In Rock County, Wisconsin a book drive is underway to collect books for inmates at the Rock County Jail. They’ve currently collected over 1,700 books, with over fifty people contributing to the drive. Major proceeds for the book drive have been funded by the inmates themselves and the sheriff’s office.
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The goal is to help provide a better environment for prison staffers as well as helping to rehabilitate and prepare the inmates for their eventual release and re-assimilation into society. Some of the books deal in parenting, spiritual and religious guidance, and various self-help practices. The sheriff’s office recently put out an appeal to citizens to donate books since the jail’s current library was outdated and its books were in poor condition.
The jail is only accepting softcover books, as many other varieties could potentially cause liabilities for the jail and its inmates. For instance, magazines contain staples which can be used to create stick-and-poke tattoos which cause infection and hardcover books are too difficult to search for forbidden items, as well as the fact that searching these books could likely cause damage to the book itself. Any hardcover book donations are being sent to second-hand bookshops where they are likely to find other well-suited homes.
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It’s certainly nice to witness humanity’s good nature bestowing the gift of reading to those who do not currently have access to outside world!
The women who live at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island might be inmates, but they’re also accomplished authors. A small group of women gather together once a week for a writer’s workshop where they are encouraged to write what’s on their mind. The drop-in workshop sees about ten attendees on average, and each hour and a half session begins with a free write, followed by a prompt, and finally, the participants read their work out loud.
The room is small, with bars on the windows, and the women hold golf pencils, as anything larger could be considered a weapon. This past Tuesday, the group celebrated the publication of their third book of work, reading excerpts of their poetry and a few new pieces.
“It’s peace of mind. You basically get out of jail for a couple hours, you get to put your thoughts on paper,” said Leanna Franco, a twenty-six year old inmate who has participated in the workshop for six of the eight months she has been there. “You look out the window and you see gates, but the time that you’re in here it’s like you’re not behind the gates.”
Franco writes about her past and her future, just like many of her fellow inmates. She was shocked to see how much they have in common. “A lot of times we’re writing about the same stuff,” said Franco. “It’s nice.”
Marina Abramchuck, a twenty-eight year old Brooklyn-born woman who predominantly writes poetry, joined the workshop about a month ago. “I like writing, expressing myself,” she said. “It’s hard to talk to people around here. It’s the one time of the week I can get away from all the drama and the craziness.”
The seventy-page book features contributions from twenty-three different writers, both current and former inmates. They talk about addiction, abuse, fears and hopes for the future.
“Jail life is very stressful and very chaotic. They always have a lot on their mind and the writing just flows out of them,” said Clearman. “What they get is a chance to express themselves, hear themselves. And they listen too.”
Aaron Zimmerman, the founder and executive director of the NY Writers Coalition, said the workshop allows the participants to have a supportive space. “Everyone has so much going on inside them. Naming things is very important. If you can name something, then you can examine it. Our focus is working with people who aren’t heard from often enough.”
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.”
WNYC.org 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.
If you are one of the more than 140,000 incarcerated people serving time in a Texas state prison, there are 15,000 books to which you are not allowed access, according to Paul Wright of the Human Rights Defense Center. This list is said to be growing exponentially, and once a book goes on it, it never comes off. Book banning has been exercised by authorities to prevent inmates from gaining access to certain information that they deem inflammatory or that they dislike, for decades.
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Some of the bizarre items on the list include Freakanomics, a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a collection of Leonardo DaVinci’s sketches, which are banned due to sexual content. Also included are novels by Langston Hughes, Noam Chomsky, Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie for their use of the “n-word”. Dante’s Inferno and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple are also forbidden.
But the most recently published book to be banned is Dan Slater’s Wolf Boys:Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel, the story of two Texan boys who become assassins for the infamous Zetas Drug Cartel,because of the details provided inside that describe the correct packing of narcotics into a vehicle for smuggling purposes, content that breeds the idea of ‘illegal scheming’. This book is non-fiction. Both teenagers are currently housed in Texas prisons.
An annual event called Banned Books Week, celebrating the freedom to read and literature that has been targeted by censors, brought this news to light. You might wonder who is in charge of making these decisions and hand selecting these books. According to Paul Wright who is also an editor of Prison Legal News which has been fighting censorship behind bars for over 25 years:
In Texas, as in most states the judge and jury on a book’s fate is typically an anonymous mailroom clerk, who often don’t have high school diplomas. The bureaucratic system rubber stamps it from there.
Wright says federal prisons have even banned President Obama’s books. This paranoia stems from the inherent need to extinguish uncooperative behavior, which ‘apparently’ kicks off whilst reading the biographies of black leaders or about the inequities of our justice system.
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Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas prison system, said Slater’s book was banned because it violates the department’s rules about books that contain information regarding criminal schemes. It was banned from all Texas state prisoners before it was even published last month? It may be grim and violent, but it is a detailed and thoughtful look at American society and the war on drugs. Censoring books such as this strips an inmate of their constitutional rights and there have been countless lawsuits involving prison guards and inmates who were denied access to education.
Deborah Caldwell Stone, deputy director of the American Language Association’s office for Intellectual Freedom insists that “prisoners who read tend to behave better and rehabilitate sooner but prison officials care only about maintaining power and control. There is probably a new story every day like this [the banning of Wolf Boy.]
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It’s not hard to see why certain books could be banned — books about lock picking or bomb making, for example. But when you’re not allowed to read books by Bob Dole, Harriet Beecher Stowe or Sojourner Truth, but you’re more than welcome to dig into Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf or David Duke’s My Awakening, questions arise.
“Texas is less rational than other states,” says Michelle Dillon, program coordinator of the Seattle-based non-profit Books to Prisoners. Although it’s a national problem, it is particularly bad in more conservative states in the south.
You can get involved in forwarding books you no longer have use for to prisons all over the country through such charities as; NYC Books Through Bars. A full list of Book donating services is also available here for state specific charities.
Writing serves as an escape for all sorts of people. “A lifeboat drifting daily from the fog” is how author Curtis Dawkins has described the therapy of writing.
Many other authors have felt hesitation about giving praise to Dawkins’s book “The Graybar Hotel.” Not because it lacks quality, but because it raises ethical questions.
Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster
The novel, penned by inmate number 573543, or Dawkins, was written on an electric typewriter that stores no more than 70 pages at Michigan’s Lakeland Correctional Facility.
Dawkins is serving life without possibility of parole. He hopes that by publishing this book, he will be able to change his sentence.
What landed him behind bars was a drug-induced binge after breaking sobriety the night before Halloween. After shooting one man and holding another hostage, he surrendered and was promptly taken under arrest.
Image courtesy of ABA
Dawkins’s book is a collection of short stories about his life in prison. He was able to get help from his sister, whom he would send stories to, and she would in turn submit the stories to literary magazines.
While several people have enjoyed the stories, Kenneth Bowman, the brother of the murder victim has spoken out against Dawkins’s writing. “I don’t think he should have the right to publish anything. He should be doing nothing in that prison, but going through hell for the rest of his life.”