What Can You Read in Prison?

a person standing in a doorway
What Can You Read in Prison?getty images

When Kwaneta Harris was a little girl, she dreamed of being a librarian. Books offered a world of possibility and safety, and the hope of one day opening that world to others sustained her throughout her childhood in Michigan.

“I loved to immerse myself,” she said of browsing the shelves at her local library. “It was how I coped. Not just reading the books, but the circumstances: where I was and how I felt. It is a comforting memory to me. Things I read that remind me I’m not alone.”

Today, that memory is Harris’s lifeline. In 1997, she was sentenced to fifty years in prison for killing her abusive partner. Now fifty-two, she has served the past eight years in solitary confinement at Lane Murray Unit, a Texas women’s prison. The same solace she found in books at her hometown library is once again keeping her spirit and her mind intact, even within a prison cell.

“Solitary confinement—it’s designed to drive us mad,” she said. “So the only way I can try to have a remembrance of sanity is to read.”

In 2022, the number of people living in prison increased for the first time in nearly ten years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The overwhelming majority of the more than 1.23 million incarcerated people in America are serving sentences of one year or more. And many of them, like Harris, say that access to libraries, books, magazines, and other reading material is both sanity-saving and life-preserving. But navigating the prison library system and obtaining books from the outside can be fraught.

“The people who need information the most, who need access to books the most, are often the ones who would have the most difficulty accessing books,” said Alexandra Schoenborn, the program coordinator for Books Beyond Bars, a nonprofit organization sending books to inmates in New York state prisons. “It’s not everything. It’s not enough. But it’s something we can do for now to combat some of these dehumanizing effects of incarceration.”

Reviewing the most popular books in prison—and the ones people are most often unable to access—paints a vivid picture of life behind bars. Nearly three quarters of the books inmates request from Books Beyond Bars are nonfiction titles. They ask for self-help books related to law, finance, spiritual growth, and more. Many are supplementing their education programs with additional reading, and others ask for help making business plans or studying their own legal cases. Books provide a way for people to imagine a future after their sentence ends, when their life on the outside will resume.

“What we hear a lot is that books can be a really important way to prepare for reentry,” Schoenborn said. “A thing lots of people forget is that most people who are incarcerated are eventually going to get out, and they’re going to have to navigate a world that has changed a lot. They need to be prepared mentally.”

Even fiction can open up a similar portal to the outside world. Prisoners most often request thrillers and mystery books, Schoenborn said—“anything that can help pass the time.”

But reading in prison is more than a hobby. Turning pages and marking progress in a book can help someone keep track of their time served. Following along with your cellmate’s reading list builds community, and noticing where one library book naturally falls open can reveal what people found most interesting or useful, as can noting other readers’ marginalia and dog-eared pages.

Harris said she often rereads books she loved as a teen or a child, since keeping those memories close is another way to remind herself of the person she has always been, both behind bars and beyond them. Schoenborn recalled one man who requested back issues of a niche magazine on fishing and gaming. He remembered loving it on the outside, and he wanted to bring that feeling to his cell.

As Jeanie Austin, a jail and reentry services librarian with the San Francisco Public Library, pointed out, reading also offers a choice, the spectrum of which is painfully limited in prison life. Deciding what book to read next, adding your name to a wait list, perusing even the minuscule options on display at the prison library—each decision point offers readers a path to feeling closer to human.

“Reading becomes a survival strategy for people inside, emotionally and mentally, but it’s also a way of thinking through a future, thinking through a past, thinking through a present, or in some cases, thinking through their own freedom,” Austin said.

John J. Lennon, an award-winning prison journalist and a contributing editor at Esquire, remembered one especially meaningful recommendation that challenged him to better understand where his past, present, and future intertwine. A mentor told him to pick up “Paradise Lost,” John Milton’s epic poem of heaven, hell, and spiritual warfare.

“I’m sorry, but I wasn’t reading ‘Paradise Lost’ before this,” Lennon said. “And he’s like, ‘No, you need to read this. You murdered a man. You need to read this and grapple with this shit.’ And when I read it and we got to talking about it, I saw why he wanted me to read it.”

Even something as small as reading a new word, or noticing changing depictions of new norms and social trends, can help someone stay connected to life beyond the prison cell.

Leonel Cerda served fifteen years in a prison in upstate New York. After being released, he was shocked to see sidewalks clear of pay-phone booths. He’d spent a decade and a half assuming that when he exited, he’d be able to find a pay phone, drop a few quarters in the slot, and call a family member immediately.

“It’s crucial to keep track of time,” Cerda said of reading. “But it also keeps you motivated. It keeps you practicing your reading skills and your writing skills, and it gives you up-to-date information. If I’d had information, I would’ve known when I got out we didn’t have pay phones.”

Which books find their way into prisoners’ hands and which are banned or censored is even harder for them and their lawyers to understand, said Zack Greenamyre, an Atlanta-based civil rights attorney.

“There is an incredible patchwork of policies throughout different state-prison systems and different county jails throughout the country,” he said. “It’s on a totally ad hoc basis and it’s generally very hard for incarcerated folks to challenge, even if it seems flagrantly unconstitutional in a lot of cases.”

An individual institution’s policy can vary greatly depending on the location, the particularities of that prison’s security, the sheriff in power, and many more variables. Because there isn’t a national law governing incarcerated people’s right to read, prisons and jails are constrained solely by the Constitution, Greenamyre said. Given that wide berth, many institutions interpret the rules more loosely, if at all.

“Even when you have a policy that’s written, half the time or more it’s not even followed, and that hurts incarcerated folks,” Greenamyre said. “They throw up new unwritten hoops to jump through or hurdles to jump over. It’s on a day-by-day, place-by-place basis.”

Many institutions offer a law library to help prisoners research their ongoing appeals or better understand their cases, as well as another library stocked with general-interest books. But the conditions vary widely depending on the individual institution’s population, staffing, budget, and more.

One formerly incarcerated person described his prison library as a roomy, welcoming space with high ceilings. By contrast, another visiting librarian said their recent trip to a facility revealed “abysmal” conditions, including leaking ceilings, damaged books, and shelves hidden under heavy black tarps. As Austin pointed out, “Prison libraries are still part of a prison.”

Jose Ramos, a formerly incarcerated police officer who now works for the Center for Appellate Litigation, said his own experience was similarly “primitive.” The library space was often as hostile as any other section of the prison, and he remembered happening upon other inmates using sections of the shelves for sexual activity and black-market dealing.

But once Ramos reentered civilian life, the stark contrast between the sparse shelves at his former prison and the ones at his otherwise-tiny local public library overwhelmed him.

“In a real library, there are so many books in there you have to narrow down,” he said. “I could go to a prison library and touch every book in the library in just one day.”

Lennon said he’s more inclined to judge a library by its selection than by its ambience. Some prison libraries are able to acquire newer titles and broaden their selections; others are stocked mostly with out-of-date and damaged books. But most important, he said, readers in the outside world have the luxury of sourcing recommendations from librarians and other professionals.

“It’s not like you’re having a conversation with the librarians like, ‘What classics should I have under my belt, ma’am?’ That is not the experience you’re going to get,” he said. “There is no one taking you by the wrist and saying, ‘Have you read Hemingway?’ ”

At Sullivan Correctional Facility in upstate New York, where Lennon is serving a twenty-eight-years-to-life sentence, he had to make his own curriculum. And now he’s making it for others as an ambassador for Freedom Reads, a nonprofit that sets up community libraries at prisons around the country, conveniently located in individual cell blocks. The power of these community libraries, Lennon said, is the accessibility and the flexibility they offer curious would-be readers.

“When you have a general library in prison, you have to work it into your schedule,” he said. “And people say, ‘Well, what schedule? What else are you doing?’ But they may have a job, they may work in the kitchen, they may have a workout partner, they may have college classes. So when you have a curated library in cell-block tiers, that is pretty powerful.”

The libraries also give individuals a better way to connect over books and build community with one another.

“There are some smart guys in these living-quarter areas, and they’re reading the books and they’re putting them back,” Lennon said. “The conversation is more natural: ‘I don’t know if you read this shit, but read it and holler at me.’ Now you have a one-stop shop of a very informed, caring person—not necessarily a librarian—but someone saying, ‘You should check this out.’ ”

In solitary confinement, inmates like Harris aren’t typically permitted to visit their prison libraries in person. Instead, they’re given forms to request a limited number of titles from an existing catalog. But at Lane Murray Unit, Harris says, there’s only one catalog to serve nearly two hundred women in solitary confinement. Passing it around, she’ll often find missing pages or titles listed that turn out to be unavailable.

In the rush to get their requests in, her neighbors will merely write “mystery books” or “James Patterson books.” Because they’re at the mercy of those fulfilling the orders, they’re hoping to just get something—any book at all—that falls within the category.

A handful of years ago, Harris faced another, much less expected problem. One of the people on the other side of the request form—the one pulling books from the stacks to be sent to solitary—had an agenda of their own. When Harris requested books about abolitionism, activism, and other issues, she instead received religious titles from Christian and evangelical authors.

She tried requesting more banal material, such as a Malcolm Gladwell book.

Surely, she thought, a pop-psychology book wouldn’t offend this person. Instead, she received something written by Joyce Meyer, a best-selling evangelical author who writes books like Finding God’s Will for Your Life and Healing the Soul of a Woman.

Harris was furious but also helpless. The de facto censorship continued for more than a year.

The limitations on which books do and don’t make it to prison-library shelves confound inmates and librarians alike.

“They take security to any level possible,” said Cerda.

Certain topics, like weapons, drugs, and violence, are predictably off-limits. But books removed for “explicit” content may feature nothing more than an occasional sex scene or an openly queer protagonist. Others aren’t available in the library catalog for reasons entirely unclear to inmates; for example, Cerda remembered desperately wanting to read The Secret, the blockbuster self-help book from Rhonda Byrne. But for whatever reason, he couldn’t get his hands on it when he was behind bars. Similarly, Harris said she once requested a book about surviving childhood sexual trauma, only to discover that it had been removed from the catalog altogether.

“All those book bans in Texas, we were the guinea pigs for that,” she said.

The end of 2023 saw an “unprecedented” surge in book bans across the country, according to a report from PEN America. Texas, Florida, Missouri, and South Carolina are among the states with the most book bans; unsurprisingly, these states also have high prison populations. Books written by LGBTQIA+ authors and people of color are far likelier to be targeted by book banners, and the censorship extends to books about violence, abuse, and even health.

Growing up as a gay teen, Michael Shane Hale sought books and magazines about LGBTQIA+ life to better understand his queerness.

“I was always looking for myself or trying to find answers,” he said. “I was trying to figure out why I was different, trying to figure out, ‘Who was I? Where is my place?’ ”

He’s now serving a fifty-year sentence for murdering his partner in 1995. At Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, he helped redesign the prison library to be a more welcoming, inclusive space. He drew a handwritten map of the Dewey Decimal System and labeled different genres to help visitors find what they wanted, even creating a new section of books on Black culture. He relabeled and repaired thousands of damaged titles. He even purchased a handful of books by queer authors and donated them to the library, forming its first-ever LGBTQIA+ section.

It makes you want to believe there is some other purpose and meaning,” he said of his work there. “It almost minimizes your pain and suffering and your guilt.”

A number of individual lawsuits and legal challenges across the country are hoping to clarify which books are available to incarcerated people and why, Greenamyre said. Some take up the case on behalf of the person requesting access to the book, while others represent the author, publisher, or institution trying to make it available.

Greenamyre is currently representing Avid Bookshop, an independent bookstore in Athens, Georgia, in a First Amendment suit related to a county jail’s mail policy. Because the Gwinnett County jail doesn’t recognize the bookstore as an “authorized retailer,” people were unable to mail books from the store to an inmate. Furthermore, Greenamyre said, there’s no explicit path for Avid to be recognized as an “authorized retailer,” even as vendors like Amazon are permitted.

“It’s hard to police this issue and police the Constitution,” Greenamyre said. “There are not great incentives for attorneys to take on these kinds of cases, because you’re not going to get a whole lot of damages. It’s about principles, and it’s about the Constitution.”

Before she was placed in solitary confinement, Harris found her own way of living out the librarian dream she’d once held as a child. In talking with some of her neighbors, many of them young, she discovered that an astonishing number struggled with reading comprehension or couldn’t read at all.

She decided to host a regular “story time” on her cell block. She’d read aloud from a variety of books, including two of her favorite titles: Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers, by Deborah Turkenheimer, and Who Gets a Childhood?, William S. Bush’s examination of juvenile justice in the state of Texas.

“Reading in prison is an escape, but what happens when you have a large population that is semi-literate?” she said. “It’s soothing, but it demonstrates a failure of the educational system.”

Like librarians on the outside, she saw firsthand the teaching power books hold—both for herself and for the listeners. Other inmates would slip her little notes after story time, asking questions about the material or asking her to define a word they didn’t know.

According to Greenamyre, the same patchwork of policies that restrict reading behind bars can occasionally help incarcerated people. One day, a book is not allowed; the next, it’s suddenly stocked on shelves. Librarians and advocates can throw up their hands at the absurd conditions, but they continue sending books nonetheless. Until there’s a greater understanding of what’s accessible and why, inmates like Harris, Lennon, and Hale are just hoping to slowly build their own systems in the meantime. Lennon keeps his books stacked on the radiator, a makeshift personal library.

As they await change, incarcerated people are finding their own ways around the mercurial system. One woman described keeping a decoy book jacket on hand in order to hide any political materials with a benign-looking white woman’s author photo. Another mentioned stocking library shelves with books sent to him from the outside so that other browsers with less helpful connections could benefit from some secondhand largesse.

Other people declined to share their tricks for hiding, finding, and concealing books on the inside. With material this valuable, they say, they can’t risk one more thing being taken away.

You Might Also Like