With Massive Book Banning in Prisons, PEN America Presents “Return to Sender: Prison as Censorship,” a NYC Exhibition Sept. 14-Oct. 28

Writings by 5 Incarcerated Authors Will Be Displayed Along with a Model Prison Mailroom to Demonstrate How Censorship Works.

(NEW YORK)— A new exhibition presented by PEN America, “Return to Sender: Prison as Censorship” opens Sept. 14 at EFA Project Space (323 West 39th St., New York City) examining the pervasive censorship of books in prisons— with tens of thousands of books banned — along with  efforts to undermine the freedom to read and write of incarcerated people. The show highlights free expression rights under threat, featuring writings by five incarcerated authors and a model prison mailroom to demonstrate how censorship works.

The exhibit runs through Oct. 28, coordinating with PEN America’s inaugural Prison Banned Book Week Oct. 21-28. Free to the public, the show is open Wednesdays through Saturdays (12-6pm ET). The public is invited to attend the opening on Thurs., Sept. 14 (6-9pm ET), featuring music by artists on Die Jim Crow Records including B Alexis and The Masses. Register for the opening here.

Organized by PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program, one of the oldest programs of its kind in the United States, the exhibition is curated by Mariame Kaba, an organizer and educator who is founder and director of Project NIA, a grassroots organization to end youth incarceration.

Moira Marquis, an advocate in PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program, said: “More books are banned in prisons than anywhere else in the country and censorship is rising steeply, robbing those behind bars of reading about subjects from exercise and health to art and even yoga. Incarcerated people are constantly being denied reading materials, often for reasons that are inexplicable.” She noted that Florida ranks first in banning books in prisons, with 22,825 books banned; North Carolina follows with 14,451 banned books, and Texas at 10,265, Kansas at 7,669; Virginia at 7,204 and New York at 5,356.

Marquis said most state and federal corrections agencies do not even track what books are censored by mailroom staff. “Lots of books are simply being thrown in the trash,” she said.

The exhibit will include a model prison mailroom giving visitors a window into how censorship happens in prisons. The model mailroom has copies of banned book lists and guides visitors through the steps of book banning. Stacks of books will be available for sorting–asking visitors to guess which ones are banned and which are not. There is also a letter writing table where visitors will learn about the onerous restrictions people must follow in order to communicate with their loved ones inside prisons.

Marquis said books are censored primarily to curb drugs, viewed by authorities as a conduit into prisons, though there is little evidence at all that books are used for this purpose. Censorship is also claimed as necessary to morally “correct” incarcerated people— books with sexual content are those commonly banned— though this reason doesn’t explain the massive banning of books with no sexual content.

In the authors’ gallery, visitors will see artists’ renderings of five incarcerated authors (Kwaneta Harris of Texas;, Derek Trumbo of Kentucky, Daniel Pirkel of Michigan, and Zhi Kai Vanderford and Elizabeth Hawes, both of Minnesota). Samples of the authors’ censored writings will be displayed, along with brief explanations of their experiences of censorship.

Marquis explained that incarcerated writers, when they are published, are often denied author’s copies of their book or article because authorities fear they may use their status as a published author “to foment an uprising.”

The exhibition will also highlight how authors behind bars are denied the right to publish their writing if it is critical of the prison system; how incarcerated writers are denied the right to read  authors they want to be in conversation with, and how visual artists are censored by being denied materials to create with, copies of their work, and correspondence with galleries and curators.

Limiting access to reading and writing in prisons is all part of the effort to foreclose community, restrict potential interactions, and deny that incarcerated people are still members of society whose voices should be heard and merit access to information as we all do. Reading is especially essential for people inside prisons. A person who wrote the New York City nonprofit Books Through Bars, which sends free books to people incarcerated in all NY jails and prisons wrote: “My bipolar depressions would have made me end my life long ago save for the books you all provided. They helped me to escape…gave me hope that I’d be able to do something positive with the end of my life.”

Prison Banned Book Week will include the release of a report, Reading Between the Bars: An In-Depth Look at Prison Censorship, a series of articles on prison censorship published around the country, and a social media campaign in collaboration with prison book programs nationwide.

During the week, PEN America will invite the public to support a series of actions, including support to incarcerated writers whose work is being censored; support for local prison books program or establishment of one through local, independent bookstores, and appeals to members of members of Congress to support the Prison Libraries Act, which would require prisons and jails to accept donated books, diversify and update content on library shelves, hire professional librarians, and other steps to make prison libraries better.

About the Prison and Justice Writing Program

For more than five decades, the program has amplified the work of thousands of writers who are creating while incarcerated in the United States. By providing resources, mentorship, and audiences outside the walls, we help these writers to join and enrich the broader literary community. Committed to the freedom to write in U.S. prisons as a critical free expression issue of our time, we leverage the transformative possibilities of writing to raise public consciousness about the societal implications of mass incarceration and support the development of justice-involved literary talent. Read more here.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057

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