Prison lit­er­acy now car­ries a higher pric­etag

Pawtucket Times - - OPINION - By JODI LIN­COLN Spe­cial To The Wash­ing­ton Post Lin­coln is co-chair of Book ‘Em, a Pitts­burgh-based non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that sends free read­ing ma­te­rial to in­car­cer­ated peo­ple and prison li­braries.

Ev­ery year, thou­sands of peo­ple in Penn­syl­va­nia pris­ons write di­rectly to non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the one I co-chair with a re­quest for read­ing ma­te­rial, which we then send to them at no cost. This free ac­cess to books has dra­mat­i­cally im­proved the lives of in­car­cer­ated in­di­vid­u­als, of­fer­ing im­mense emo­tional and men­tal re­lief as well as a key source of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

But as of last month, the Penn­syl­va­nia De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions (DOC) has de­cided to make such re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion much harder. Go­ing for­ward, books and pub­li­ca­tions, in­clud­ing le­gal primers and prison news­let­ters, can­not be sent di­rectly to in­car­cer­ated Penn­syl­va­ni­ans. In­stead, if they want ac­cess to a book, they must first come up with $147 to pur­chase a tablet and then pay a pri­vate com­pany for elec­tronic ver­sions of their read­ing ma­te­rial – but only if it’s avail­able among the 8,500 ti­tles of­fered to them through this new e-book sys­tem.

In case you for­got: In­car­cer­ated peo­ple are paid less than $1 per hour, and the crim­i­nal-jus­tice sys­tem dis­pro­por­tion­ately locks up low-in­come in­di­vid­u­als. Adding in­sult to in­jury, most of the e-books avail­able to them for pur­chase would be avail­able free from Project Guten­berg. And non­pub­lic do­main books in Penn­syl­va­nia’s e-book sys­tem are more ex­pen­sive than on other e-book mar­kets.

This pol­icy, part of a larger trend cen­sor­ship in state pris­ons around of the coun­try, should alarm ev­ery­one. Not only does it erect a huge fi­nan­cial bar­rier to books and se­verely re­strict con­tent, it also de­hu­man­izes peo­ple in prison.

The changes in Penn­syl­va­nia fol­low an un­prece­dented lock­down in the state’s cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties dur­ing last month’s na­tional prison strike. The Penn­syl­va­nia DOC ar­gues that these new poli­cies are nec­es­sary to pre­vent con­tra­band drugs, es­pe­cially syn­thetic cannabi­noids such as K2 from en­ter­ing pris­ons af­ter a string of in­ci­dents in Au­gust in­volv­ing staff re­port­edly be­ing exposed to con­tra­band sub­stances.

But this ar­gu­ment doesn’t hold up. Based on the DOC’s in­ci­dent re­port, out of the 60 staff mem­bers exposed to un­known sub­stances, only six tested pos­i­tive for drugs. The DOC has also pub­lished ex­am­ples of con­tra­band drugs they have in­ter­cepted, none of which came from free book or­ga­ni­za­tions. It is, of course, im­por­tant to pro­tect staff and in­mates from ex­po­sure to drugs, but the DOC is pur­pose­fully ex­ag­ger­at­ing the risk to push their dra­co­nian poli­cies. The DOC should in­stead fo­cus on real se­cu­rity risks and ad­dic­tion treat­ment, not fur­ther col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment.

In ad­di­tion to the fi­nan­cial bar­ri­ers, this pol­icy also se­verely dam­ages an in­car­cer­ated per­son’s abil­ity to fully reen­ter so­ci­ety. Not only do or­ga­ni­za­tions such as mine pro­vide ed­u­ca­tion ma­te­rial such as GED and SAT study books, text­books, non­fic­tion books and busi­ness and trade books, but many or­ga­ni­za­tions also send in­di­vid­u­al­ized work­books de­signed for self-im­prove­ment or fo­cused on the needs of mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tions such as LGBTQ in­mates. The list of avail­able e-books is miss­ing some of the most re­quested books, in­clud­ing dic­tio­nar­ies, text­books, graphic nov­els and books fo­cused on in­car­cer­a­tion is­sues such as “The New Jim Crow” and “Il­le­gal to Le­gal.”

By us­ing their time in prison to pre­pare for reen­try into so­ci­ety, in­car­cer­ated peo­ple have a greater chance at liv­ing a pro­duc­tive life and their time in prison is en­hanced through read­ing as a form of self-im­prove­ment. Books-toprison or­ga­ni­za­tions also of­fer in­mates con­nec­tions with the out­side world, as peo­ple re­quest books over and over again, of­ten send­ing per­sonal up­dates, draw­ings and shar­ing their sto­ries. These con­nec­tions can­not be repli­cated by e-books or or­der­ing a spe­cific book through the DOC.

Per­haps more alarm­ing is that the head of the Penn­syl­va­nia DOC, Sec­re­tary John Wet­zel, is pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of State Cor­rec­tional Ad­min­is­tra­tors. If Penn­syl­va­nia’s poli­cies re­main in place, other states are sure to fol­low suit. In­creas­ing lit­er­acy and ed­u­ca­tion should be an es­sen­tial part of the cor­rec­tional ap­pa­ra­tus, but by im­pos­ing fi­nan­cial bar­ri­ers to ac­cess­ing books and re­strict­ing con­tent, Penn­syl­va­nia is fail­ing to serve the greater good.

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