By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Christopher West, aka Brother Hush, has been in the Allegheny County Jail for three months To help pass the time, he immersed himself into one of his favorite hobbies, reading.
The jail had a policy, though, that inmates could only receive books directly from Barnes and Noble or the Christian Book Store. Hush took advantage of the policy and has tried to pass his time until trial (for more info on this, read Hush’s story here). But on Nov. 16, things changed.
“Yesterday I woke up in Fahrenheit 451,” says Hush, a musical artist, and activist, by phone Nov. 17 from the Allegheny County Jail. His reference was to the 1953 Ray Bradbury Novel that tells the story about a dystopian future where books are banned and burned.
On Monday, Nov. 16, the ACJ’s incarcerated population received a memo from warden Orlando Harper that read: “Effective Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, the Allegheny County Jail shall no longer accept books from Barnesandnoble.com and Christianbooks.com. Inmates living in our facility now have the ability to read over 214 free books and 49 free religious books through our tablet program. Inmates…also have access to a wide variety of books through the leisure library on each pod.”
The ACJ’s “tablet program” began earlier this year after the county inked a new contract with Global Tel*Link. The new deal provided inmate with tablets that they could use for entertainment purposes, to photos and videos from their families and to have video visits. The problem is, each of these services costs money out of an inmate’s pocket and baked on those fee, Allegheny County receives kickbacks from the telecom company of more than $4 million. Inmates do get roughly an hour-and-a-half of free credits. But after that they are charged anywhere from three-to-five cents per minute.”
On Friday morning, Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs clarified that all reading of ebooks will be free at all times. “The system ends use every hour requiring the inmate to log back in, but they are not charged for that time,” she said via email. Inmates who talked to the Current indicated that was not explained to them on the policy rollout
“I love to read,” Hush says. “I’ve got a box full of books in here. But, now I’m being limited to only certain titles and if I want to read longer than my free credits allow, then I have to pay. With a book, I’m not charged by the minute.
“What makes this situation worse is that because of Coronavirus, we spend 23 hours a day in our cell. Books at least made that somewhat bearable and they’ve taken that away.”
Aside from the financial aspect, there are other issues with the new mandate. Brother Hush says that the tablets get poor reception in the cells and inmates are forced to stand at the door of the cell to read a book or try to have a $7.50 video visit with their families. In-person visits are still banned at the jail due to COVID-19.
But one of the greatest indignations, Brother Hush says, is being told what they can and can’t read. Pittsburgh Current was unable to get a copy of the list, but the titles were described mainly as books that were in the public domain — the works of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, The Odyssey to name a few.
“But I gave it a try, I thought I would re-read To Kill a Mockingbird.” They don’t have it,” he said. “You limit us to reading classics,, but you don’t even have Mockingbird? It’s a bad joke.”
The Current reached out to Allegheny County to ask several questions about the order including the price, the limited reading list among other things. A written statement from ACJ Warden Orlando Harper was sent back.
“The Jail is constantly reviewing its policies and procedures, including those that relate to potential contraband in the facility, which is a safety and security issue for all there,” Harper wrote. “As part of that review, the policy was changed to discontinue shipment of books. Inmates have access to 214 books and 49 religious books on tablets, and inmate use of the library resources is free [clarification of this statement is above]. Additionally, each pod has a leisure library where inmates can sign out books and there is also a room in the education department designated for donated books. There are over 1,000 different titles in that library which will be rotated throughout the facility for the inmates.
“The policy is by no means permanent. As indicated, the facility is constantly reviewing its policies and procedures. The facility is also talking with the provider of the tablets about how to add additional books and resources, and how it may handle requests for specific books.”
One issue with the statement is that the only books coming into the facility are sent directly from Barnes and Noble and Christian Books in an effort to stop contraband.
But there could be another motive. As mentioned above, the telecom company’s profit and the county’s kickback depends on how much the services are used by inmates. When contacted by the Current, Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam was aware of the move and inquired further about it to Judge Kim Clark, the head of the Jail Oversight Board, of which Hallam is a member. Clark forwarded the following response to all board members: from jail administrators.
“The change made this week to no longer allow incoming books from Barnesandnoble.com and Christianbooks.com was made to ensure the safety and security of all inmates and employees in the Allegheny County Jail.
“I plan to put this matter before the Board in an executive session at the next meeting. For now, safety dictates that this action be taken.”
Unlike the statement to the Current, Hallam points out that there was no indication that the move was temporary.
“I was very surprised when I heard about this,” Hallam said. “And it’s not a coincidence that this happened at the same time tablets were implemented. We’ve been working towards increasing access to books and other publications and instead, with no warning to anyone, they take that access away.
“Slightly more than 200 ebooks and 50 religious ebooks? Not to mention they are limited to 99 minutes of tablet usage a day, and are unable to use the tablets after 10pm. This is a pandemic where these incarcerated folks are locked in a cell, lots of them for 23 hours a day, with no visits from their loved ones, and now we take away the one piece of normalcy they had. The majority of people I’ve talked to can’t find anything that interests them on the tablets.”
Brother Hush agrees: “Mostly it’s the stuff from high school that you didn’t want to read in high school,” Hush said. “We’re stuck with old books nobody wants to read or authors you never heard of on a device that’s so Fugazi, it never works.”