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Panel: Censorship in Prisons

A Banned Books Week Event
Friday, 10/1/2021
2:00 - 3:30

A panel discussion on how librarians, community-based groups and people who are incarcerated navigate the many kinds of censorship that take place inside of jails and prisons across the U.S.   


Watch on YouTube.


Dr. Tammi Arford did her doctoral dissertation on censorship in prison libraries. She spoke with dozens of prison librarians across the country about the ways that reading material in prison libraries is censored, both formally through institutional regulations and informally by prison employees. She discusses the ways some prison librarians navigate the constraints of the carceral space and provides examples of how they accept, disregard or resist censorship policies and practices. 


Kurtis Tanaka, of Ithaka S+R, presents preliminary findings from an ongoing research project on technology, media review policy, prison censorship and self-censorship. A key selling point of many technologies in the prison space is the ability to monitor communications and other activities. The increased adoption of technology, could, in theory, lead to increased DOC censorship. Though this is a significant and concerning possibility, we must also consider how this may increase pressure on instructors themselves to self-censor. Born from the asymmetric power relationship between higher education in prison programs and DOCs, self-censorship can become a modus vivendi for instructors and students as they work to preserve, if not expand, their programs. While approaching this issue through the lens of technology, we are interested in understanding the issue of self-censorship broadly, as well as strategies and best practices for minimizing its negative effect on pedagogy. This presentation gives a preview of how instructors who teach in prison navigate these issues and the strategies they adopt to ensure their students receive a quality education in the face of censorship. 


Hari Gopal shares lessons learned from XBooks, a nonprofit based in Atlanta, GA dedicated to restoring access to books for those inside prison walls. XBooks is the state's only 501(c)3 focused on education access for incarcerated populations. Founded in December 2020, XBooks has already distributed 12,000 books to prisons across the state of which 1 in every 50 books is a brand-new book. Hari Gopal presents on building strong relationships between outside programs and prison librarians in Georgia, and shows how XBooks has utilized those relationships not only to help drive books into prisons but how they are working with them to understand banned books lists. 


Dr. Tammi Arford is an Associate Professor of Crime and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her research and teaching interests include punishment and social control, abolition and transformative justice, penal spectatorship, collective memory, aesthetics and visual representations of the carceral. She also teaches university courses at the Bristol County House of Correction and has been involved with several books to prisoners programs. 


Hari Gopal is a long-time resident of the metro Atlanta area. He has served on boards spanning education (International Baccalaureate Young Alumni Board) and the arts (The Alliance Theatre's Advisory Board). In addition, he has raised funds for local radio and cancer research. His most recent work focuses the state of Georgia with XBooks. 


Kurtis Tanaka is a senior analyst for the strategic consulting and research program for academic libraries, scholarly publishers, learned societies and museums at the not-for-profit Ithaka S+R. His work is broadly framed around understanding how people access information and how libraries and other stakeholders in the academic and cultural sectors can better support information access. Currently, his research focuses on how incarcerated people access information and how technology, surveillance, prison censorship and self-censorship intersect and impact access.  

ITHAKA is a not-for-profit with a mission to improve access to knowledge and education. It does this through its various services including Ithaka S+R, JSTOR, Artstor, Portico and Reveal Digital. Over the past few years, it has also sought to support incarcerated learners through several grant-funded initiatives, including: 

  • Research to advance technological equity for incarcerated college students. 
  • The development of a research infrastructure to support academic research on higher education in prison programs, with the aim to increase program quality. 
  • Research on media review policy, prison censorship and self-censorship. 
  • The development of JSTOR’s offline index to support incarcerated college students. 
  • The development of Reveal Digital’s American Prison Newspapers initiative, an open access collection of digitized prison newspapers spanning two centuries.


XBooks - Website | XBooks - Instagram

ITHAKA - Website | ITHAKA - Twitter

Engage with your favorite writers and discover your next read.

Learn about and increase your awareness of issues related to jail, prison, incarceration and reentry resources. Find out more about our services: sfpl.org/services/jail-and-reentry-services.

This program is sponsored by Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.

Attending Programs

For questions about the program or help registering, contact sfplcpp@sfpl.orgAll programs are drop-in (no registration necessary) unless otherwise noted. All SFPL locations are wheelchair accessible. For accommodations (such as ASL or language interpretation), call (415) 557-4557 or contact accessibility@sfpl.org. Requesting at least 3 business days in advance will help ensure availability.

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