Banned Books: How Prisons Keep Inmates Docile

In the United Kingdom you will no longer be allowed to send a book to a prisoner. The public rationale is to reduce smuggling. However, the banning of books in prisons is often part of a longer tradition of attempting to control the minds and behavior of inmates. Prison administrators do not want inmates to be exposed to ideas that would undermine the illusion of authority that exists in institutions.

According to the Texas Civil Rights Project there are over eleven thousand banned titles in the Texas criminal justice system. This is particularly notable, because Texas has the third highest incarceration rate in the United States. The censorship and banning of literature is the norm, not the exception.

Typical of the just world phenomenon, many may assume that the only books that have been banned are those that deserved to be banned. In the past, Playboy magazine was permitted in some prisons. Moralists might agree and feel that prisons should not host pornography. However, what about comedians, activists, political leaders, educational materials and religious texts? All have been banned in the Texas prison system.

The official criteria for banning a book are:

  1. Contraband.
  2. Content about manufacturing weapons.
  3. Advocates the breakdown of prisons through strikes, riots or gang activity.
  4. Encourages deviant sexual behavior.
  5. Instructs on criminal activity.
  6. Contains sexually explicit images.

Texas Tough: The Rise and Fall of America’s Prison Empire, itself a history of the Texas prison system, is among the banned titles. The rationale given behind banning this book was that it depicted a sexual act. As it turns out, the sexual act depicted in this book was a criminal sexual assault. Thus, the rule on censoring sexually explicit materials was used to shut out a book critical of the Texas prison system itself.

If you review the six criteria, it is actually number three that frightens prison administrators. Texas Tough is literature that is nonsexual, but nonetheless poses a significant threat to the legitimacy of the prison paradigm. Just as law enforcement officers extrajudicially punish individuals for noncompliance — contempt of cop — many of these books are in contempt of authority.

Source: Texas Civil Rights Project

Source: Texas Civil Rights Project


By and large, most books are banned under the category of deviant sexual behavior. This is the same classification that Texas Tough would be in. The second most commonly banned books are those that encourage riots, strikes and gangs. However, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project:

Many of these titles actually discuss prison conditions, race relations and civil rights and are only “dangerous’ because they inform inmates about their constitutional rights.

The Wrong Guys: Murder, False Confessions and the Norfolk Four, a book documenting the role of false confessions and other forms of institutionalized corruption, is also among the banned titles. Additional books about prisoners rights that are banned include: Prison Life in America, Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society, Police Brutality by Jill Nelson, Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars, and the Human Rights Watch report Male Rape in U.S. Prisons.

Most of these books are censored on the basis of discussing illegal sexual behavior, a clear pretext of censorship. They do not discuss illegal sexual behavior in a way that is fictional, explicit, nor that is sexualized, nor glorified. It is discussed in the context of criminal justice. But all of these titles undermine the authority of the prison system. For this, they are censored.

Now, don’t make the mistake of thinking that these titles are banned for no reason or that they are not dangerous. They are dangerous. This is why prison administrators are afraid of them. Many inmates are not even aware that their rights have been violated. They don’t know that people outside care. And they are not aware of the systemic, fundamental injustices of the prison system. The knowledge contained in these books is a form of power that inmates can use to struggle against the system that is abusing them. And the system does not want that. Therefore, they are dangerous.

Prison administrators want inmates who are docile and complacent. Inmates should not be able to organize among themselves, so Chomsky on Anarchism is one of the banned titles. And inmates should not be able to have a historical perspective of struggle, so Narrative of Sojourner Truth is also on the banned list. Works about Che Guevara and Huey P. Newton are banned, as they pose an ideological threat.

If inmates began to question the legitimacy of the laws — and not simply accept their own status as a breaker of laws — they might start to question what authority a small group of men has to keep them imprisoned. And if they begin to organize on that basis, working together, prisons would be forced to reform or cease to exist.

Prison administrators don’t fear a grown man looking at a picture of a vagina in his prison cell. They fear individual inmates working together to stand up for their rights. This is why they are banning books.


Banned Books in the Texas Prison System: How The Texas Department of Corrections Censors Books Sent to Prisoners. Texas Civil Rights Project. 2011. (PDF)


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