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One review of Pa. prisons’ pricey ebooks: ‘Books that are available for free, that nobody wants anyway’

The list left many unimpressed, both by the prices and the offerings. Many are public-domain titles that are available for free through Project Gutenberg, but that cost anywhere from $2.99 (Moby Dick) to $11.99 (The Federalist Papers) up to $14.99 (for Joseph Conrad's The Rescue).

Keir Neuringer at the Books Through Bars offie in West Philadelphia.
Keir Neuringer at the Books Through Bars offie in West Philadelphia.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Book deliveries to prisons across Pennsylvania were terminated this month as part of a multi-pronged security overhaul meant to eliminate avenues for drug smuggling. That meant an abrupt end to direct donations from programs like Books Through Bars, as well as orders shipped from Amazon or publishers.

The Department of Corrections says inmates will still have abundant access to books, including prison libraries and, coming soon, a mechanism by which inmates can request that staff purchase books for them. It also trumpeted inmates' access, as of Sept. 18, to a library of 8,500 e-books that inmates, who make as little as 19 cents per hour, can purchase and read on $149 tablets provided by the vendor GTL.

But an initial review of that library left some unimpressed, both by the prices and the offerings. Many of the books are public-domain titles that are available free through Project Gutenberg — which GTL links in its press materials as the source of e-books — but that cost anywhere from $2.99 (Moby-Dick) to $11.99 (The Federalist Papers), all the way up to $14.99 (Joseph Conrad's The Rescue). Many more recent titles also are priced far higher than the same Kindle e-books. For instance, Stephen King's prison tome, The Green Mile, costs 66 percent more on prison tablets than out in the free world.

More surprising, perhaps, is what's not available — including many of the titles that make it on lists of most-read books in prisonThe Autobiography of Malcolm X didn't make the cut, though The Autobiography of Tony Bennett did. Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl isn't available, but interested parties can download Diary of a South Beach Party Girl. Also missing are modern-day carceral memoirs: Erwin James' A Life Inside, Jeffrey Archer's A Prison Diary, and Piper Kerman's Orange is the New Black.

Michelle Alexander's study on mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, which has been banned in other state prison systems, was omitted as well.

There are no titles by John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, or Donald Goines — all cited as popular authors in prison libraries. There are, however, four volumes from the oeuvre of Tori Spelling.

Amy Worden, a Department of Corrections spokesperson, said the selections were "just a first step," and that other titles may be added based on demand.

Books Through Bars' most-requested books are dictionaries and legal dictionaries, which are not available on the tablet. Another frequent request is the Quran, said Rebecca Makas, a member of Philadelphia Books Through Bars who has a doctorate in religion concentrating in Islamic studies. She was alarmed to see the translation GTL offers is a "nonstandard" version not commonly used in academic or religious settings and containing departures that would be "extremely offensive to most observant Muslims."

"What we see on the list is, wow, there's an entire page of Louisa May Alcott and a page of Jane Austen. There's two pages of Trollope, which is absurd," said Keir Neuringer, another member, noting that he could not recall an inmate's ever requesting Austen. "It's heavily weighted toward books that are readily available for free, that nobody wants anyway."

Of course, the tastes of inmates vary widely.

A few years back, the New Yorker published a rather lyrical account of the literary consumption of Daniel Genis, a one-time publishing assistant who read 1,046 books while incarcerated in a New York state prison.

"I started out with books that helped me make sense of the situation around me," Genis explained — Solzhenitsyn's gulag narratives, like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Ted Conover's memoir, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. (Neither is available on Pennsylvania inmates' tablets.) Then he moved on to histories of authoritarianism — "awful stuff that made me feel better by comparison" — and studies of morality, like Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. (That one they have, at $3, $6 or $15, depending on the edition.)

Worden said GTL had created the book list and negotiated the prices. She said the Department of Corrections was not aware of access to free Project Gutenberg titles, but would look into it. GTL referred questions about the e-book library back to the Department of Corrections.

Worden emphasized in an email that the e-books are not inmates' only means of accessing literature. "Lost in this discussion of e-books and book donations is the fact EVERY prison has a full-service general interest library and a law library," she wrote.

But inmates cite an array of reasons they may opt not to use the library. To visit it may require requesting a pass and visiting at a set time that may conflict with other obligations. And losing a book can result in discipline in addition to fines. One inmate said that years ago, at the Camp Hill prison, he received 45 days of in-cell confinement for returning a book late; he promised himself never to risk borrowing from the library again.

In response, Amistad Law Project on Sept. 21 is organizing its second mass call-in event to lawmakers and state officials asking for the restrictions to be lifted.

Stephen Wilson, an inmate at State Correctional Institution Smithfield, wrote an open letter that the need is urgent: "We are effectively being prevented from learning, making connections to and communicating with the outside world."