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Book Bans in Incarceration: Pay with Your Time or Your Rights?

Prison systems are censoring the ability to read, write or express creative freedom for incarcerated people. However many reforms are taking place to refute this censorship as it is lifting up the importance of literacy and raising questions regarding if incarcerated people deserve this universal right.

Image courtesy of NPR


September 24, 2023

By Farabi Milisha

The privilege to read and write is given to those who have access to the proper tools that will aid them in the journey of self expression and enhanced knowledge. However, this privilege is being denied to incarcerated writers and artists in New York who are facing restrictions on the access to books and long approval processes on their creative works. They are denied basic human rights to literacy and self-expression. Are incarcerated people less human than us? Do they not deserve to have access to their creativity or have an opportunity to obtain individual growth?

New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) passed Directive 4406 on May 11, 2023. This Directive requires incarcerated individuals to follow policies and procedures regarding their submission of creative works such as publishing, donating to nonprofit organizations and displaying in exhibitions. In addition, the Department requires a written submission from community agencies to request for the approval of creative projects from incarcerated writers and artists. However, incarcerated people are not to receive any money or prizes for their works. Rejections of approval are based on a vague category of words that includes depictions of incarcerated individuals’ crimes, portraying law enforcement in a negative manner or endorsing rebellion against government authority.

Stanley Bellamy explains to The Nation, “ ‘This is censorship’ ”. Bellamy published many works from prison regarding dying, aging, the pandemic, and the need to reconsider lifelong sentences. His work was able to raise up undermined issues behind prison bars and exhibit his personal development. Bellamy might still have been incarcerated if not for his ability to publish because he strongly believes that his pieces demonstrated that he deserved a second chance at government authority. This led to a decision to modify his 62.5 years to life sentence last December. According to Bellamy, the DOCCS is progressing backwards even though a multitude of art and educational reforms were held in place for the sake of prisons in 1971. The DOCCS is failing to recognize the importance of educational and art opportunities and only repeating history’s mistakes.

However many reforms are taking place to combate this Directive. PEN America is presenting a new exhibition in New York, “Return to Sender: Prison as Censorship”. This exhibition, organized by PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program, serves to scrutinize the banning of thousands of books in prisons, in addition to taking the freedom to write from incarcerated people.

“More books are banned in prisons than anywhere else in the country and censorship is rising steeply, robbing those behind bars of reading about subjects from exercise and health to art and even yoga. Incarcerated people are constantly being denied reading materials, often for reasons that are inexplicable,” said by advocate in PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program, Moira Marquis. Marquis claims that many federal corrections agencies do not track what books are being restricted and many are being wasted. “Lots of books are simply being thrown in the trash,” she explains.

With more than 50,000 thousand titles of books being banned in prisons, prison systems must value the importance of reading and writing for incarcerated people. These particular skills are able to empower anyone to grow by exposing them to new ideas, perspectives, and information, no matter what their background or current situation is. Taking this away portrays misinformation that incarcerated people are not worthy of this universal human right. Instead we should give everyone a fair chance to gain knowledge and be led to a more fulfilling and successful life.

Fabiha Khanam, Director of the Media Relations team at Teens for Press Freedom, writes that “Everyone should have access to knowledge. Expressing creative liberty is not a crime. Knowledge, reading, and expressing yourself is a fundamental human right that should not be denied to anyone, even those behind bars. We at TPF believe that censorship in incarcerated spaces is not tolerable. We hope to see a change in the censorship of incarcerated settings. ”

Sources Used:

“New York’s Prison System Abruptly Halts a Policy Censoring Artists and Writers.” The Nation, The Nation, 8 June 2023

“With Massive Book Banning in Prisons, PEN America Presents ‘Return to Sender: Prison as Censorship,’ a NYC Exhibition Sept. 14-Oct. 28.” PEN America, 7 Sept. 2023


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