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Report: Ky. among states with no state oversight into prison book bans

Vera Institute

A new report released identifies Kentucky as one of 23 states without oversight into what books are banned in its prisons.

PEN America – an nonprofit that tracks book ban data – released its report on carceral censorship “Reading Between the Bars” on Oct. 25. The “free expression” group called prison book bans “the most pervasive form of censorship” in the country.

The group found that materials can be banned for their content, the way the book is packaged or what company or group sent the materials. Some of Kentucky’s prisons – like those in Fredonia and Central City – will allow hardback books, while others – like in Louisville – won’t allow composition books.

Most states keep lists of banned materials, but Kentucky is one of 23 states that doesn’t keep a centralized record of censored titles.

Moira Marquis, one of the report’s authors, said this lack of oversight allows “extreme censorship with little accountability.”

“That report just shows that, when prison administrators are empowered to enact censorship, they do so in very inappropriate ways and a scale that's just completely unjustifiable,” Marquis said.

Juliana Luna – a contributor to the report – said the lack of a centralized record allows for the possibility that a book can be banned in one facility and allowed in others.

“There's no specific list for Kentucky that would have like all of the titles that have been rejected, which also means that it's very difficult to get any type of information about how many books are being rejected,” said Luna.

The report indicates that prison officials “commonly justify censorship as necessary for rehabilitation and the maintenance of safety and security.” William Daniels Jr. – a man incarcerated in Kentucky – wrote a letter to PEN America about this supposed justification.

The Marshall Project

“Within the Prison Industrial Complex, I am told that ‘SECURITY’ must be maintained at all costs, even at the cost of my education, of opportunities that could well lead to my betterment, potentially keeping me from returning to this side of the razor wire fences, or who knows, . . . perhaps even finding my own humanity,” he wrote, as quoted in the report.

Derek Trumbo is a Kentucky playwright incarcerated at Northpoint Training Center in Burgin. After he contributed toPEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, the organization tried to send him a new creative writing anthology. The group’s book was denied.

“The state doesn’t even know that they’re doing this, and they’re just blatantly denying people access to a creative writing guide book,” Marquis said.

Mailroom staff inspect every piece of literature and decide whether the book is acceptable or not. According to the report, usually the mailroom is understaffed with limited hours, which is insufficient for the amount of literature they have to review.

Prisoners, like Trumbo, are struggling to receive books due to the substance of the books. The content censored most widely is that which is deemed “sexually explicit” or “a threat to safety.”

Sexual content is the most common reason for denying books in the majority of states. Books and magazines that cover menopause, homosexuality, pornography, art and medicine can be considered “sexually explicit.”

Security is cited as the rationale for the most censored title in the country. “Prison Ramen,” a cookbook that offers ramen recipes that people can make in their cells, is banned in 19 state prison systems.

“Reading Between the Bars” was published on Oct. 25, in recognition of Prison Banned Books Week. For more information about carceral censorship, visit PEN America’s website.

Zoe Lewis is a first-year sophomore at Murray State University from Benton, Kentucky. She is majoring in journalism with a minor in media production. She enjoys reading, going to movie theaters, spending time with her family and friends, and eating good food. Zoe is an Alpha Omicron Pi sorority member in the Delta Omega chapter. She is very excited to start working at WKMS and work while learning more about NPR, reporting, journalism, and broadcasting.
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