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U.S. Prisons Ban Inmates From Reading 50,000 Books

Book bans are a hot-button issue, with controversies in public schools and libraries. Far more restricted reading environments exist all over the U.S. prisons. Over the past year, The Marshall Project asked every state prison system for book policies and lists of banned publications. About half of the states said they kept such lists, which contained more than 50,000 titles. The Marshall Project created a searchable database to readers can see which books prisons don’t want incarcerated people to read. The tool includes banned titles in 18 states. About half of states — as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons — said they don’t keep lists. Instead, authorities evaluate each publication as it comes in — meaning that a book rejected at one prison may be permitted at another, or a book that is banned one month could be allowed in the next.

The procedures in states that do have banned books lists often start when the mailroom staff at one prison flag an incoming book (often ordered online by a prisoner’s friends or family members), then refer it to a review committee or a higher-ranking official to decide whether it should be prohibited statewide. The resulting lists vary widely: While Florida bans more than 20,000 titles and Texas bans nearly 10,000, Rhode Island prohibits just 68. Nebraska maintains a list for only one of its nine prisons, while Wyoming has a different list for each facility. In total, more than 54,000 books are banned behind bars. Some states deemed Dungeons & Dragons books a security “threat,” while others banned many yoga books and anatomy texts over “explicit” illustrations.

“I have heard of very few book bans that actually seemed logical at any point in history,” said Keramet Reiter, a law professor at the University of California Irvine. Virginia prisons ban her book, “23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and The Rise of Long Term Solitary Confinement,” because the state said it promotes violence or criminal activity.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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