Restricting Books for Prisoners Harms Everyone, Even the Non-Incarcerated
It’s a punitive and profit-driven move that will rob our culture of the contributions of prison intellectuals
In September, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced that all free book donations to incarcerated people in Pennsylvania state facilities would be banned. This ban was created alongside stringent mail search policies, in a purported effort to prevent drugs from entering prison. The Department of Corrections has argued that book donations are the primary vehicle for drugs entering prison, though there is very little evidence of this phenomenon. In fact it is a pretext for denying books deemed contentious to prisoners and profiting off their desire to read.
This ban has come at a time when the Department of Corrections is pushing new e-book readers on incarcerated people, which cost 150 dollars, a high cost that few incarcerated people can afford (particularly with the current pay rate of between 19 cents and 1 dollar an hour). At 19 cents an hour, it would take an incarcerated person 790 hours of work to purchase an e-book reader themselves, if forgoing all other expenses. The tablets themselves are produced by Global Tel Link, the same for-profit enterprise that provides widely controversial “Inmate Calling Services.” Incarcerated people pay 147 dollars plus taxes and fees to the Commissary, using JPAY, and receive their tablet in 7–10 days. Approximately 8,500 books are available for incarcerated people to purchase, after they have already invested in the e-reader itself. This may seem like a wide range of options, but in actuality it is very limited. While there are 89 available books by V.C. Andrews, as well as the complete works of the Bronte Sisters and Jane Austen, the work of African American writers like James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are missing from the list. What’s more, prices on books by Charlotte Bronte, for example, range from $5.99 to $20.99, despite the fact that all of her books are in the public domain and available freely online. This policy is designed to exploit for profit incarcerated people’s desire for books and knowledge, as well as severely curtailing available reading material in prisons. The DOC has countered these arguments by noting that books are communally available in prison libraries, though those are at the will (and funding) of the prisons themselves — and are often insufficient. According to letters written by incarcerated people to Books through Bars, an organization based in West Philadelphia, prison libraries often lack such basic resources as dictionaries and vocational manuals, as well as many novels and academic non-fiction that incarcerated people are interested in.
The DOC has defended its new policy by claiming that a recent search turned up a Bible shipped directly from a major bookseller that contained strips of suboxone, a drug used to treat withdrawal from opioids. It also claimed that a letter written by an incarcerated person, instructing a family member on how to send books and specifically requesting a dictionary, was actually a coded request for drugs. Even if this were sufficient evidence of drug smuggling through books — and it is not — limiting the availability of literature to all incarcerated people because of a few attempts to bring drugs into the prison is such an overcorrection that it’s clear the intention would be largely punitive.
And make no mistake: Limiting access to books is a punishment. Books represent vocational, educational, cultural, sexual, and philosophical freedom to incarcerated people living in prison. To the DOC, this is more threatening than drugs. According to Books Through Bars, the most requested books are vocational guides, legal dictionaries, urban fiction, reference books, African American history, and radical history. By curbing donations, the DOC uses supposed drug smuggling as a pretext for denying prisoners the pursuit of knowledge, happiness, and personal betterment.
Though incarcerated people regularly write asking for book donations, their desires for education and entertainment are not the only benefit of allowing books in prison. Access to reading material is essential both for lowering recidivism rates, according to a 2013 Rand Corporation study, and for allowing the growth and development of prison writers and intellectuals. Because reading vocational guides, legal dictionaries, and reference books prepares incarcerated people for further schooling and jobs after release, readers are far less likely to return to prison. And increasing reading and writing skills among the incarcerated makes returning citizens more likely to gain jobs and further their education.
Less tangibly, the restrictions on reading material hamper the development of artists, writers, and intellectuals in prison, while also threatening book donation programs like Books Through Bars as well as educational programming.
The ban on donated reading material does not simply threaten the ability of incarcerated people to read for pleasure and for self study, but threatens the efficacy of programs like the Inside Out Prison Exchange and the Villanova program at Graterford, both of which offer college-level education to incarcerated people in Pennsylvania. With books from traditional donors limited, the scope of this programming is subject to even more scrutiny by the department of corrections.
Incarcerated people in Pennsylvania follow in a tradition of prison writers and intellectuals in Pennsylvania itself, as well as across the country. The participants in a writing workshop at S.C.I Graterford published an anthology of writing called Letters to My Younger Self: An Anthology of Writings by Incarcerated Men at S.C.I Graterford. Mumia Abu Jamal, well known for his books including Life From Death Row, has been incarcerated in Pennsylvania since 1982. By limiting access to reading material for incarcerated people, this kind of engaged writing and journalism from those incarcerated would not be possible. These texts are creative, introspective, and theorize incarceration and criminal justice in the United States. They also follow in a tradition of prison intellectualism and writing, particularly important in the black radical tradition in the United States. Writers and intellectuals like Angela Davis, George Jackson, and Assata Shakur benefitted from the availability of books in prison to create their work, work essential to the African American freedom struggle writ large. The nation as a whole will suffer for the loss of beautiful, insightful, and often activist contributions by incarcerated people.
By banning donated books in Pennsylvania, the PA department of corrections risks increasing recidivism rates, weakening educational programs, and preventing the intellectual and creative works of incarcerated people. For the sake of punishing prisoners, DOC is punishing us all.