Prison officials throughout the country are restricting reading materials in prison libraries. The state of Florida has banned 20,000 titles, and Texas has banned 10,000 titles, claiming that the prohibited reading material could stir up disorder.
Officials say there has been an uptick of drug smuggling via books, whose pages can be soaked with synthetic marijuana of other potentially dangerous liquids. Dozens of prison staffers have been sent to the emergency room with tingling skin, headaches and dizziness after handling inmates belongings.
In September 2018 Pennsylvania banned all book donations for prison libraries — New York, Maryland and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have implemented similar policies. Washington state banned most used books from its prisons but backtracked due to public outrage.
A report by PEN America protested restrictions around the country, declaring the situation so arbitrary and sweeping as to effectively be the nation’s largest book ban. Texas prisons have prohibited Where’s Waldo and a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets because of racy illustrations. California officials have banned issues of the New Yorker, Atlantic and Rolling Stone magazines, citing nudity in cartoons and art work. Prison officials banned one issue of Rolling Stone because it had a photograph of a blow-up doll.
Mother Jones magazine reported as early as the late 1700s prisoners received religious texts to encourage their rehabilitation. In the 1940s, California prison librarian Herman Spector pushed the theory of bibliotherapy, which held that prisoners could be reformed through reading. Dr. C.V. Morrison recommended book prescriptions for prisoners. Parole officials at San Quentin Prison took library records into account when deciding parole eligibility.
According to a 2014 study by psychologists, bibliotherapy in jails and prisons helped to reduce prisoner’s depression and psychological distress. A former prisoner of Maryland, Vince Greco, said time spent in the library was “the only freedom” he had. The head librarian of Maryland prisons, Glennor Shirley, found that prisoners with access to good library services were less likely to file lawsuits about prison conditions.
Shirley resigned in 2011 because of funding cuts. During the recession the budget was reduced from $200,000 a year to almost nothing. Today another prison librarian, who asked not to be named, said large facilities get about $1,000 a year for recreational books. Illinois spent $276 on non-legal books for its 28 facilities in 2017 compared to $750,000 annually in the early 2000s.
The Prison Literature Project (PLP) received about five to 10 letters a month when it started in the 1980s. Today it receives thousands from around the country. PLP volunteers in Berkeley receive requests for everything from Harry Potter series, Marvel Comics, Stephen King and dictionaries.
But, many books never reach their intended recipients. Security rules in most prisons prohibit hardcover books because they can conceal contraband. Books about sex, racism, violence and gambling are often off limits. Prison Legal News magazine has to go to the courts to overturn bans by California and Florida.
Some departments encourage prisoners to read on tablets to avoid the problems of paper. Pennsylvania prisoners can choose from more than 8,500 e-books through vendor GTL. Tablets cost $150 and titles that can be downloaded for free outside of prison costs as much as $24.99. In West Virginia prisoners receive the tablets for free but are charged three cents a minute to read them, even though the books would be free online.
According to Mother Jones skimping on reading does not make sense if the goal is to help people stay out of trouble later. In 1991 Massachusetts launched a program that diverted offenders from prison if they completed a reading and discussion course. An early study of the program, which expanded to parts of Texas, New York and other states, found just 18% of participants were convicted of another crime, compared with 45% of a control group.