Prison Library at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, Tobias Kleinlercher / Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]
BookRiot reported the other day that my home state of Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) is in the process of finalizing a policy that would no longer permit the donations of used books directly to prisoners from non-profit organizations. In advance of this policy implementation, non-profits report that a number of correctional facilities have already returned donations, even though these organizations have been approved in the past and there have been no problems with donated books.
Ohio is joining a growing number of states implementing similar policies. In most cases, the policy permits prisoners to receive new books from a limited number of approved venders including an e-book vendor (with compatible reader), JPay. According to the BookRiot article, the newly appointed director of ODRC, Annette M. Chambers-Smith, previously was a general manager with JPay. In New York state, according to a WNYC article, the selection at one point was limited to five vendors offering 77 books, 24 of which were coloring books! And the books are expensive, compared to the donated books, placing a burden on inmate families.
The ostensible reason being given by states for such ban is security–specifically preventing the smuggling of contraband hidden within books–drugs and weapons. This was the rationale given by the State of Washington when they implemented a similar policy. The Seattle Times requested information about specific instances after the Department of Corrections cited seventeen instances of contraband in books. It turns out that twelve had nothing to do with books and only three directly involved books with contraband, and none of the contraband originated outside the prison.
Books to Prisoners, an award-winning Seattle-based non-profit begun in 1973 contends that the same safety rationale arises in every instance, and yet in their entire history, none of their books have been found with contraband. Books to Prisoners led a massive effort that resulted in rescinding the Washington ban (and similar bans in other states like New York) and is pursuing similar efforts in Ohio.
So why are prisons doing this? It may be that with budget cuts, those tasked with screening books are overburdened, and hence the move to a few “trusted” vendors. Yet we are not talking about individuals mailing books but rather trusted non-profits who have been approved and have clean records going back for years. It is hard not to wonder if there are financial interests involved. Some would go further and argue that with the steep increase in incarceration making the United States the world leader in jailing its citizens, that there is what amounts to a “prison-industrial complex” that depends on a population of inmate labor.
Books are a potent weapon in fighting recidivism, the re-arrest and incarceration of previously incarcerated persons. One program, Changing Lives Through Literature saw a recidivism rate of 19% of people in its programs compared to a control group with a 45% recidivism rate. A Rand Corporation study showed at least a 13% drop of recidivism rates with education programs, 13% higher employment, and that for every $1 spent reduced post-incarceration costs $4 to $5.
Death row exoneree Anthony Graves writes in Infinite Hope about how critical books from his prison’s library were in sustaining hope and fostering personal growth, and he even includes a reading list of books that were formative for him. This is a story many prisoners will tell. Yet funding cuts limit prison library hours, sometimes making them inaccessible to inmates. This is why non-profit books to prisoner programs can play such a crucial role, especially when books become prisoner property rather than prison property.
Some would argue that prisons have an interest in controlling what prisoners read. Many states do ban what prisoner’s can read, examples of which can be found at this page on the Books to Prisoner’s site. I was talking with a friend about this and commented that making Mein Kampf available to prisoners might not be helpful. And then I came across this in the American Libraries Magazine:
“In November 2017, The Dallas Morning News exposed such a list in Texas that included more than 10,000 titles. Books like The Color Purple, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Freakonomics are on the list, but others, such as Hitler’s Mein Kampf and two titles by white supremacist David Duke, are allowed, the newspaper reported. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reviewed the policy following media coverage of those lists.”
Those who have been most concerted in their criticism of prisons have seen them as an effort to maintain a permanent American underclass that sustains the “prison-industrial complex.” The cynic in me sees these baseless bans of books donated by award-winning organizations as confirmatory of such patterns. I’d like to believe we are better than that. If you follow this blog, you probably believe books enrich and transform our lives. Thinking about restrictions on donations of used books to inmates makes me ask whether I want the same for them. I do not think books alone will solve the issues of incarceration rates and recidivism. I do think they can help. Perhaps they may even help enough that some day we will not lead the world in prison population rates.