(New York, NY) – A federal court this week ruled that the Arizona Department of Corrections was overly broad in restricting certain publications to people in state prisons, and ordered the department to establish clearer rules that are consistent with the First Amendment. The decision stems from a 2015 lawsuit brought by the magazine Prison Legal News, which alleged that state corrections officials were unfairly withholding the magazine from incarcerated subscribers.

“The ruling out of Arizona is a significant step forward for the First Amendment and for our fight for access to literature in sites of incarceration,” said Nora Benavidez, director of U.S. Free Expression Programs. “The court was right to recognize that Arizona’s policies towards book access give too much discretion to individual employees, who are then empowered to implement these policies in arbitrary or overly restrictive ways, and to demand narrow definitions for what content is prohibited.”

“PEN America has previously called for more explicit policies that more narrowly define the bounds for rejecting books, and we hope that Arizona’s revised policies will meet this mark,” Benavidez continued. “We need regulations that better enshrine the First Amendment within prison walls, and that recognize the importance of access to literature for our incarcerated population. We believe that this ruling can serve as an example for other jurisdictions to recognize the fundamental right to read where it remains threatened in American prisons.”

In September 2019, PEN America released “Literature Locked Up,” a research report on the state of the right to read in American prisons. The report concluded that “book restrictions in American prisons are often arbitrary, overbroad, opaque, subject to little meaningful review, and overly dismissive of incarcerated people’s right to access literature behind bars.”

Among the recommendations, PEN America concluded that state and federal officials should develop more explicit policies governing book restrictions; implement periodic review of their restriction policies; and ensure that prison officials strongly consider the literary, educational, and rehabilitative merit of any publication before determining its admissibility.


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