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Friday, June 9 • 4:30pm - 4:50pm
Dear Readers Beyond Bars: Explicit!

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Our paper is on the latest issue of artist Sue Jeong Ka’s Dear Readers Beyond Bars zine series. Since 2019, Ka has collaborated on this series with the New York Public Library’s Jail & Prison Services and NYC Books Through Bars along with creative content producers inside and outside of prisons. Art historian Kim Bobier has lent editorial and research support. We are now developing the zine Explicit!, a collection of graphic novels and comics by free and incarcerated artists. It will address how discriminatory prison censorship of content deemed sexually explicit polices freedom of expression and sexuality.

In the United States, the public can theoretically access a vast amount of information and entertainment. There is, however, a population whose access is largely limited: incarcerated people. As of spring 2021, this population comprised 1,774,900 Americans. All face extreme barriers to materials for life-enriching entertainment and edification. With Bobier’s assistance, Ka’s project will develop nationally accessible online and physical zines that explore what US prisons ban for sexual explicitness. Through this focus, we wish to raise broad awareness about prison censorship, information access, and freedom of expression, particularly as these concerns relate to equity and marginalized communities. Furthermore, we hope to connect incarcerated people to knowledge about prison censorship as well as ethical resources and advocates to help them counter and circumvent barriers to access.

Since early 2019, Ka has collected, digitized, and conducted quantitative research to dissect US prisons’ banned book lists from 26 states. Nonprofit organizations, such as Prison Legal News, NYC Books Through Bars, and Books to Prisoners share lists of banned publications. Yet there is no database system for sufficiently synthesizing and analyzing this information. While building a web-database for these purposes, Ka has tracked datasets based on the authors’ races and ethnicities as well as their publication’s content—especially sexual subject matter. Her results reveal that manga, a genre of comics and graphic novels by mostly East Asian content producers, is one of the most frequently banned publication types.

We pose two hypotheses. The first is that American prisons use uneven and sexually biased standards to classify not only manga but also comics in general as “sexually explicit” material. Secondly, we assert that prison personnel’s handling of comics reflects broader patterns of prison censorship’s (and other cultural, racial, and social forms of) discrimination against visual content.

Our conference paper will concentrate on content-based prison book bans that uphold white, heteronormative social hierarchies. To demonstrate these discriminatory dynamics, we will examine how prison administrators’ regulation of sexual and violent material extends to censorship surrounding comics that deal with racism, injustice, civil rights, and LGBTQ+ experiences of incarceration. Such insights will inform our new issue of Dear Readers Beyond Bars. The zine will serve as a vehicle for framing our data-driven and scholarly research in a relatable manner and format. Along with writing to situate these concerns, the zine will feature work by free and incarcerated comic book artists.


Kim Bobier

Visiting Assistant Professor, Pratt Institute

Sue Jeong Ka

Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University

Friday June 9, 2023 4:30pm - 4:50pm EDT
Main 210