to challenge a book ban face the barriers of the “exhaustion requirement,” which mandates they first go through the prison’s internal methods for bringing a complaint. Fearing retaliation, many incarcerated people avoid the process altogether. Book publishers have brought forward much of the litigation on book banning, but it’s rare given a lack of financial incentive. 

PEN America is a nonprofit which seeks to protect free expression through the advancement of literature and human rights. In its report, the organization requests that the House and Senate Judiciary Committees convene hearings on book banning practices in American prisons. They want to urge officials to implement periodic reviews of book restriction policies, make banned book lists transparent and publicly accessible, and to consider the educational, literary, and rehabilitative merit of the books. 

Alexandra Arriaga

Alex Arriaga is a reporter and writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on how people engage and participate in democracy and how community reporting can empower that participation in different ways....