(New York, NY) – Despite taking steps earlier this year to eliminate arbitrary book bans in Kansas state prisons, a new report says that the state is still banning hundreds of titles. PEN America, the literary and free expression organization, today warned that state officials should be wary of repeating their past errors and should take steps to support the freedom to read.

This December, the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center — which tracks prison book bans across the country — produced a list of over 200 books that had been blocked from Kansas prisons. Among them: the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory, as well as books by Neil Gaiman, Toni Morrison, Nora Roberts, and dozens of others.

That comes just months after the state took the welcome step of eliminating a blanket ban on some 7,000 titles, saying it would allow prison officials to make decisions based on a book’s “literary merit.”

“Kansas’ decision to eliminate their banned books list seemed like something to celebrate. But this new list of banned books suggests a Pyrrhic victory. If a Pulitzer Prize-winning book falls short of the prison systems purported criteria of ‘literary merit’ and can thus be banned, it’s hard to imagine what books would pass muster under the state’s standard” said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America. “These types of shadow bans are more insidious than lists and yield the same result. Kansas officials have work to do to ensure their policies uphold the right to read in prison.”

Book access advocates have also expressed concern over the appeals process for the state’s book bans. In Kansas, incarcerated people who seek to appeal such book rejections must pay an often-prohibitive sum to have their books shipped to a central processing center for review. Of the 242 books that the Human Rights Defense Center identified as recently blocked, only 27 were appealed.

“You should not have to pay to assert your rights,” said Tager. “Incarcerated people who want to challenge the restrictions on access to literature should be empowered to do so.”

In September 2019, PEN America released “Literature Locked Up,” a research report on the system of restrictions governing access to literature in American prisons. PEN America said these restrictions constitute the largest book ban policy in the United States.


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.

CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, [email protected], +1 202 309 8892