Under pressure, Pa. prisons repeal restrictive book policy
Previously, the DOC had limited book orders to a catalog of 8,500 e-books that was plagued by high prices and vast gaps in its coverage, and to requests placed on kiosks within the prison system that turned out to be inadequate to the task.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections — which in September announced it would put a halt to book donation programs and mail-order books and publications — has revised its policy, allowing book orders to resume through a new centralized processing center.
"Everyone who got involved called Gov. Wolf, wrote letters, shared the story on social media — it was really public pressure, we believe, that led to the DOC updating their policy to allow us to again send books directly to inmates," said Jodi Lincoln, an organizer with Book 'Em, a book donation program based in Pittsburgh. "It's a good sign that our state system and elected representatives actually sometimes listen."
The prohibition was part of a wide-ranging security crackdown meant to eliminate drug smuggling into the prisons, in particular paper soaked in synthetic cannabinoids, also known as K2. Under that policy, the DOC limited book orders to a catalog of 8,500 e-books that was plagued by high prices and vast gaps in its coverage, and to requests placed on kiosks within the prison system that turned out to be inadequate to the task.
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According to the DOC, 2,500 orders were placed on the kiosks, but half were for non-book-related matters and many others were for magazines, which could not be processed on the system. In many requests, inmates did not provide sufficiently detailed information for staff to identify which books they were seeking.
In a statement, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the new procedure was a response to criticisms by book-donation groups.
"This policy update allows inmates to have direct contact with book donation organizations through a security processing center and ensures that publications will not be used as a path by which drugs are introduced into our facilities," he said.
The new policy also allows family and friends to order books to be shipped directly from publishers or bookstores to a secure processing center in Bellefonte, Pa., where staff will screen books five days per week. It also enables inmates to place orders directly from a hard-copy catalog.
Lincoln said the book-donation groups still have concerns about how the new process will play out, including how the DOC will ensure the packages reach the inmates who requested them, intact with all supplemental materials.
"There are also concerns over the non-bound materials we send in — zines, resource guides, pamphlets — we want to make sure those publications can also get through," Lincoln said.
The DOC noted that inmates will continue to have access to libraries that average about 15,000 titles each, though some inmates say that they find it difficult to make it to the library and prefer not to check out books for fear of being disciplined over late returns.
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Sean Damon of Amistad Law Project, which led protests over the book prohibition, expressed relief. "From our perspective, it looks like the DOC did the right thing," Damon said.
But, he added, he's not satisfied, as other new security measures — including the scanning and surveillance of incoming mail, and the photocopying of inmate legal mail — remain in place.
"It begs the question as to why mail has to be sent to Florida, scanned into a searchable database, and the copy sent on," he said. "Books are many, many pieces of paper. Why do they have to photocopy a letter when they can let 300 pages in?"