Getting books behind bars is no easy task. Correctional systems across the country have strict rules about which books prisoners can read and how they must be shipped — and these rules are constantly changing.
And for a brief time in New York, a pilot program limited acceptable reading material at three facilities to less than 100 items. 24 of them were coloring books. It came in the form of a new directive from the New York State Department of Corrections, which limited the number of vendors allowed to send items to the prisons. That meant that people who wanted to send books had to pick from a pre-approved and very short list.
Prison officials argue that restrictions on reading material like these are necessary to prevent unrest — for example, all books have to be shipped new in order to eliminate any secret messages or prohibited supplies from also being included. The distribution of pornographic and violent books is also disallowed. Censorship is permissible in this context, they claim, because without it, prisoners might be difficult to manage.
But for as long as prisons have been censoring, prisoners and advocates have been speaking out.
Depriving people of reading material feels especially inhumane for people trapped behind bars without other sources of enrichment or escapism. And sometimes those “controversial” reading materials contain important lessons about history and culture — like the critical race theory in “The New Jim Crow” that explores inequality in the prison system.
The advocacy group Books Through Bars NYC warned that restricting inmate packages to pre-approved vendors effectively gave for-profit companies free rein in this particular domain. Families who wanted to send and bring gifts had to go through these vendors, no matter whether they provided the necessary products — and regardless of the price. This isn’t the only example of profiting off the prison system: The prison phone industry is infamous for this.
For families struggling to support incarcerated loved ones, this policy change could have a huge impact. Meanwhile, groups like Books Through Bars, which sends free books to prisoners across the US upon request, wouldn’t have been able to serve their community.
A prison system concerned about rehabilitation should be delighted that prisoners want to read, expanding access to prison libraries and encouraging prisoners to request books when the library doesn’t meet their needs. These kinds of policies often go into effect very quietly — if you don’t know your state’s policies on books for prisoners, it’s worth asking for more information. You might be surprised by what you learn.
You can join Care2 activists in telling Texas that inmates deserve “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and numerous other books inexplicably banned by the state.
Access to reading material isn’t the only fight for prisoners: at the infamous Rikers facility in New York, where prisoners endure deplorable conditions, the injustice isn’t limited to the prisons. Guards are also sexually assaulting visitors via invasive strip searches, and tens of thousands of Care2 activists think that should stop. Join them!