What are the most banned books in US prisons?

The list of the most sanctioned titles includes a ramen cookbook and Amy Schumer’s memoir.


Prisons are, unsurprisingly, not exactly renowned for being the freest of environments, and it comes as no shock that several books are often barred from making their way inside.

However, a recent list recent list published by PEN America – a nonprofit organisation fighting censorship – found an extensive and, at times, outright bizarre, list of titles on the banned list.

While most of the tens of thousands of banned works are sanctioned for what is deemed “sexually explicit” content and security purposes, others for more technical details such as their size.

“The common concept underpinning the censorship we’re seeing is that certain ideas and information are a threat,” says the report’s lead author, Moira Marquis, PEN’s senior manager in the prison and justice writing department.

Book bans are a hot-button issue in the US, especially as certain Republican-governed states (namely Florida) have been accused of censorship overreach in schools. Florida also tops the list of US states with most books banned in prisons, with 22,825 titles.

Here’s a list of some of the most prominent (and suprising) works.

1. “Prison Ramen”

The most commonly banned title on the list, “Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars” (2016) was co-written by American actor Clifton Collins Jr. and Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez – a former prisoner himself. It includes simple hacks and inmates’ testimonies on how to bring a touch of flavour to dreary prison life.

2. “The 48 Laws of Power”

A New York Times best-seller, “The 48 Laws of Power” (1998) is one of US author Robert Greene’s most well-known titles, that has now been crowned as a “cult classic” and compared to a modern-day equivalent of Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. Unsurprisingly, the book is oft-requested within US prison libraries, but its focus on how to acquire power has made it unpopular with authorities.

Greene himself has spoken out against prison censorship, calling it a “form of control.”

“It’s the ultimate form of power of manipulation. So the hypocrisy of saying, ‘this is a book that’s dangerous for you,’” he said.

3. “The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo”

American comedienne and actress Amy Schumer has become synonymous with raunchy humour and self-deprecatory humour, which her 2016 memoir has in spades – and has been a hit with the public, becoming a New York Times bestseller.

Florida officials, however, aren’t among its fans, flagging it for its sexually explicit references and for being “a threat to the security, order, or rehabilitative objectives of the correctional system or the safety of any person.”

4. “The Art of War”

Chinese Zhou dynasty general Sun Tzu may have written his landmark military treatise in the 5th century BC, but it seems to be sparking controversy 2,500 years later.

The opus – whose 13 chapters list different strategies and tactics to use for warfare – seems to have a particular appeal with prison gangs, which makes it an unwelcome title for US prison officials.

5. “Cuba Libre”

Elmore Leonard’s 1998 historical novel tells a story of crime and adventure set at the eve of the 1898 Spanish-American war.

As acclaimed and riveting as Leonard’s book may be, it has raised the eyebrows of Michigan authorities, that have put it on their “restricted” list.


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