“Literature Locked Up” will engage authors, readers, and policymakers to support an end to prison book bans nationwide.”
America’s prison system implements that largest book ban in the United States. This year, as part of national Banned Books Week (Sept. 22 – 28), the free expression and literary organization PEN America will launch a weeklong initiative to shed light on the practice of banning books in the nation’s prisons and jails. “Literature Locked Up: Banned Books Week 2019” will feature events across the country, online activities, and public education to highlight restrictions of the right to read for the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the United States.
“With all of our societal focus on how to make the criminal justice system more just and less self-defeating, vindicating the right to read in prison is an obvious and essential step,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. “Yet tens of thousands of books are banned in prisons. Systems ban access to everything from classics including Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Toni Morrison’s Paradise, to coloring and self-help books. These restrictions are stunningly arbitrary and defeat the ability of incarcerated people to learn, explore, and envision a future. We call on states and the federal government to lift these pointless bans and uphold the freedom to read.”
Increasingly, state and federal prisons are dramatically restricting book deliveries or shutting them down entirely. The federal Bureau of Prisons recently attempted to institute an unexplained 30 percent markup on books ordered by or for incarcerated readers, ultimately rescinding that idea under public pressure. Texas’ Department of Criminal Justice has banned over 15,000 books from its prison system, including books by Alice Walker, John Grisham, Michelle Alexander, Jenna Bush Hager, Frederick Douglass, and Bob Dole. Throughout Banned Books Week, PEN America and its members will highlight this injustice and call for reform.
As part of “Literature Locked Up,” PEN America has launched a national petition drive urging the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to convene hearings on book banning in the nation’s prisons. The organization is coordinating with bookstores and other partners across the country to highlight book bans, including events in Oklahoma, Michigan, Illinois, and Texas. And alongside the Dramatists Legal Fund, PEN America will co-present Banned Together, a series of performances across the country of shows that have been censored or challenged on the American stage.
“Banning books is a serious threat to free inquiry and free expression,” said award-winning author and PEN America board member Dinaw Mengestu. “We’re calling on state prison systems across the country to review their policies and, where possible, rescind arbitrary book bans. And we’re asking members of Congress to review book restriction practices at the federal level. Oftentimes all that stands between prisoners and a transformative work of literature are arbitrary decisions made by wardens and prison mailrooms. It just shouldn’t be that way.”
PEN America has long been at the forefront of supporting the right of incarcerated people to create and access literature, including mentoring, honoring, and finding audiences for writers currently in prison through the Prison and Justice Writing Program. Many of those writers will be featured in a series of public readings co-sponsored by PEN America and The Poetry Project. That series, BREAK OUT, will include dozens of public readings events for the month of September.
Read more about the “Literature Locked Up: Banned Books Week 2019” project; see events related to the initiative; and follow our social channels to get live updates as more events are added to the calendar. You can also listen to a playlist of banned songs assembled by PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection.