The Prisoners’ Right-to-Read Statement

An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights

When a society, living under the rule of law, decides to segregate certain of its members—for the safety of society, for the protection or treatment of the person, or to correct the behavior of the person—the right to read, to access


knowledge and information, does not disappear on the institution’s doorstep. Prohibition of materials should only occur in order to ensure the safety and security of residents and staff and based on those restrictions required by law. While such reasonable limits may restrict the range of material available, the extent of limitation should be minimized by strict adherence to clear and universal guidelines.

Prison, jail, detention center, and mental health facility libraries may be required by the rules of parent agency rules or federal, state, or local laws to prohibit material that:

  • instructs, incites, or advocates criminal action (bomb making or escape);
  • instructs, incites, or advocates bodily harm (murder or suicide);
  • or is itself a violation of law (obscenity or child pornography).

Prohibiting material for any other reason is censorship.  Because material may depict or describe criminal activity, harm to persons, or violations of law should not be a reason to censor it.  Because material may contain unpopular views or even repugnant content is not a reason to censor it.  The U.S. Supreme Court has found that only when material advocates or promotes illegal behavior or activities should First Amendment rights be limited by the need for security, order, and rehabilitation.


Censorship is an exclusive process by which authority rejects specific points of view. Selection is an inclusive process. It is the search for the best of materials, regardless of medium, that present diversity and a broad spectrum of ideas. While accepting that we can not afford everything of value, our collection must reflect the needs of community and strive to meet those needs.Presentation1

Unfettered access to information is essential those who wish to prosper within a democratic society. As unfettered as practical access to information is even more essential to persons held against their will, if they are to restore themselves whole to society. Suppression of ideas does not prepare the incarcerated for transition to freedom.

Even those who a lawful society chooses to exclude permanently deserve a role in the human struggle and that role requires access to information, to literature, and to a window on the world, no matter how narrow.

As Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in his opinion for Procunier v Martinez [416 US 428 (1974)] :

When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded.  If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are Presentation2more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.

Officials may wish to believe that prisoners think differently than people in the free population or believe that books make a prisoner have bad thoughts.  The reality is that prisoners accurately reflect free society. Their flawed actions placed prisoners in need of correction and only new information, new insigh­­t—not isolation and punishment—can provide that correction.


It is a library’s obligation to make available materials that provide a broad range of diverse beliefs and opinions.  In that way a library counters negative books with positive books, helps replace harmful thoughts with beneficial ones.  Libraries are in the business of providing information to increase the likelihood of reasoned thinking, encourage investigatory research, and promote critical thinking, so that people can reach their own conclusions rather than be limited to the imposed ideas of others.  It is the responsibility of the library to teach users how to access and how evaluate material, not its job to tell them what to think.


It is important that a library reflect the needs of its community.

For prisoners, those needs may appear to be challenging the conditions of confinement, preparing or appealing their cases, overcoming mental health issues, and preparing to transition from incarceration to society. In fact prisoners have a more diverse set of needs than people in a free population but much less access to vital information and ideas.  Library and correctional facility staffs must respect the wide range of needs in their populations.

It is not the function of a library to collect only material that support the values and mission of the agency or its leader but rather to provide for the multi-faceted needs of their population within the limitations and restrictions inherent in restricted environments. It is not the librarian’s responsibility to build a collection around individual tastes, whether those of staff or the incarcerated, or to meet perceived mental health needs but rather to build a collection and provide resources for the community as a whole.

Lists of approved books, titles reviewed by an agency or facility and determined to be acceptable for prisoner use, may prove satisfactory starting points, however a library should not be limited to purchasing only previously reviewed and approved materials.  Libraries must be allowed to purchase books in advance of agency or facility review and be trusted to follow guidelines in determining whether those books should be added to the library collection. Libraries must be allowed to solicit materials from a wide range of sources in order to ensure a broad and diverse collection.

Lists of censored books must include the rule or regulation which the content of the book violates, specific reference to the text that is censored, enough information about the source document that the librarian can confirm it is an exact copy, and the assurance that a high-level official of the parent agency sanctioned the censorship.  This assures that library collections include more than those materials deemed “good for them,” and that repugnant content is not the sole reason for material to be censored.

There shall be no ban on sexually explicit material unless the content is in violation of law, that is it is obscene or it is child pornography.  In order to designate sexually explicit material obscene and a violation of the law, the material must meet all of the following criteria: the average person, applying contemporary standards, would find that the material appeals to the prurient interest in sex; it depicts or describes certain sexual acts defined in local law in a patently offensive way; and a reasonable person would find that the material lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. While the library would not seek material for it sexually explicit content neither would it exclude material from its collection because of such content.

There shall be no prohibition on materials in any foreign language.  Based on the needs of a given population, based on the ethnic or linguistic demographic of that population, the library should make all reasonable efforts to provide sufficient materials to meet the needs of non-English fluent prisoners.

Redaction is a form of censorship and shall only be employed if required to allow access to information to that would otherwise be justifiably restricted by the rule of law or the safety and security of the institution.


There shall be no ban on certain types of media.  Each medium has its purpose and to reject a medium could make it impossible to add certain material to a collection. The institutional reluctance to provide opportunities for the introduction or maintenance of contraband in library materials such as hardbound or paperbound books, disks, tape cassettes, or playback devices can be overcome by the use of technology. Electronic devices and fluoroscopes can pierce the any potential hiding place and allow materials into a library where the library staff can control the security of items that might afford opportunities for contraband to be hidden or ability to hurt self or others. Creative thinking and use of resources can expand library collections to a variety of media.


xWhile unfettered access to the Internet via person computers may be impractical, the correctional library shall provide access to information from the Internet and knowledge of the sources available through it. If practical, controlled access to the Internet and to e-mail accounts shall be provided as an adjunct of the services of the library.

We, as individuals devoted to reading and as librarians responsible for disseminating ideas, wish to assert the public interest in the preservation of the freedom to read for all who live in our democracy and a rightto read for those persons with just or unjust limits on their freedom.

Just as we believe that free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture, we believe that restoration of a held person to family, friends, and freedom requires real and minimally limited communication and access to knowledge.

The freedom to read is guaranteed by the Constitution. It is one civil right not lost at sentencing for criminal behavior no matter how heinous the crime. While the institution may impose restrictions on the right to read within narrow limitations, the basic right to read, to write, to think, should not be impaired.

Those with faith in people, in the ultimate decency of humankind, will stand firm on the constitutional guarantees of these essential rights. Those who cherish their full freedom and rights will exercise the responsibilities that accompany these rights and they will work to see the right to read, to write, and to think, extended to those in juvenile facilities, jails, detention facilities, prisons, state hospitals, mental institutions, immigration segregation facilities, and prison work camps.

We believe rather that what people read is deeply important; that ideas can be dangerous; but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society and destroys the hopes of those segregated from society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours. When free people segregate some of their own, they acquire the responsibility to provide the tools required to bring the prodigal home. Chief among those tools is a right to read.

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