Censorship in Prison

Censorship in Prison: An Interview with Prison Librarian Laura Sherbo

by Alex Falck

The United States’ criminal justice system has received a lot of attention in recent years. Books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow have spurred critical conversations about whom our society imprisons and why, while activism from within—most notably the 2018 U.S. Prison Strike—has called attention to the conditions of incarceration. Some prisons have responded by censoring books that are critical of their role,1 but now that the public is paying attention, efforts to restrict prisoners’ reading materials have met with substantial outcry and opposition. In Washington, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, prisons have been forced to roll back book bans.2

Prison librarians are on the front lines of this battle and in the unusual position of working inside prisons to serve prisoners, rather than control the incarcerated population. I spoke to Laura Sherbo, Branch Library Services Program Manager for Washington State, about her experiences with and opinions about censorship in prison libraries.

How long have you worked as a prison librarian, and at what types of prisons have you worked?

In August 2019 I will have been a prison librarian for forty-one years. I have been permanently stationed in medium security men’s prisons - Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois (1978 – 1982) and McNeil Island Corrections Center, Steilacoom, Washington (1982 – 2002). Since 2002 I have not only managed the nine prison libraries in Washington State but I have worked in and continue to work in all of them, including maximum security and women’s facilities.

What led you to work as a prison librarian?

While earning my master’s degree I read an article about prisons libraries that piqued my interest. I sought out an internship in the library in the State Prison of Southern Michigan, which at the time was the largest walled prison in the world with over 5,000 inmates. It was quite an experience, because there were very few women working in men’s prisons in the 1970’s. It was a job that convinced me that I had found my calling.

As someone who works within the criminal justice system, what are some of your thoughts about that system and the activism that is intended to reform?

My personal opinion, after more than forty years in prison, is that we have locked up way too many people who do not need to be locked up. An inmate told me once, “Most of us are just regular guys who made a mistake” and that reverberates for me. Even though I know that there are those who do need to be incarcerated, there are many who don’t and I personally believe we need serious reform.

What are some of the factors that limit your ability to serve your patrons?

The biggest factor in limiting our ability to serve our patrons is that correctional officers in the prisons don’t often value the libraries or agree that inmates should have certain types of information. This can lead to time consuming misunderstandings. Fortunately, the top level administration of the Department of Corrections is very supportive of our libraries so those issues are often resolved at a higher level.

Do you think it’s possible to write a rule that would cover all instances of real threats while excluding all instances of perceived threats, or does it need to be handled on a case-by-case basis?

No I don’t – I think it needs to be case-by-case.

What is your personal philosophy about the type of books prisoners should have access to?

My personal philosophy is that inmates should have access to all types of books and information. The only exception would be materials which constitute a real (not perceived) threat to the safety and/or security of the institution.

The question of what constitutes a real threat versus a perceived one goes to heart of the debate about censorship. How would you define that difference?

It’s much more concrete in prison (no pun intended). If the information poses a physical risk to the safety and security of the prison, such as the manufacture of weapons, or allows for prohibited activities, such as how to make alcohol, then those are real threats.

What would be an example of a perceived threat?

Soon after I started working on McNeil Island (accessible only by boat) I borrowed books on boat building for an inmate. These were confiscated by mailroom staff and I was told not to circulate them. I took them to the Captain and I got the most reasonable response I have ever heard from Department of Corrections. He said. “If these inmates can build a boat under the noses of my correctional officers, then I have a much bigger problem than what books are in the library,” and he gave me permission to circulate them. Boat building books (even on McNeil Island) are a perceived threat not a real one. Books with detailed instructions on how to pick locks or how to build a pipe bomb are real threats.

Aside from safety issues, what factors do you have to consider when making purchasing decisions?

Department of Corrections maintains a list of banned books. I base my decisions on the DOC list, DOC policy, and our own collection development policy.

Are patrons’ requests taken into consideration?

Inmate requests are one of many factors in purchasing. Because we have very small book budgets, we have to consider their requests along with materials needed to support institution programs and reentry, and to maintain a balanced collection.

In a survey of LGBTQ+ prisoners, 80% reported that they don’t have access to “LGBTQ affirming books.”3 Have you taken any steps to address the needs of LGBTQ+ inmates?

There is no lack of LGBTQ+ books in Washington State prison libraries. We have made an effort in recent years to ensure that we have these materials in all the libraries. Washington State is unique in that our prison libraries are actually branches of the Washington State Library with trained library staff on site and we pride ourselves on providing public library services. In states where the library staff are DOC employees, I suspect there are more constraints on materials.

That’s great to hear! Have you noticed whether they’re being used much?

Yes they do get quite a bit of use.

Having spoken with a couple former inmates, I get the impression that censorship is pretty far down their list of complaints. Do your patrons bring it up when talking with you?

One of the primary reasons for publications being restricted here is for “sexually explicit” materials, even when they can reasonably be considered art or medical information. The inmate who told me, “Most of us are just regular guys who made a mistake,” questioned why he couldn’t have a particular issue of Men’s Health magazine (it had been rejected as “sexually explicit” even though the article was dealing with sexual health).

Sexually explicit material seems like a real gray area, where it could be either a safe way of relieving tension or a trigger for aggression. According to journalist Julia O'Donoghue, “academic research has linked sexually explicit materials and increased violence in the general population, but states that allow prisoners access to it had lower rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults.”4 Do you think sexually explicit reading materials constitutes a real or perceived threat?

My opinion is that it is a perceived threat, especially in light of the fact that what is being restricted here in Washington are books that are available in any public library. We are not talking about pornography, which is of course, restricted. The study quoted above is what I have always believed to be true.


1. Johnson, Jane'a. "Reading as a Mirror: Banning The New Jim Crow in New Jersey Prisons." Intellectual Freedom Blog. www.oif.ala.org. Jan. 25, 2018. Retrieved Jan. 27, 2019.

Polletta, Maria. "Arizona prison officials won't let inmates read book that critiques the criminal justice system."Arizona Republic. www.azcentral.com. May 17, 2019. Retrieved May 31, 2019.

2. Johnson, Jane'a. "Reading as a Mirror: Banning The New Jim Crow in New Jersey Prisons." Intellectual Freedom Blog. www.oif.ala.org. Jan. 25, 2018. Retrieved Jan. 27, 2019.

Melamed, Samantha. "Under pressure, Pa. prisons repeal restrictive book policy." The Philadelphia Inquirer. Nov. 2, 2018. www.inquirer.com. Retrieved Jan. 27, 2019.

O'Sullivan, Joseph. "Washington corrections officials reverse ban, will allow prisoners to get used books in the mail." Seattle Times. www.seattletimes.com. Apr. 10, 2019. Retrieved Apr. 12, 2019.

Wang, Vivian. "Cuomo Halts a Controversial Prison Package Policy." The New York Times. Jan. 12, 2018. www.nytimes.com. Retrieved Jan. 27, 2019.

3. Lydon, Jason, et. al. Coming Out of Concrete Closets: A Report on Black & Pink's National LGBTQ Prisoner Survey. www.blackandpink.org. October 2015. Accessed 3/16/19.

4. O'Donoghue, Julia. "At Louisiana prisons, there's some mystery in what gets a book banned." NOLA.com. www.nola.com. Nov. 28, 2018. Retrieved Jan. 25, 2019.

updated: November 2019