Books Including ‘The Art of War’ and Amy Schumer’s Memoir Face Prohibition in U.S. Penitentiaries: Understanding the Reasons

by Ethan Kim
book banning in U.S. prisons

According to a recent study by PEN America, a multitude of books, ranging from self-help manuals to works of fiction by authors like Elmore Leonard, are either banned or restricted within U.S. correctional facilities. Moira Marquis, the lead author of the report and a senior manager in the Prison and Justice Writing Department at PEN, states that the underlying rationale for such censorship is the belief that certain ideas and information pose a security risk.

Released to coincide with the commencement of Prison Banned Books Week, the report, titled “Reading Between the Bars,” relies on a variety of sources. These include public records, communications with prison mailroom personnel, first-hand accounts from inmates, and difficulties faced by PEN in disseminating their prison writing guide, “The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting A Writer’s Life in Prison,” published last year.

The most frequently cited justifications for book bans by prison officials pertain to concerns over security and sexual content, broad categories that can be applied to a myriad of publications. For instance, Michigan’s list of restricted books features Leonard’s “Cuba Libre,” a thriller set just before the Spanish-American War of 1898, and Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal,” which explores an assassination attempt on French President Charles de Gaulle. Both works were deemed to potentially disrupt the order and security of the institution.

A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections informed The Big Big News that a newly established Literary Review Committee is reevaluating the restricted publication list to ascertain whether any items should be removed or continue to be restricted. Among the books facing restrictions, Amy Schumer’s memoir “The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo” was singled out by Florida authorities for containing explicit sexual content and posing a security risk within the correctional system.

The list of banned books is not limited to these examples. It also includes Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” the anthology “Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars,” Barrington Barber’s instructional guide “Anyone Can Draw,” and Robert Greene’s bestselling self-help book “48 Laws of Power.” Commenting on this issue, Greene described it as a manifestation of control and a form of extreme power manipulation.

The PEN report also identified correlations between the rates of book bans in prisons and those in schools and libraries. In Florida, where the organization estimates that over 40% of all library bans occurred in 2022, more than 22,000 books have been banned from prisons—the highest number among all states. Texas, another frequent offender, has more than 10,000 banned books in its prisons, the second-highest number after Florida.

Moreover, the actual number of banned books is likely greater than reported due to inconsistent or absent record-keeping by many states. For example, both Kentucky and New Mexico lack centralized databases of prohibited books. Efforts to raise awareness about such bans are largely localized and often helmed by volunteers, leaving a dearth of comprehensive, national analyses on the issue of prison censorship.

According to Marquis, restrictions can be categorized into content-specific and content-neutral bans. The former involves censoring books based on their content, while the latter restricts books because they do not come from approved channels. In several states, books can only be received through a select list of vendors, and some federal facilities enforce restrictions even on the type of packaging allowed for incoming books.

A spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Correction indicated that packaging restrictions were enacted in response to a growing problem of drug-laced mail, and emphasized that inmates could still receive books and periodicals at no cost from authorized sources.

The study “Reading Between the Bars” builds upon an earlier report by the non-profit newsroom the Marshall Project, and a 2019 PEN study. These reports collectively indicate that the regulations surrounding book restrictions within the U.S. penal system constitute the most expansive book ban policy in the country, affecting over two million incarcerated individuals. They also highlight that the practices of book banning in American prisons are systematic, pervasive, and often enacted with limited oversight.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about book banning in U.S. prisons

What is the main focus of the article?

The article primarily discusses the issue of book banning in U.S. prisons. It is based on a report by PEN America and explores the various reasons cited for such bans, as well as the broad range of books that are affected.

Who conducted the study that the article is based on?

The study on which the article is based was conducted by PEN America, a non-profit organization focused on literary and free expression.

What are the common reasons cited for book bans in U.S. prisons?

The most commonly cited reasons for book bans in U.S. prisons are concerns over security and sexual content. These categories are broad and can be applied to a wide variety of publications.

Are these bans limited to any specific type of books?

No, the bans are not limited to any specific genre or type of book. The article mentions that a wide range of books are affected, from self-help manuals to memoirs and novels.

How reliable is the data on book banning?

The data may not be entirely reliable because many states do not keep centralized records of banned books. The actual number of banned books is likely higher than what is reported.

Is there any system in place to review banned books?

Some states, like Michigan, have established a Literary Review Committee to reevaluate their list of restricted publications to determine if any books should be removed or continue to be restricted.

What are content-specific and content-neutral bans?

Content-specific bans are those where books are censored based on what they say or contain. Content-neutral bans restrict books because they do not come through approved channels or meet certain packaging requirements.

Does the issue of book banning extend beyond prisons?

Yes, the article notes that PEN America found parallels between the frequency of book bans in prisons and those in schools and libraries, particularly in states like Florida and Texas.

Are there any efforts to raise awareness about this issue?

Yes, but most of these efforts are localized and run by volunteers. There is a lack of comprehensive, nationwide analyses on the issue of book banning in prisons.

What is the implication of book banning on the incarcerated population?

With over two million Americans in the penal system, the regulations on book restrictions represent the largest book ban policy in the United States, affecting a significant portion of the incarcerated population.

More about book banning in U.S. prisons

  • PEN America Report on Book Banning
  • The Marshall Project Study on Prison Book Bans
  • U.S. Department of Corrections Policies on Restricted Publications
  • Overview of Censorship in U.S. Prisons
  • Statistics on U.S. Incarceration Rates
  • Previous PEN America Report on Prison Book Restrictions (2019)
  • Official Statement from Michigan Department of Corrections
  • Florida Department of Corrections Restricted Publications List

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Sarah J October 26, 2023 - 3:41 am

It’s crazy that they can just ban books willy-nilly without a proper system for it. What’s next?

Paul G October 26, 2023 - 6:44 am

i thought freedom of speech and all that? Guess not if ur behind bars. Very eye-opening article.

Lisa Grant October 26, 2023 - 9:46 am

Not keeping centralized records just screams a lack of transparency to me. Makes you wonder what they’re hiding.

Robert K. October 26, 2023 - 11:27 am

A Literary Review Committee? Well that sounds fancy for what is essentially still a censorship board.

Emily Williams October 26, 2023 - 2:00 pm

the sheer range of books being banned is surprising. From Sun Tzu to Amy Schumer? Talk about diverse.

Tom Johnson October 26, 2023 - 2:45 pm

This is a form of control. Period. And it’s being implemented without any oversight or public scrutiny. Scary stuff.

Mike Thompson October 26, 2023 - 3:34 pm

Wow, I had no idea that book banning was such a widespread issue in US prisons. This really needs more attention.


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