Written by Elena González-Conde Linares

This week marks Banned Books Week, an annual event that celebrates the freedom to read and spotlights the systematic attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.

One of the many services that we provide at Prisoners Abroad includes sending reading materials. Every year, we send around 5000 newspapers, 3000 magazines, 1800 books and 3000 language guides and dictionaries to people in prison around the world. In order to make this system work, we have to comply with all security regulations, which vary enormously from country to country. We have to make sure that the parcels don’t exceed the stipulated weight or dimensions, that they have the address written in a certain way or that they are in the right type of envelope. We know that these rules, complicated as they may be, are there in the interest of safety.

However, there is another set of rules which affects our ability to send books to prisoners and has nothing to do with maintaining safety in prison. Prisoners are often subjected to censorship of reading materials by prison officers. At Prisoners Abroad we know how important reading a book or writing a letter can be for a person. Something that for us could be a simple comfort, for our service users is a bridge with the outer world, a way to nourish their minds amid a very sterile environment. 

Having received books from you helps me to motivate myself and kept me going 

(From a prisoner in Tanzania) 

Unfortunately, restrictions on books and other publications have become more normal in the prison world. Whilst some prohibitions may be justified in the interest of public safety, some others are greatly affected by personal biases and may have a huge impact on the prison population. Some states of the USA have forbidden The Colour Purple or books about learning Arabic, Japanese or American Sign language. According to PEN America, prisons there often censor books on race and criminal justice on the grounds that they could be disruptive. But we know that reading opens our minds to new worlds of ideas, affirms our humanity and nourishes us at a time when reading is one of the very few things that allows our minds to escape the confines of the prison. 

If the prison allows us to receive them, which sometimes they do not. It proves to me that, despite my situation, I know that somebody actually cares about my well-being

(From a prisoner in Australia, having been asked if he had received reading materials)

At Prisoners Abroad we fight tirelessly to be able to send reading materials to people in prisons all around the world. Even at the worst of the Covid crisis, we never stopped thinking about ways to resume this service.

The following is a list of books which, unfortunately, we would not be able to send out:

A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsen

The Colour Purple By Alice Walker

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie


We hope that, one day, we will.