The Section of Disapproved Books is an art project and data compilation by the artist Daniel McCarthy Clifford in collaboration with the Director of Data Management & Access at the University of Minnesota Libraries Besty Friesen, and multiple other actors. The installation consisted of over 600 publications banned in Department of Correction (DOC) facilities across the United States. All of these books were pulled from the University of Minnesota Library system for the duration of the project. This multi-layered and multi-labored project required the creation of a dataset of all publications that had been rejected upon delivery to state-run facilities in each state. I came on board to correspond with and organize information about disapproved publications.
I submitted public records requests to DOC communications staff in all 50 states. In preparation of the requests, I researched the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and each state’s particular laws surrounding public records. Although these acts and laws have similar purposes of governmental transparency, they work in different ways. The language itself varies, from “Idaho Public Records Act” to “Minnesota Government Data Practices Act”, to “New York Freedom of Information Law”, to “Rhode Island Open Records Act” or “Arizona Public Access Records Act”. The channels and rules of each piece of legislation also differ. For example, the New York Freedom of Information Law applies to executive and legislative entities, but not to judicial. Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act applies to executive, judicial and legislative entities. The Alaska Public Records Act specifies a 10-day response time, while the Arizona Public Records Law specifies no response time except it’s use of the word ‘promptly’. I also looked to see if DOC facilities would require me to use a specific form to file my request—most didn’t but some did.
I composed a template for correspondence.
To Whom It May Concern:
Pursuant to the XXX Act, I hereby request the following records: All lists of, and documents pertaining to, books and periodicals that are disapproved or prohibited in XXX prisons.
The requested documents will be made available to the general public, and this request is not being made for commercial purposes. In the event that there are fees, I would be grateful if you would inform me of the total charges in advance of fulfilling my request. I prefer the request filled electronically by e-mail attachment if available, or CD-ROM if not.
Thank you in advance for your anticipated cooperation in this matter. I look forward to receiving your response to this request within X business days.
This email was sent to publicity, media, communication, or public records staff. In a few cases, there were no contact emails published on DOC websites. In these cases, I conducted online research through MuckRock: a non-profit organization that facilitates submission of Freedom of Information requests. This platform helped me find contacts at the DOC in order to submit my request.
There are five states that didn’t respond to my requests within six months: Indiana, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New York. My exchanges with Oklahoma DOC staff spanned several emails by the Public Information Manager asking if I was a member of the news media, an attorney, or an academician, all sent from their iPhone. A Legislative Liaison and Staff Attorney from Tennessee saw my email sent from a umn.edu address and asked if I was a Tennessee citizen, as the Tennessee Public Records Act only fills requests from citizens of Tennessee. DOC in West Virginia let me know that I was welcome to peruse their documentation, as long as I did it within their office, located in WV, during weekdays 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Most exchanges were bureaucratically polite.
Many facilities asked us to pay a fee to cover time spent filling requests. Alabama’s DOC asked for an initial $25 to start processing a Public Records Request on top of document copy fees. Nebraska’s DOC informed me that if I wanted to search emails, they would charge $81.50/hour, estimating about three hours of work, totaling at least $244.50—we did not pursue that. We did pay Oregon DOC $8.50 for a digital copy of records. The legislation we were working under uses the very word “freedom,” yet this experience demonstrated that freedom of information has a price.
As the result of my requests I received lists from 23 states containing 38,942 records. Illinois sent the longest list with 6,983 entries of disapproved publications. New Jersey sent the smallest list with 23 entries. Georgia sent a list of 36 entries recorded over the course of a month. I only received one active spreadsheet from Iowa’s Department of Correction public relations officers. Only Washington publishes their Publication Review Log periodically on their website. Many of the lists I received from DOC officers were already dated, because they had stopped keeping an active list years ago.
Some DOC facilities give inmates the opportunity to appeal a rejected publication, meaning a committee would take a second look at the publication in question to see if it was properly disapproved according to the policies and procedures. However, not every DOC tracked their appeal process on the same documents that we received, if at all. States that track appeal/denial processes are Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. At a certain point in time, every listed publication was censored by DOC officers—but we acknowledge that some titles on our lists may now have a different status than specified here.
Most lists had poor metadata. For example, records were lacking volume numbers, author names, or dates of publication. The most significant amount of my time was spent translating the data between scanned PDFs to spreadsheets, manually correcting and formatting thousands of entries. I’ve read every single of the 38,942 records within our aggregated spreadsheet, and recognized a good deal of the titles. Many titles jumped out at me. Trans Bodies, Trans Selves by Laura Erickson-Schroth is banned in Missouri, Ohio, Oregan, Texas, and Washington DOC facilities. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks is banned in Missouri DOC facilities. Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor is banned in Texas DOC facilities. McGraw-Hill’s Chinese Dictionary and Guide to 20,000 Essential Words is banned in Florida DOC facilities. All are on my bookshelf at home.
I want to acknowledge that we focused on state-run facilities in the 50 official states. We did not include America Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands. We did not reach out to U.S. military prisons. We also did not reach out to privately run/owned prisons, nor did we look into jails. This list provides a small window of censorship happening to the incarcerated population of the United States.
Ray Barney is an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities studying Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, as well as Asian Languages and Literature (Arabic and Chinese). They have a deep commitment to feminist liberation.
To view the full spreadsheet of Disapproved Titles from Incarceration Facilities, visit z.umn.edu/
To request a .zip file of the original PDFs and spreadsheets sent by each state’s Department of Corrections, please fill out this form.