by Andrea Jamison
Books Through Bars is a book donation program that provides prison inmates with access to literature and educational resources. Each month, the organization sends an estimated “2,100 books to about 700 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania and surrounding states.” However, the organization was recently informed that they will not be able to conduct business per usual with Pennsylvania’s prison system. The organization posted the following message on their website.
“On September 5, 2018 PA Gov. Tom Wolf and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced new protocols that will be put into place at all PA State Correctional Institutes (SCIs). The protocols are restrictive and punitive to incarcerated people and their families. On top of making it even more difficult for people on the inside to stay connected with their communities on the outside, they will severely limit Books Through Bar’s ability to send free books to people in prison.” – Books Through Bars
According to news reports, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced a strategic plan to eliminate drug smuggling. To accomplish this, all correctional institutions within the state will no longer offer direct mail service to prison populations. Inmates will have their mail inspected and later forwarded to them. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC), “all inmate mail will be sent to a central processing facility where it will be opened, scanned and emailed back to the facilities. Initially, this process will take a few days, however, after the initial 90 day transition period, mail will be delivered the day after it has been received.” Recent statistics indicate that the state has a current residential prison population of about 50,000 inmates. Thus, it’s highly probable that the DOC may be overstating their ability to process mail within such a short time-frame. Factor human error into that equation and it may be reasonable to assume that this process may prevent some inmates from receiving any mail at all.
Book processing, on the other hand, will undergo a completely different process. Current DOC policies indicate that all state prisons will transition to ebooks. Inmates will no longer be allowed to receive direct shipments of books. However, inmates will still have access to books via prison libraries. Also, family members will have the option of tendering payments directly to the DOC for book purchases. Although this will provide some opportunity for inmates to acquire their own personal books, it will completely monetize the process.
DOC Defends New Policy on Twitter
Outcries in response to these rules have been gaining some traction on social media. On September 14th, the DOC took to Twitter to defend their actions by posting the following message:
“Why is the DOC changing its procedures on mail and book delivery? Because both are primary avenues for drugs to enter prisons. Here are just two examples within the last nine months: first, a Bible shipped from a major bookseller containing multiple strips of the drug suboxone.”
The DOC even went as far as to provide pictures of contraband removed from the bible. In a second post, the DOC posted a copy of a handwritten letter as evidence of potential drug trafficking; these messages were not well received. The DOC later attempted to quell social media rumblings by posting their support for prison libraries, reminding the public about the free access inmates have to a variety of books. Again, their message was not well received and only provided open invitations for more criticism.
Truth is, book donation programs have consistently been met with roadblocks from prison officials. Issues surrounding how prisons provide inmates with access to books have been simmering for months. Earlier this year, the US Bureau of Prisons received backlash for banning direct delivery of books from publishers, book clubs, and bookstores to inmates in federal prisons. Although later rescinded, prison administrators across the country have been strategically developing new ways to restructure inmates’ access to books. Officials have long substantiated book banning (in any form) as a necessary protocol for ensuring safety. Critics disagree citing concerns about inhumane treatment and an underlying interest in using prisons populations as a means to generate higher revenue.
So, should libraries be concerned? Yes. I am definitely of the opinion that safety should be among the higher echelon of prison priorities. However, proclaiming safety as a means to push predetermined agendas is nothing short of legalized tyranny. Likewise, proclaiming safety as a means to ban access to certain books is nonsensical.
Andrea Q. Jamison is a professional librarian, writer, and current Ph.D. student whose research involves examining the pervasive lack of diversity in literature. She has over 17 years of experience working in schools and libraries, and she is the author of two books: Against the Waterfalls and Super Sonja. In addition to her full-time duties in librarianship, she is a mom, Board Member for ALA’s Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Roundtable, Chair for the EMIERT Multicultural Awards, reviewer for the School Library Journal, reviewer for Indieview, freelance writer, avid blogger, and social justice advocate. She also works with the Illinois School Library Media Association as a member of their advocacy and conference planning committees. Andrea thoroughly enjoys working with children and speaks nationally on issues related to creating diverse and inclusive learning spaces for youth. Find her on Twitter @achitownj.