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New study shows rampant book banning in U.S. prisons

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Tens of thousands of books are being banned or restricted by U.S. prisons. That’s according to a new report from PEN America, a literary and free expression organization. The list includes everything from self-help books to celebrity memoirs.

The report “Reading Between the Bars” draws upon public record requests, and dozens of accounts from inmates. Its release is timed to the start of Prison Banned Books Week.

A spokesperson for PEN says the most common official reasons for prison book bans are security and sexual content. The report found parallels between the frequency of prison book bans and similar bans in schools and libraries.

PEN estimates more than 40% of all U.S. library bans in 2022 took place in Florida, which also has the highest number of banned books in prisons of any state.

“Reading Between the Bars” follows a report released late in 2022 by the non-profit newsroom the Marshall Project, which found some 50,000 banned prison titles, based on lists made available by 19 states. In 2019, a PEN report explored different levels of prison bans — from individuals not permitted to receive a given book to state-wide restrictions — and determined that restrictions were both widespread and arbitrary.

“With over two million Americans incarcerated, the book-restriction regulations within the United States carceral system represent the largest book ban policy in the United States,” the 2019 study reads in part. “The reality of book banning in American prisons is systematic and comprehensive. State and federal prison authorities censor content with little oversight or public scrutiny. Often the ultimate decision-maker about a person’s right to read is housed in the prison mailroom.”

The report says many U.S. prisons keep minimal records on banned books, or none at all.