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Analysis

Computer Book Bans and Other Insights From a Year Investigating Prison Censorship

Incomplete data. Inconsistent policies. How banned books in prison can strip away an incarcerated person’s vision of the outside world.

An open book with shredded pages surrounded by images, screenshots, documents, and handwritten quotes. "Threat to the order and security of the institution." "sexually explicit." A table that shows which books are banned in Kansas prisons with reasons. A headline that reads: The Books Banned in your State's Prisons."

When you think of book censorship, where do you imagine it happening? Libraries and schools, most likely — but incarcerated people face an even more restricted environment in prison.

There’s little oversight or accountability. Policies vary by state and prison. Some states limit buying books to specific vendors, while others don’t have set rules at all. Policies are typically enforced at the discretion of each facility’s mailroom.

The Marshall Project spent the past year investigating book bans in prison. I’m the project’s lead editor, and I’ve been reflecting on what we learned in our first year.

Much of our work investigates grave harms in the system, like prison corruption and abuse. This project investigates a common, widespread practice that reveals how the system can strip away an incarcerated person’s vision of a life outside of prison and a sense that there is a place waiting for their return.

Absurdities rule the system, but we released the data anyway

The project began over a year ago, when The Marshall Project reporter Keri Blakinger (now a reporter at the Los Angeles Times) was curious about prison book bans because she ran into trouble sending her memoir about her experience in prison to incarcerated people in Florida. Susan Chira, our editor-in-chief, reached out to Blakinger to see if there was a larger story there. Blakinger decided to send public records requests to other states. I enlisted Andrew Rodriguez Calderón, an expert at editorial design thinking and dealing with diverse data sources, to tackle turning the lists into something useful and impactful.

The lists we received fit the typical pattern of criminal justice data: incomplete, inconsistent and hard to work with. They suggested broader issues in the system, but the many inconsistencies made it impossible to say anything definitive. Take a title like “The 48 Laws of Power,” a self-help book with a message of empowerment that’s popular with rappers and other celebrities, as well as incarcerated people. The book is banned in many states — but is it the most banned? It’s difficult to truly know with data from fewer than 20 states along with varying data time frames and record-keeping practices.

Screenshot of a PDF document entitled "NJDOC Unauthorized Publication List."

The New Jersey Department of Corrections’ banned publications list.

Similarly, we hoped to create a universal lookup tool that could search titles across all states. But states collect different data points about books, and few of them track critical information like the ISBN number that would let us match titles to well-understood genres.

Nobody had systematically collected these lists, whatever their flaws. We decided to release what we had in a simple lookup tool and release the data for anyone to use. And because the personal experience of failing to get a book to a loved one in prison is widespread, Blakinger wrote about trying to send her book to incarcerated people in Florida prisons.

Screenshot of The Marshall Project's banned books tool, showing a selection of titles banned in Kansas prisons. The titles include "Prepare for Anything Survival Manual," "Prison Ramen" and "Python Cookbook 3rd Edition."
Screenshot of a Marshall Project article with the headline "Why Would Prisons Ban My Book? Absurdities Rule The System."
The Marshall Project launched its prison book ban coverage with a lookup tool and story.
We listened to people close to the system

Conversations with people close to the system helped drive our reporting. We spoke with carceral librarians, prison educators, books-to-prison programs, loved ones of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people about their experience getting books into prisons.

We asked people what they wanted to know. We involved them in the design process by asking what they needed to hold the system accountable. Everything we published can be traced back to particular feedback from people close to the system — through community listening sessions, interviews and systematic surveys.

This community-centered approach drove impact at a local level. “It’s very useful for the lists and policies to be collected in one place,” said Maddie Reynolds, a librarian for the Cornell Prison Education Program. “I have already shared the resources with others, and used [them] to quickly skim New York state’s policy. I also learned something new: I didn’t realize there was an appeals process despite working in prison education. ... In the long run, I think it’ll help people put pressure on the system.”

The Record

The best criminal justice reporting from around the web, organized by subject
The data led to dozens of stories around the country

The data release proved to be potent. So far over 30 publications have generated more than 40 stories using our data.

There are nearly 10,000 books banned from Texas prisons. Here’s why.

Building on our data release, we published a reporting recipe for people who want to investigate the prison book bans in their own communities. It includes sample records requests, advice on finding storytelling angles and a video showing how to use the data in accessible spreadsheet tools. Our data also contributed to such efforts as PEN America’s report on prison book bans and a week dedicated to raising awareness about the issue.

We also used artificial intelligence to generate written summaries of state policies, then had Marshall Project staff edit and check them for accuracy.

We expanded our ideas about who is affected and how

Our story about prison book bans in Ohio led by Cid Standifer drew in a whole new audience for The Marshall Project: computer programmers. We found that the Ohio system allowed “Mein Kampf,” but rejected well-regarded educational titles about software development.

Hacker News, a popular discussion forum for programmers and tech startup types, picked up the piece and had a vigorous discussion about reentry, job preparedness and the rights of incarcerated people.

The bans on programming books also hit close to home for me. Before journalism, I was a programmer by trade. I learned from books like “Learning Python” (banned in Oregon), “Learn Python the Hard Way” (also banned in Oregon), “Dive Into Python” (banned in Texas), and “JavaScript: The Good Parts” (banned in Arizona). It’s hard to imagine what my life would be like if I had not had access to these books. The banned books investigation itself depends in multiple ways on code that was written in these programming languages.

When I asked Douglas Crockford, author of “JavaScript: The Good Parts,” whether his book might have been rejected for security concerns, he replied that banning books “is popular with despots, but ultimately it does not work.” His book, he said, “does not contain any secrets of vulnerabilities. What it can do is teach a valuable professional skill and perhaps practice at thinking systematically.”

Ultimately, restricting books limits what incarcerated people can imagine for themselves as they plan for a life beyond their prison walls. As Jennifer Carroll, an expert on drug use and public health, told The Marshall Project, books foster a “sense that there is life that continues, that there is a curious and interesting and welcoming place for them to return to after their release.”

Acknowledgements

Reporting & Writing Andrew Rodriguez Calderón
Keri Blakinger
Liset Cruz
Cid Standifer
Vignesh Ramachandran
Shannon Heffernan


Community Listening Andrew Rodriguez Calderón
Ana Méndez
Vignesh Ramachandran
Nicole Funaro


Data processing Andrew Rodriguez Calderón
Cid Standifer


Visual & Multimedia Design Elan Kiderman Ullendorff
Bo-Won Keum
Celina Fang
Meredith Rizzo
Jovelle Tamayo


Video Tutorial Jasmyne Ricard


Style & Standards Ghazala Irshad
Akiba Solomon


Audience Engagement Ashley Dye
Chris Vasquez
Kristin Bausch


Development Ryan Murphy


Story, Data and Visual Editing David Eads
Raghuram Vadarevu
Marlon A. Walker
Tom Meagher
Andrew Rodriguez Calderón

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David Eads Twitter Email is The Marshall Project's data editor. He has been covering criminal justice issues since co-founding The Invisible Institute in the early 2000s. He was a member of the team of independent journalists who won the 2019 Premio Gabo for reporting on mass graves in Mexico.