Over 2,000 publications are banned in Connecticut prisons according to a new report from PEN America.
The report is based on information collected from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests submitted by PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting free expression, to prison districts in all fifty states plus the District of Columbia and the federal Bureau of Prisons. The report, which expands upon an earlier study on the subject published in 2019, also relies on interviews with prison mail room staff and accounts of incarcerated individuals.
In total, Connecticut prisons have banned a total of roughly 2,450 publications, including 1,922 books and 720 magazines or newspapers since July 2012, the earliest date for which data was collected.
In all cases where a publication was rejected for containing objectionable material, the entire publication was rejected, even if only a few pages contained content that violated the state’s directive. The rate of rejecting an entire publication has increased since data on censored materials was collected in 2019, when some materials were partially rejected and only pages containing offensive materials were removed.
PEN America’s data indicates the leading reason publications are rejected by prisons is the presence of sexual content. In total, 1,051 publications have been censored because they contain some sort of depiction of sexual content or activity.
According to a December 2022 administrative directive from the Department of Corrections (DOC), which was approved by Commissioner Angel Quiros, a unit administrator or their designee can only reject a publication if it is “determined to be detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the facility or which may facilitate criminal activity.” A publication is not supposed to be rejected “solely because its content is religious, philosophical, political, social, sexual, or because its content is unpopular or repugnant.”
In order to meet the rejection criteria, publications must meet one of the following criteria: depictions or description procedures for the construction or use of weapons; depictions, encouragement, or descriptions of methods of escape from correctional facilities; depictions of descriptions of procedures for brewing alcoholic beverages or manufacturing drug; written in code; depiction, description, or encouragement of activities that may lead to the use of physical violence or group disruption; or encouragement or instruction in the commission of criminal activity.
Additionally, material that is sexually explicit, either in pictorial or written form, and “by its nature or content poses a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the facility, facilitates criminal activity, or harasses staff” may be rejected. The directive lists categories of explicit material that shall be banned, including sadism and masochism, and does stipulate that sexually explicit materials that taken as a whole are “literary, artistic, educational, or scientific in nature” are allowed.
Unit administrators are tasked with determining whether such material is sexually explicit and should be either rejected or confiscated. Individual prison facilities are directed to establish a review process for all incoming publications in accordance with the guidelines.
When a publication is deemed objectionable, the unit administrator is to notify the inmate in writing of the decision and the reasons behind it. Inmates are given a 15-day window to appeal. The unit administrator must also notify the publisher of the material of the decision and the reason behind it and the publisher may appeal the decision.
The directive also states that requests for any orders for books must be only for those in new condition and must be ordered from a “publisher, book club, or book store.”
Magazines that have been rejected include The Atlantic—for describing or encouraging physical violence—and Rolling Stone—for encouraging or instructing on the commission of criminal activity. The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was also banned for containing sexually explicit material.
Books that have been banned include Fifty Shades of Grey, for containing sexually explicit material. PEN America reports that Prison Ramen, a cookbook containing ramen recipes, has been banned in 19 state prison systems. Connecticut banned the book in 2016, citing “safety and security reasons.” It has also banned a book on drawing in the style of manga, again citing “safety and security concerns.”
CDs of recordings of Puccini’s opera La Boheme and Manon Lescaut have also been banned due to “safety and security concerns.”
According to Pen’s report, for the 28 states (including Connecticut) that turned over lists of banned titles that include rationales, those justifications are often “confusing” and inconsistent, with policies behind what materials are rejected sometimes coming down to individual mail room staff in prison. The report notes that over half of the testimonials received from inmates indicated mail room staff are “widely perceived as inconsistent or inept.”
The report also states inconsistencies in the policies of state prisons with banned book lists. Pen notes reports from inmates that they were denied materials that do not appear on lists of prohibited materials.
Pen’s report also notes the irrationality behind the reason many materials were banned.
“As Prison Ramen demonstrates, content-based bans frequently target literature that details what life is like inside prisons. If knowing about prison life is a threat to security, then that threat is already pervasive, since no one who lives in a prison is somehow exempt from knowing what happens inside those walls.” the report notes.