Censorship in Prisons: Key Takeaways from Ithaka S+R’s Report on the DOC’s Censorship Policies

Everyone deserves the freedom to read.

Prison security measures can interfere with the freedom to read.

Despite a resurgence in public interest regarding censorship concerns, there are still few comprehensive, systematic studies of censorship policies in prisons, and research and reporting on them are still mostly localized. 

The highly decentralized nature of the carceral system in the United States as well as the practical challenges in discovering and navigating correctional policy documentation are both responsible for complicating such an undertaking. 

Ithaka S+R examined media review directives across all fifty states and the District of Columbia. This research was made possible with grant funding provided by Ascendium Education Group and is one facet of a larger study of technology and censorship in higher education in prisons.

We have summarized some of the key findings of Ithaka S+R’s research as well as their recommendations for improvement, with the intention of making the information readily available to the public.


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Key Findings 

  • While key terms and language are common across the Department of Correction’s (DOC’s) censorship policies, the policies and procedures differ greatly across states.
  • Of fifty-one media review directives in the United States and the District of Columbia, forty-two can only purchase materials from limited vendors.
  • Of fifty-one media review directives in the United States and the District of Columbia, forty-four have clauses that address and limit access to obscene or sexually explicit content.
  • The DOC’s legal power to surveil is grounded in the ideals of “security, good order, or discipline.” Thirty-five out of fifty-one of the United States and District of Columbia’s media review directives contain variations of these terms. The broadness of these terms serves as a catchall for censorship in practice.
  • There are provisions or carve-outs for content protection. Such laws make it possible to read publications that would otherwise be prohibited, although their scope of application seems relatively limited.
  • Nearly all rules address publication review and censorship appeals processes to some level, although these systems can unfairly burden incarcerated people.


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After reviewing these groundbreaking findings through cross-examining sixty-two documents on state policy, Ithaka S+R recommended that the DOC narrow "security, good order, or discipline" clauses by adding specificity and establishing policy guardrails.

It was also suggested that strengthening content protections might ensure inmates' access to educational, artistic, and informative material as well as materials that appeal to specific groups. To assist with this restructuring, review committees can be transformed to include representation from librarians, education staff, incarcerated individuals, and, when relevant, postsecondary educators or administrators.



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