reading through bars

Book Donations Banned in New York Prisons in Controversial Pilot Program

Inmates at three prisons in New York will no longer be able to receive donations of books from family and community groups. Instead, inmates wishing to read will have to buy books selected by six, state-approved vendors. Activists say the selection is “limited” and “expensive.” reports that “novels cost $11.25 from one vendor and a book about chess costs $29.95 from another.” These are obviously ludicrous prices for incarcerated people to be expected to pay for the ‘privilege’ of reading.  Amy Peterson from the organization NYC Books Through Bars, a group that has spent the last twenty years collecting and sending books to prisoners nationwide has said:


We get letters from people saying they had to borrow a stamp in order to write to us. So if these people can’t even afford postage, we don’t know how they’re going to be able to afford buying books from a vendor.


The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has said that the directive is part of an effort to stop contraband from entering prisons “through a more controlled inmate package program.” A spokesperson explained, “It is possible that with feedback from incarcerated individuals and their families some adjustment in prices may occur.” While at the moment, the restrictions have been rolled out in just three prisons, the spokesperson went on to say that “informed by the results of the pilot program, DOCCS intends to fully implement the Secure Vendor Program at other correctional facilities by Fall 2018.”


This directive restricts not only books being sent to inmates, but also food, which must now also be bought from vendors. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office pointed out that inmates will retain access to prison libraries. However, Amy Peterson has said this is inadequate. “The problem with prison libraries is that [the prisons] control who has access to them. So people who are in solitary confinement don’t have access to prison libraries…”


James Tager from Pen America is also strongly opposed to the ban on book donations, calling the directive “so beyond anything approaching reasonable.”


We are trying to sound the alarm now, because even now as a pilot program affecting only three institutions, this is a dramatically over-broad restriction on the right to read.


This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the myriad things that are wildly wrong with the U.S. prison system, but banning book donations is nothing short of cruel and is yet another example of the dehumanization of prisoners and the monetizing of incarceration in the U.S. 


If you’re in New York City, Books Through Bars are always looking for donations and volunteers, so check out their website, or look for a similar organization near you.


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