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Incarceration is supposed to be a form of punishment, but it is also supposed to offer the opportunity for rehabilitation and reentry into society. For many individuals languishing in prison, books are there only form of escape. They can also be a form of enrichment, self-analysis, and self-improvement.
Historically, prison libraries have provided people with the ability to obtain their GED or even mount their own appeal in criminal court. Unfortunately, concerns about the potentials for drug smuggling into prisons has led to changes and policies. In September of 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced its intention to end book donation programs, as well as mail order books and magazines for inmates. Department of Corrections officials were worried about the potential for unscrupulous individuals to soak the pages of books in liquid synthetic cannabinoids before mailing them into the prisons.
However, as the books typically come from nonprofit organizations or directly from publishers, the chances of this kind of intentional contamination were low. Additionally, it should be noted that no matter what prisons attempt to do to prevent drugs and other contraband from getting smuggled in, smuggling continues to happen anyway.
Previous to that announcement, inmates or people who love them have the ability to purchase books directly from businesses and have them shipped to the prison on behalf of the inmate. Many non-profit organizations also collected and donated books to the prisons to help enrich the lives of the inmates there. Under this new policy, part of a comprehensive security increase, inmates were suddenly limited to e-books and requests placed on kiosks managed by the prisons., as well as the libraries.
Unfortunately, inmates struggled with using the kiosk system. Between September and November, roughly 2,500 orders were placed on the kiosks. Many were for things other than books, and quite a few were for magazines, which the system did not process. In other words, inmates found themselves effectively cut off from new sources of the written word and unable to access or order new books. Quite a few inmates have claimed it is difficult to arrange to visit the library and that they fear punishment for a late return too much to utilize the library lending system anyway.
Massive push-back by humans rights activist and prison reform activists in Pennsylvania and nationally has finally proved successful. Individuals and organizations that donate books made phone calls, created petitions online, and called the governor of Pennsylvania in the hopes of overturning this restrictive policy that was clearly bound to do more harm than good. The Department of Corrections announced last week that it has again adjusted its book policy.
The new policy will allow inmates to directly contact book donation groups through secure messages. That allows inmates to request specific books. It also helps reduce the potential risk for drug contamination in the books that enter the prison system. Family members and friends of those in Pennsylvania correctional facilities will be able to have books shipped directly from publishers or bookstores to a centralized secure processing center. In addition to these opportunities, inmates will still have the right to access libraries that average roughly 15,000 titles each in the prisons.
While security and safety are important in the prison, so too are compassion for the inmates. Prisoners are people too, who deserve the right to serve their sentence and return to society after they have paid their debt. They should not be subject to inhumane or cruel conditions simply because of a mistake in their past. Cutting someone off from all forms of self-enrichment and entertainment by not allowing access to books is cruel and unnecessary. Hopefully, Pennsylvania’s reversal of this inappropriate policy will prevent other states from attempting to follow suit.