PM Press Blog

What You Can’t Read Behind Bars in New York

By Rebecca McCray  
New York Focus
January 24th, 2024
Illustration: Akash Mehta; Header image: A small selection of books banned or censored by the New York prison agency’s Central Office Media Review Committee.

As book banning sparks outrage in schools and libraries, the censorship of classics like Native Son persists in New York prisons.

Last fall, a man incarcerated at an Ulster County prison asked a books-to-prisons program to send him Black literature. Books Beyond Bars responded with a copy of Native Son, Richard Wright’s acclaimed 1940 novel exploring the psychological impact of racial discrimination, segregation, and violence against Black people in Jim Crow-era Chicago. The prison intercepted the book.

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Eastern Correctional Facility informed the program that it had blocked the classic novel, in which protagonist Bigger Thomas murders two women and receives the death penalty, on the basis that it might “incite violence based on race, religion, sex, sexual preference, creed, or nationality.” It’s taught regularly in schools throughout the country. But as book banning accelerates nationwide, sparking outrage over blocked access to writing about race, gender, and basic history in schools and public libraries, some of the most severe censorship persists in the places where information is most limited: prisons.

A New York Focus review of thousands of publications banned by New York prisons found that the rejection was far from a one-off. Prisons regularly block access to books about the criminal justice system, from a history of solitary confinement to a book about incarcerated women by a New York Focus contributor. It also forbids a vast range of seemingly innocuous materials: newspaper articles, front-end web design manuals, medical reference guides, a map of Afghanistan, an official Colorado State Vacation Guide, and a book about how to read tarot cards, to name a few.

Courts have largely deferred to prison officials on censorship, accepting its use as a tool for maintaining law and order behind bars. But to researchers like Moira Marquis, a former literature professor who specializes in access to books in prisons at Pen America, the idea that violence depicted in fiction could pose a security threat is dubious.

“Are you truly suggesting that the firearms and barbed wire and handcuffs and iron cages are insufficient, and instead you need to limit what people can read?” she asked. “That’s very authoritarian.”

Ben Schatz, founder of Books Beyond Bars, appealed the denial to the Central Office Media Review Committee in Albany. The committee allowed Native Son into the prison — but required that two pages be removed, this time for “depicting or describing in a patently offensive way sadism and/or masochism.”

The prison agency’s media review policy requires denials to include “a brief statement of reasons” explaining how a publication violates the policy, and to identify where the objectionable content falls on the pages. Both denials of Native Son fail to provide this information.

The media review directive used today was shaped by a 1983 settlement in a class action lawsuit brought by men incarcerated at two New York prisons. The men argued that by censoring and blocking magazines and books mailed to them, the agency had violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

John Boston, the former director of The Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, represented the men in the case, ultimately winning a settlement that required closer scrutiny and specificity during the media review process.

“The [denial of Native Son] exemplifies exactly what we tried to stop in the Dumont litigation: censorship with such cursory or conclusory justifications that it’s impossible to tell whether it makes any sense, and for that matter impossible to tell whether the censor actually read the disputed material,” Boston told New York Focus after reviewing the screening documents.

Boston also noted that Native Son does not “incite violence,” even according to the guidelines’ own definition of the verb: “to advocate expressly or by clear implication acts of violence.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said that a review of the removed pages is ongoing. The episode “is an excellent example of a functioning appeal process, as the incarcerated individual was able to receive the publication after COMRC review,” they said.

Asked to provide a specific example of an instance in which a book possessed by someone in custody caused a disturbance that threatened security, the spokesperson declined to reply.

Though the agency does not maintain an official list of banned reading material, it does keep a spreadsheet of publication rejections that the central review office has affirmed. Cardozo School of Law professor Betsy Ginsberg obtained the list through a public records request while representing author Heather Ann Thompson, whose book documenting the Attica prison uprising was banned in New York prisons until 2022.

“During the course of slavery, the worst thing you could do was get caught reading a book.”

—Kevin Mays, formerly incarcerated at Attica

The list, shared with New York Focus, shows that the central office had affirmed the rejection of well over 5,000 publications through December 2018. Many are pornographic or violent. But censors have also targeted publications about the criminal-legal system, from Inside Rikers: Stories from the World’s Largest Penal Colony to Police Encounters: The Black Man’s Guide.

The list only includes denials that were appealed to the central media office and affirmed. Many more are banned or censored by individual prisons, each of which has its own committee to review reading materials flagged by mailroom staff. Elmira Correctional Facility blocked the Alcoholics Anonymous ‘Big Book,’ for example; Eastern Correctional Facility blocked Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; and Green Haven Correctional Facility blocked Resistance Behind Bars, a chronicle of incarcerated women’s struggles by Victoria Law, a New York Focus contributor.

Schatz, whose organization sent Native Son, is particularly concerned about banned books that contain information directly relevant to the lives of incarcerated readers. “This is the worst form of censorship because it keeps an extraordinarily powerful message about racial injustice in the criminal legal system from the very people who are victim to it,” he said.

Thompson’s book, Blood in the Water, is an exhaustive account of the 1971 uprising at Attica prison. At least ten New York prisons had blocked the book between 2016 and 2022, and the central review committee affirmed the decisions. Following Ginsberg’s litigation with the New York Civil Liberties Union, the book was admitted with two pages depicting a map of Attica removed.

Literature that might be deemed radical or divisive was among the catalysts for the 1983 case. The settlement entitled incarcerated people to publications critical of the government, reversing the censorship of newspapers like Workers World and The Militant.

A gray cement wall with black marker lines on it.

Kevin Mays, who spent 28 years in prison before his release in 2019, was among those denied a copy of Blood in the Water. Mays, who had done time at Attica, wanted to better understand what happened there after seeing pockmarks from bullets still in the walls of the prison today.

To Mays, the censorship of Native Son is just another example of an attempt to prevent access to critical parts of Black history — something he’s observed beyond prison walls in classrooms and libraries across the country.

“During the course of slavery, the worst thing you could do was get caught reading a book. Educating yourself is about self-determination, and they didn’t want that,” he said. “There are a lot of similarities here.”

Rebecca McCray is a journalist based in New York. You can find her work in New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, Gothamist, The Daily Beast, The Village Voice, Slate, and elsewhere.