Stephanie Birch, CRT Collective Founding Member.
Graphic by Stephanie Birch
This blog post is a continuation of the author’s article in the 2022 EFI special issue on CRT: “A New Prohibition Era: Book banning, prison abolition, and liberation.” The author digs deeper into her discussions of carceral book banning methodologies and race-neutral policies, withtrue-to-life examples. She further explores the implications and consequences of book banning methods and policies on incarcerated people, to better understand how information restriction functions as a tool of oppression.
“Never in the history of the modern world have we seen such a vast machinery of repression, and the United States is the world’s undisputed leader in imprisonment of its citizens.”
– Mumia Abu-Jamal
Mumia Abu-Jamal is a political prisoner and author who writes from inside a prison cell. The former Black Panther Party leader was originally sentenced to death row in 1983. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison. His writings – along with works by other incarcerated and formerly incarcerated authors – offer important insight into the “vast machinery of repression” we know as mass incarceration… its intricacies, its functions, and its impact on the human mind, body, and spirit.
In my initial article on carceral book banning (featured in Education for Information’s Special Issue on Critical Race Theory), I introduced the significance of carceral book banning and a preliminary discussion on the specific methodologies used to ban or restrict information in carceral environments. In this blog post, I want to take a closer look under the hood, at the inner workings of the machine, to locate the role of carceral book banning – what does book banning do? What is its function within the carceral system? And, most importantly, what impact does it have on incarcerated people?
Across the United States, book banning has intensified over the last few years. By examining book banning through a CRT lens, we’re able to more fully understand the purpose, impacts, and significance of information restriction.
- Book bans provide further empirical evidence of CRT’s grounding tenants:
- Derrick Bell’s concept of racial realism acknowledges that racism is an ordinary, everyday occurrence that cannot be legislated, reformed, or voted out of existence (Winter 1992, pg. 373-4). It’s become normalized and is thus “a permanent part of the American landscape” (Bell, 1992 pg. 92).
- White supremacy wears many masks. Banning books is one form or expression of supremacist ideology; Bans are an assertion of white dominance through the suppression of racialized and marginalized voices, histories, experiences, and cultural expressions. Local Book bans brought by parents and residents have increasingly targeted Black, POC, and LGBTQIA+ books and authors, further demonstrating that “white supremacy is insidious, omnipresent, and unrelenting” (Jane, n.p.).
- Current intensifications and expansions of book bans contribute to the racial retrenchment that’s occurring on a global scale. Racial retrenchment theory “challenges the perception that the civil rights struggle represents a long, steady march toward social transformation” (Crenshaw, May 1988, pg. 1334). Rather, the civil rights struggle more closely resembles peaks and valleys, or seasons gains for racial progress followed by reactionary assaults to dismantle progress.
- Book bans today are reflective of the “discomfort” and “divisive intent” rhetoric espoused by far-right groups and politicians. (Crenshaw, March 2023, n.p.) This rhetoric was formed in response to the 2020 summer of racial justice, following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police. Rhetoric has since transformed into action and action into legislation, impacting library boards and policies, school boards and curricula, and the peoples’ right to protest.
Book banning is not and has never been relegated solely to schools and libraries. Rather, the prison system is the United State’s most ardent offender, with some states maintaining banned book lists upwards of 20,000. US prisons are sites of intersectional injustice, with disproportionate rates of incarceration for racialized and minoritized populations who often serve longer prison sentences. Therefore, incarcerated populations must not be excluded from discussions on current intensifications around book banning.
Carceral Book Banning Methods – An Overview
Within the carceral environment, there are three methods of banning or restricting literature: traditional and content neutral bans and pay-to-read schemes. Many states employ a combination of these strategies – even all three methods — at once.
Methods of banning and/or restricting literature in carceral environments
While prisons often have libraries, collections are subjected to the same laws, correctional policies, and oversight committee reviews. By employing overlapping book banning or restriction methods at once, prisons empower correctional officers to regulate the intellectual freedom of inmates and informed by their own racial and political biases, disenfranchise support communities, and bolster profits to the state.
In 2018, the Human Rights Defense Center and the Mississippi Center for Justice filed a federal lawsuit against the Forrest County Jail in Hattiesburg. According to a press release to Prison Legal News, the jail and other state facilities had banned all reading materials except for the Bible and occasionally other Christian titles. As of 2023, the state’s DOC policy indicates that there are both traditional and content neutral bans in place.
In West Virginia, inmates can access reading materials via tablets provided for free by Global Tel Link (GTL). However, the only titles available are public domain books, which inmates are charged per minute to read, resulting in a cost of $15-$20 to read a single book. By offering only public domain titles, eBooks are pure profit for GTL and the State of West Virginia, which receives a 5% kickback on all gross revenue from tablet usage (est. $1 per book).
California inmates are not permitted to receive packages except for those purchased and shipped through a contracted vendor. This policy effectively restricts inmates to reading materials available for purchase through their tables or vendor packages. One such vendor, Union Supply Direct of California, offers a selection of 4 adult coloring books and 6 single-issue adult magazines.
A Closer Look Under the Hood
Connecticut is the state in which I reside. It’s a small and quiet state with a long and torrid carceral legacy and a national leader in racial and ethnic disparities in prisons. Here, inmates can access eBooks via tablets provided by JPay and receive packages via the mail. The Department of Corrections (DOC) maintains a policy on which materials will be rejected upon receipt and review. The DOC’s Administrative Directive 10.7 states, “Books and magazines can only be sent to an offender if they are in new condition and are packaged and shipped by the bookstore, book club or publisher from which they are purchased (pg. 1).” This is a content-neutral restriction, which limits prisoner’s access to information by requiring external support networks to purchase and ship reading materials.
The policy then provides criteria for the rejection of a title and grants DOC employees the freedom to reject titles for other reasons not listed. Reasons for rejection include materials referencing methods of escape, criminal activity, use of weapons, physical violence, and sexually explicit content. By far, the section of the policy which defines sexually explicit content is the most thorough part of the policy. The DOC specifically rejects materials with visual or written sexual content and nudity, except if it is literary artistic, educational, and/or scientific in nature. From here, the policy provides a lengthy and very specific bullet-point list of other banned sexual content, including the multitude of functions and fluids produced by the human body, methods of sexual activity and intercourse, and sex-based crimes.
Connecticut’s policy is not unique in any way. In fact, it’s standard. What it reveals to those of us who live outside the carceral system is how fixated the DOC is on regulating the sexual morality of inmates and preventing violence, even though most inmates are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. In Connecticut, nearly 40% of the incarcerated population is still awaiting trial and are not sentenced. Perhaps the DOC and our lawmakers are clutching to racist ideologies about the majority-Black and Brown prison populations that they govern. Or perhaps prisons are toxic, not rehabilitative, and create conditions for violence. I say it’s both.
The hypervigilance surrounding Black men’s sexuality is steeped in racism, as Black men have been hypersexualized, brutalized, and criminalized by white society throughout history. Racist ideologies about Black men’s sexual desires have been used to justify enslavement, segregation, and lynching. Now it’s considered a security risk for predominately Black and non-violent inmate populations to access books that reference sex and sexuality — part of the human experience.
Policy vs. Practice
In 2022, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the DOC for a list of rejected books. What I received was a list of blank titles: 3,406 rejected, 18,775 approved, and 101 pending. The discrepancies between what is and isn’t banned were very interesting to me and further highlighted the systemic oppression of the carceral system (and the people who carry out the daily work).
Why do some titles make the cut and not others? The list reveals that the DOC’s review process is subjective and arbitrary. By examining the list, we can see how the DOC and its workers inconsistently and disproportionately implement policy. Even though Administrative Directive 10.7 is written in race neutral language, its implementation negatively impacts BIPOC, queer, and other marginalized people most.
Situating Book Banning in Prison Machine
The consequences for an inmate caught with contraband literature can be devastating. The DOC policy stipulates that possessing or transferring sexually explicit materials is deemed a Class ‘A’ offense — the most serious offense under the Code of Penal Discipline. The punishment for this type of offense is a 20-day stay in solitary confinement and/or a loss of good time or risk reduction credits to one’s sentence. So, while book banning in prisons has been condemned by several organizations as censorship and a first amendment violation, we need to go further with the conversation. We need to start talking about how book bans and literature restriction functions as a core component of the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration – that “vast machinery of human repression (Abu-Jamal et al, pg. 284)” – and examine the human impact.
The Ritual of Civil Death
Upon entering a carceral environment, a person is subjected to a dehumanization ritual. This legal ritual described, by Colin Dayan as “civil death” occurs when a person is expelled from society, confined to a state of solitude, and finally disposed of their personal property and identity (pg. 47). In this way, prisons are graveyards for the undead – housed by the living but who are dead to society and removed from the general population, out of sight and out of mind. Incarcerated people are disconnected from community, family, and support networks. They are confined to a cell, their personal identities replaced with an inmate number, and access to the outside world is curtailed.
Civil death is made worse still by the continued practice of solitary confinement, an act of torture by international law. Mumia Abu-Jamal, who spent nearly 30 years in isolation, witnessed “men driven mad as a hatter by soul-crushing loneliness. Who have sliced their arms until they looked like railroad tracks. Or burned themselves alive… Because human beings are social creatures; and solitary confinement kills that which is human within us (Abu-Jamal et al, pg. 282).” The torture of solitude is exacerbated by denying isolated people access to literature, through which they may retain some connection to the world beyond.
In practice, DOCs are more likely to withhold access to materials written about or by authors from marginalized communities by race, religion, gender, sexuality, class, or political affiliation. Particularly susceptible to banning are the authors of the Black prophetic tradition – those who offer a “principled and creative response to being terrorized, traumatized and stigmatized…keep track of these different forms of oppression…and [respond] with vision rooted in an analysis of the problem… [spurring] organization and mobilization (Cornel West in Abu-Jamal, pg. 16).” However, liberation is antithetical to the prison industrial complex (PID), and so it is more profitable to the institution to engage in “spirit thievery” – a zombification ritual whereby “people are separated from the parts of themselves that make them think and they are left as flesh only. Flesh that takes direction from someone (Erna Brodber via Dayan, pg. 26)”
Historically, there is an indisputable connection between enslavement, information restriction, and capitalism. In the mid-18th century, several Southern states passed anti-literacy laws so that an enslaved people would “know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do.” (Hugh Auld via Douglass, pg. 37). Education was viewed as a deterrent to the institution of slavery – it bred discontent and unhappiness among the captive (read: liberation). Yet, enslaved people resisted in many ways, and so literacy was practiced in secret. Later, in 1807, a new version of the Bible was printed to attend to the spiritual welfare of enslaved people. It excluded 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament, conveniently retaining verses about submission and excising verses about liberation (Martin, n.p.).
The connection between slavery and the prison industrial complex is not a leap of faith; it’s a straight line. Angela Davis outlines the shifting carceral landscape in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, from antebellum slavery to the birth of the penitentiary to the advent of mass incarceration. Periodically, the US prison populations swelled – the post-emancipation, Civil Rights, and Reagan eras (Davis, pg. 12-13). Both signal the reprisal of white rage against the Black populace, along with reprisals against Indigenous, Latinx, Asian communities. “These racisms also congeal and combine in the prison,” where racial identity is criminalized for institutional labor (Davis, pg. 26).
From the plantation to the penitentiary, the restriction of literature continues to be used as a mechanism of spirit thievery. The practice of carceral book banning reinforces mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex through intellectual constraint and coercion. Spirit thievery ensures that incarcerated people will further lose a sense of person identity and become compliant workers. While prison labor is marketed as rehabilitative, it is in fact coerced and under/unpaid.
Mapping The Machine
Prisons, correctional enterprises, and consumers benefit from forced prison labor, and therefore it stands to reason that these stakeholders also benefit from the intellectual control of incarcerated populations. Prisons are marketed to the public in two specific ways: 1) they are concentration facilities to remove dangerous criminals from society for the safety of all 2) they educate and rehabilitate criminals to re-enter society. When we buy into this propaganda, it becomes easy to disassociate ourselves from the machine. If we don’t see it, it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t impact us, and everything is fine.
Map of US counties showing the overlapping geographies of historic racial violence and present-day incarceration.
Yet, out of sight and out of mind, cruel and violent treatment is carried out against our fellow humans within America’s prisons each day, for generations – torture, forced labor, bio-medical experimentations, pharmaceutical trials, and forced sterilization. These are the conditions the DOC are so desperate to maintain through intellectual confinement, civil death, and spirit thievery. So, it is incumbent upon those of us on the outside to work harder, become more informed, and resist the carceral machine.
School to Prison Pipeline
The erosion of the American public education system has turned schools into a “feeder system the ensures the continuing human seepage that populates prisons (Abu-Jamal, pg. 255).” The pipeline maintains a constant labor supply by deploying multiple converging tactics, including zero tolerance policies, policing in schools, and a hyper-reliance on standardized and achievement testing. Increasingly hostile school environments created by curriculum and book bans will only further harm BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ youth.
Moms for Liberty
Leading the recent hostile takeover of public education is Mom’s for Liberty (M4L), a South Florida-based organization with over 200 chapters nationwide. M4L leads a far-right campaign against social emotional learning, DEIJ, and curricula related to race, gender, and human sexuality. A major focus of their work is book banning in schools and libraries and the development of a content rating system, which bears similarities to the DOC policy.
So, it should not come as a surprise that many of the titles on the DOCs rejected list are also books challenged or banned in schools and libraries. This is not a coincidence and we mustn’t dismiss it as such. Rather, we must begin to acknowledge the existence of overlapping and converging mechanisms of carcerality at work in our political and economic systems. Organizations like M4L, whether they realize it, are working to streamline the school-to-prison pipeline.
Since the Reagan era, most of the newly constructed or designated facilities have been relegated to white, rural communities. This was the “tough on crime” era, and prisons were built en masse to bring jobs and economic revitalization to dwindling towns. In many cases, these communities were also former sundown towns or sites of racial violence (e.g., lynchings, massacres, riots, or pogroms). “Independent sundown towns often languish economically; their leaders don’t seek new ideas or new companies, so employment plummets. Instead of withdrawing state and federal aid from these towns, governments award them prisons and juvenile detention centers to give their economies a boost (Loewen, pg. 446).” Today, these communities are dependent on mass incarceration and correctional enterprises for survival.
Yes: carceral book banning is censorship and a violation of incarcerated people’s intellectual freedoms and first amendment rights. But it is so much more than that. Book banning and information restriction in prisons serves specific functions: kill personal identity, confine the mind, steal the spirit, and maximize labor to extract as much profit from incarcerated bodies as possible. It is most certainly not about education, rehabilitation, safety, or security.
America’s continuation of enslavement via mass incarceration relies on us – the populace – and our willingness to turn a blind eye and justify the inhumane treatment of incarcerated people. It functions through correctional workers, who are complicit in creating, implementing, and enforcing dehumanizing policies, such as book bans. Racist abuses against our fellow man flourish in the corner of our eye, just over our shoulder… where we hardly take notice. If you’ve never had cause to sit up and take notice of the faces in the corner of the cell, now is the time.
Abolitionist Library Association – a library collective taking action to divest from all forms of policing in libraries and invest in our collective liberation. Their scope of work includes information access for incarcerated people and library divestment from the prison industrial complex.
Banned Books Lists, Books to Prisoners – A collection of FOIAed banned books lists from state correctional agencies around the US. See what’s banned in your state. For the most up-to-date list, you can submit your own FOIA request.
Carceral Connecticut, Rad Little Library – a timeline mapping the evolution of human confinement in Connecticut, from colonization and enslavement to mass incarceration.
Abu-Jamal, Mumia. (2018). Prisons of Ignorance. From Education to Incarceration: Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Edited by Anthony J. Nocella II, Priya Parmar, and David Stovall. Second edition, Peter Lang.
Abu-Jamal, Mumia and Fernández, Johanna. (2015). Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal. City Lights Publishers.
Bell, Derrick A. (1992). Faces at the Bottom of the Well: the permanence of racism. New York: Basic Books.
Bell, Derrik A. (Winter 1992). “Racial Realism.” Connecticut Law Review, vol. 24, no. 2, p. 363-380.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé W. (March 2023). “The Manufactured Moral Panic Over Critical Race Theory.” Open Society Foundations.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé W. (May 1988). “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and
Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law.” Harvard Law Review , vol. 101, no. 7, pp. 1331-1387.
Davis, Angela Y. (2003). Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press.
Dayan, Colin. (2011). The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. Princeton University Press.
Department of Corrections. (June 2022). Publications Review Results. State of Connecticut. Accessed via FOIA request.
Douglass, Frederick & Gates, Henry Louis. (1994). Autobiographies: Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave; My bondage and my freedom; Life and times of Frederick Douglass. Edited by Henry Louis Gates. Literary Classics of the United States.
Finkel, Mack and Wanda Bertram. (March 7, 2019). “More states are signing harmful “free prison tablet” contracts.” Prison Policy Initiative.
Human Rights Defense Center. (Oct. 2018) “News Release: HRDC files censorship suit against MS jail that only allows religious reading materials.” Prison Legal News.
James, Edlon Ray. (May 2020). “Prisoners Pay to Read: Corrections departments turn to private companies for profit.” American Libraries Magazine.
Jane, Alexandra. (Jan. 2022). “No Surprise Here: The Most Recent Wave of Book Bans Includes More Black Authors Than Ever.” The Root.
Loewen, James W. (2005). Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. New Press.
Martin, Michel. (Dec. 2018). Slave Bible From The 1800s Omitted Key Passages That Could Incite Rebellion. National Public Radio.
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