With federal Pell grant funding set to resume for college students in prison, higher education in prison programs sit at a critical juncture. As students in prison gain access to additional educational programming, how can we ensure that the courses and curricula they receive are comparable to offerings on the outside? One necessary step is to ensure that the same quality course materials and readings are available. Under the current media review policies of many departments of corrections (DOC), we anticipate that a number of potential academic resources could be prohibited, for a variety of reasons. In a new report published today and funded by Ascendium Education Philanthropy, we scan media review directives from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. “Security and Censorship” makes visible the national landscape of prison media policies and provides a critical backdrop for our forthcoming reports on self-censorship and technology in higher education in prison.

What did we learn?

  • Key terms and language are common across DOC censorship policies. Despite strong similarities in language and framing, however, the policies and procedures related to common terms differ greatly across states.
  • Forty-two of 51 media review directives limit the vendors from which materials can be purchased. This type of “content-neutral” restriction limits the availability of information and may increase costs and logistical burdens on higher education in prison programs, students, and autodidactic learners.
  • Forty-four of 51 media review directives have clauses addressing and limiting access to sexually explicit or obscene content. The reasons for this are historically complicated, but these policies are currently intended to maintain an environment free of sexual harassment. In some cases, however, these policies explicitly target LGBTQ+ content. Such policies can affect access to educational materials from art history and biology to contemporary queer literature.
  • The legal power of DOC to surveil and censor is grounded in the protection of “security, good order, or discipline.” In practice, the term frequently serves as a catchall, providing broad latitude to censor media. This covers a startling amount of ground, justifying everything from banning books on community organizing or union history, to prohibiting access to fantasy novels that have maps of fictional lands.
  • Content protection clauses or carve outs exist and primarily allow access to educational or culturally significant content. While such provisions ostensibly allow access to publications that might otherwise be censored, the way these policies are framed often narrowly limits application.
  • Publication review and censorship appeals processes are addressed to some extent in nearly all policies. However, appeals processes often inequitably burden people who are incarcerated and the programs that seek to serve them.

In the process of researching these policies, we identified a number of policy provisions that would help protect academic and intellectual freedom, without compromising carceral security or creating additional burdens on prison staff. These include expanding content protections, especially regarding educational or culturally valuable materials, and refining the appeals process. In an effort to make such policy more visible, standard, and adaptable, we have compiled what we saw as the strongest and most streamlined protections of academic and intellectual freedom in a model media review policy.

What’s next?

In the coming months, with funding from Ascendium Education Philanthropy, we will publish two additional research reports: one addressing the issue of self-censorship in higher education in prisons and another providing findings from the survey of technology access in higher education in prisons we launched last Fall. In addition, we are conducting interviews as part of our collaboration with Ennead Lab to Understand Educational Space Needs in Prisons, another project made possible with funding from Ascendium Education Philanthropy. Community calls are ongoing in our Institute of Museum and Library Science funded research project, Better Serving Library Patrons Behind Bars, which will improve library service implementation and coordination for people who are incarcerated. In May, we will officially begin work coordinating with organizations that receive and care for materials created by people in prison in order to understand how creative works produced by people in prison circulate and how we can improve documentation and preservation, as part of the National Endowment for the Humanities funded project, Preserving Their Stories: Archiving Mass Incarceration.