Partial View of Gowanda Correctional Facility with Power Plant in Background at Left, September 1996

Efforts to restrict inmates’ access to books in New York State prisons reveal a troubling disregard for inmates’ right to read and appear to have no reasonable basis, PEN America announced on Monday.

In New York State, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Directive 4911A, put in place December 4, 2017, restricts prisoners’ ability to receive packages and articles: packages must be sent from a list of approved vendors, or face possible rejection. As of January 8, only six vendors are approved to send books. As a result, Directive 4911A prevents inmates from being sent books—including used books or books unavailable through purchase in any catalog—outside of these vendors’ limited lists.

Currently, the Directive is a pilot program, and applies only to three correctional facilities: Greene, Green Haven, and Taconic, with the possibility that the Directive will later be applied to all state facilities.

While this Directive does not restrict access to prison library facilities, NYC Books Through Bars has noted in a January 3 letter to Governor Cuomo that they have received requests for books from prison employees who are “struggling to stock libraries for the general population.”

“The State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision needs to promote moral and responsible prison policies that uphold inmates’ access to information and safeguard the right to read,” said Summer Lopez, PEN America Senior Director of Free Expression Programs. “Directive 4911A, a ruinously over-broad restriction on inmates’ ability to access published materials, goes in the opposite direction. We encourage the Department and the Governor’s office to revoke this ill-considered directive, and to ensure inmates have access to as much outside publications as possible.”


PEN America Center’s annual writing contest is open to anyone incarcerated in a federal, state or county prison in the year prior to September 1, the annual deadline for poetry, fiction, drama and nonfiction. No submission fees. Cash award for first, second and third place. Details HERE.

Link HERE to read the winning manuscripts from the 2017 contest.

PEN America has run a national prison writing program for over forty years, including the above referrenced contest.

“Founded in 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative power of writing and provides hundreds of inmates across the country with skilled writing teachers and audiences for their work. It provides a place for inmates to express themselves freely and encourages the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power.”

The program includes a free Handbook for Writers in Prison and a Mentoring Program.


Prisons Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, “seeks a more creative and fulfilling world for both incarcerated and free citizens.”

Manuscript Submission Guidelines All books by prisoners and returning citizens and those who write about them and books by all citizens who donate are welcome for publication.Click Here for further information and submission guidelines for inmates.

Photo credit: Gawanda photograph courtesy of Daniellagreen under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; NY Correctional State Services logo is public domain.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. PEN champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.



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