Literature Locked Up: First Amendment and the fight for access to books and magazines in our prisons

Photo courtesy of Johannes Jansson/norden.org under CC BY 2.5 dk

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”  James Baldwin



Last month a federal court ruled that the Arizona Department of Corrections was overly broad in restricting certain publications to people in state prisons, and ordered the department to establish clearer rules that are consistent with the First Amendment. The decision stems from a 2015 lawsuit brought by the magazine Prison Legal News, which alleged that state corrections officials were unfairly withholding the magazine from incarcerated subscribers.

“The ruling out of Arizona is a significant step forward for the First Amendment and for our fight for access to literature in sites of incarceration,” said Nora Benavidez, director of U.S. Free Expression Programs. “The court was right to recognize that Arizona’s policies towards book access give too much discretion to individual employees, who are then empowered to implement these policies in arbitrary or overly restrictive ways, and to demand narrow definitions for what content is prohibited.”

“PEN America has previously called for more explicit policies that more narrowly define the bounds for rejecting books, and we hope that Arizona’s revised policies will meet this mark,” Benavidez continued. “We need regulations that better enshrine the First Amendment within prison walls, and that recognize the importance of access to literature for our incarcerated population. We believe that this ruling can serve as an example for other jurisdictions to recognize the fundamental right to read where it remains threatened in American prisons.”

In September 2019, PEN America released Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban. a research report on the state of the right to read in American prisons. The report concluded that “book restrictions in American prisons are often arbitrary, overbroad, opaque, subject to little meaningful review, and overly dismissive of incarcerated people’s right to access literature behind bars.”

Among the recommendations, PEN America concluded that state and federal officials should develop more explicit policies governing book restrictions; implement periodic review of their restriction policies; and ensure that prison officials strongly consider the literary, educational, and rehabilitative merit of any publication before determining its admissibility.

This post is courtesy of PEN America.

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


Jamie Dedes. I’m a freelance writer, poet, content editor, and blogger. I also manage The BeZine and its associated activities and The Poet by Day jamiededes.com, an info hub for writers meant to encourage good but lesser-known poets, women and minority poets, outsider artists, and artists just finding their voices in maturity. The Poet by Day is dedicated to supporting freedom of artistic expression and human rights and encourages activist poetry.  Email thepoetbyday@gmail.com for permissions, commissions, or assignments.

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Recent and Upcoming in Digital Publications: How 100,000 Poets Are Fostering Peace, Justice, and Sustainability, YOPP! * The Damask Garden, In a Woman’s Voice, August 11, 2019 / This short story is dedicated to all refugees. That would be one in every 113 people. * Five poems, Spirit of Nature, Opa Anthology of Poetry, 2019 * From the Small Beginning, Entropy Magazine (Enclave, #Final Poems), July 2019 * Over His Morning Coffee, Front Porch Review, July 2019 * Three poems, Our Poetry Archive, September 2019


“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.”  Lucille Clifton