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Reexamining banned book lists in U.S. prisons

Keri Blakinger, and investigative reporter who examined the banned books of U.S. prisons, shares her findings.
Elan Ullendorff
The Marshall Project
Keri Blakinger, and investigative reporter who examined the banned books of U.S. prisons, shares her findings.

Book bans continue to happen in schools and libraries around the country. They're also happening inside prisons, which are already some of the country's most restrictive reading environments. Reporters for The Marshall Project investigated what books are banned in every state prison system. And while every state didn't provide examinable data, they were able to compile lists from 18 states, including here in Wisconsin. According to investigative reporter Keri Blakinger, the data collection process was meticulous.

The data compilation process

"We started off manually by sending record requests to every single prison system in the country. I sent record requests to every state, and the federal government, to see what their policies were and what their lists of banned book were — meaning books that friends and family members are not permitted to send to people in prison," explains Blakinger.

Nevada was the only state that never responded to the inquiry. Though every other state responded, additional challenges complicated the compilation of prison book data across the country. For example, some states like Alabama and Delaware don't allow non-residents to request prison data that is considered confidential. So, the investigation had to find a willing inhabitant of the state to send a request.

In other states, the investigation found they did not keep detailed lists of banned books but rather evaluate books individually with no traceable, examinable record. Once the data was collected through the extensive and meticulous process, it revealed a consistent philosophy of content prohibition in most state prisons.

The full article from the Marshall Project is available here.

Why are some books banned?

Wisconsin is one of the few states that provided a detailed reason why the books on their lists were banned, and are similar to the reasons other states list. "Some of the big ones are nudity, pornographic content [and] violence. The general catchall poses a threat to security. That is a really popular reason to disallow books in prison," says Blakinger.

While the idea of banning books that may initially seem sensible, Blakinger began to reevaluate the merits of book bans in prison as she complied the research. She argues the widespread presence of contraband phones in many prisons defeats the purpose of a content ban through books since content can be accessed with impunity in disallowed phones.

"What you're doing is preventing the people who were inclined to follow the rules and behave from having books. Whereas the people who were already, you know, not behaving and have contraband phones, they can read whatever they want," Blakinger says.

Blakinger also argues that limiting books due to content that would involve things that are typical aspects of prison life is also futile.

"I think the banning books over violence is absurd in a violent place like prison. I think banning books for nudity is absurd in a place like prison—when there are forced strip searches on a daily basis. You're literally forced to see actual nudity in front of you. And yet, sometimes books even just portraying cartoon nudity are banned. I think all of these book bans in prisons are really quite absurd," says Blakinger.

Blakinger's memoir "Corrections In Ink", is currently banned in the Florida state prison system. She is also awaiting an appeal process from the state of Florida to get her book off the banned book list.

Statement from the Department of Corrections of the state of Wisconsin

We reached out to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections about how they compile their banned book lists. In a statement to WUWM, they stated that there is a running list of publications not allowed. Including books, magazines and other printed materials. They are generally not allowed for various reasons: nudity, hate speech and security threats. Ultimately, the Security Chief for the Division of Adult Institutions reviews any questionable materials and makes the call on an individual basis, but there is an appeal process that can be filed.


Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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