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Reading Rights: Pennsylvania’s restrictive inmate mail policy makes groups like Book ’Em even more important

By January 8, 2019 One Comment

It’s late Sunday afternoon. The basement walls of Garfield’s Thomas Merton Center are lined with handmade bookshelves from floor nearly to the seven-foot ceiling. Two banquet tables are pushed together to form a workstation.

“What do you think the chances are that we have any books on mushrooms? He’s interested in mycology,” the volunteer says. “I had to look up mycology,” she laughs, still peering at the small section on gardening, still holding the letter in her left hand. Mycology, as it turns out, is simply the study of mushrooms.

About a dozen or more folks, like the woman earnestly searching for books about edible fungi, have shown up in this modest library to volunteer for the Book ‘Em Program.

Book ’Em volunteers have been sending free books to prisoners since about 2000. The overhead is pretty low. Volunteers have to raise money to cover postage, packing materials, and some books that have to be purchased. Most books are donated, from ordinary people, and also from booksellers, like White Whale just a few blocks away. Book ‘Em purchases the otherscrossword puzzles, dictionaries and textbooks, mostly.

Inmates throughout Pennsylvania write and request books. Volunteers at “packing parties” fill the requests as best they can, and then the books are shipped. They can respond to anywhere from 50 to 75 letters during one packing session, and average sending about 250 books per month. The entirely volunteer-run program is a straightforward, efficient, hands-on operation.

Jodi Lincoln is one of the volunteers in a leadership role. She instructs everyone on the process of responding to inmate requests, protocols for packing to meet the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) requirements, and generally oversees these packing sessions which take place on the first two Sundays of every month.

Lincoln, 26, lives nearby in Bloomfield. In addition to the packing parties, she handles an assortment of tasks, from sorting and scanning prisoner letters, filing incoming book donations, and sometimes communicating directly with the DOC. As a self-professed book nerd who also cares about mass incarceration, it’s a good fit.

“My mom was a librarian. She ran the local village library in the summers [on Fire Island],” she said while talking about how cataloging books is old muscle memory. One of the things Lincoln loves most is being able to send the perfect book to a prisoner.

There are just four ways that a prisoner in Pennsylvania can get his or her hands on a book. They can receive books for free from approved organizations like Book ‘Em and Books Through Bars in Philadelphia as well as through sometimes sparse prison libraries. Inmates can also purchase and receive books directly from approved booksellers. (Individuals, however, cannot send books to inmates.) The other option, the one that was pushed by the DOC in the fall, is ebooks.

Prisoners earn very little working inside, making between roughly $0.34 and $0.52 cents per hour. The cost of purchasing a tablet and then purchasing ebooks on top of that makes ebooks completely unrealistic for some.

“The idea of having a tablet, with glass features, with plastic features, with metal features …  Even beyond safety concerns, these tablets are ill-made even when you buy them new,” says Jason Clearfield, another volunteer in a leadership role with Book ‘Em. “You get the cheapest possible product and then, well, the situation of a jail doesn’t seem hospitable towards a delicate electronic device.”

Lincoln has a storehouse of prisoner letters and, with their permission, shares some with me. There are, naturally, prison libraries, but what is noticeable in the letters is that the facilities are often small, often lack the books a prisoner might want, or need, and that access is sometimes limited. The idyllic Shawshank library that we saw in the movies, with hundreds of books and Hank Williams records, doesn’t exist.

The other recurring theme is that many of these men and women don’t have family who can help. Some have nobody at all on the outside. Others have loved ones who are stretched to their limits financially. Free books are essentialBook ’Em shipments are a lifeline.

“Most of us aren’t just sitting around waiting on time to pass,” wrote one prisoner housed at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy, just outside of Pottsville in Eastern Pa. “A majority of these guys are educating themselves … When you see one of us, nose in a book, we’re gaining something, someone else’s words, accounts, reactions, whether fiction or other, good or bad, teaches us.”

Things had been moving along pretty nicely for years. But Book ‘Em hit a difficult stretch this fall, when the DOC put a moratorium on prisoners receiving books in the mail. Per an August 29 DOC press release, “Secretary John Wetzel announced the immediate lockdown of all state correctional institutions because of reports of multiple staff members sickened by unknown substances over the past few weeks.” In addition to the lockdown, all DOC mailrooms were closed to non-legal mail.

The DOC reported that between May 31 and September 1, more than 50 staff members and 33 inmates reported being sickened and were taken to outside hospitals. “Toxicology results confirmed the presence of synthetic cannabinoid in multiple instances of staff exposure. Lab tests confirmed inmate overdoses linked to synthetic cannabinoids and other illegal substances,” according to a press release issued on September 10.

However, on September 7, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that none of the correction officers had been admitted for treatment or observation. And the DOC had not provided any toxicology reports for confirmation or comparison.

According to Bret Grote, a lawyer with the Abolitionist Law Center, there is no evidence that the officers who got sick had been sickened by contact with mail or books. According to Grote, the DOC stance is essentially, “drugs are getting in, we don’t know how, it might be the mail.”

That was when the initial ebook-only policy was made. It also resulted in a seismic shift in the handling of mail. Regular mail is now processed through Smart Communications, a private company in Seminole, Florida. Outsourcing Pennsylvania prisoner mail to a Florida company will cost taxpayers $15 million over three years. Legal mail is handled separately and the matter is currently being litigated.  

After considerable legal pressure, the DOC backed off the ebook policy and instituted new policies for handling paper books. All books will be processed and searched for contraband at SCI Bellefonte (not far from State College). The prisoner packets will then be re-packed and shipped via UPS to the individual prisoners throughout the state.

“I would ask that you not lose sight of the fact that the DOC has undertaken these measures to protect its staff and inmates. Drug finds, drug overdoses and drug exposures skyrocketed in the past year,” wrote Amy Worden, a spokesperson for the DOC, via email when asked for clarification on the new book policy. “Close to 100 staff and inmates have needed treatment for either exposures or overdoses. One inmate died as the result of a drug overdose in March.

“Drug finds, overdoses and exposures have decreased significantly since the new policies were rolled out. The presence of drugs in prisons threatens the health and safety of those who live and work behind bars and undermines security in all of the DOC’s facilities.”

Still, getting the right books to the right prisoner is going to be challenging.  

“Making sure that everything stays together is definitely a concern for us,” Lincoln said. “Also how are they going to be paying for all the shipping of these books through a private carrier. Still, we’re really happy to be sending books. We just have to see how it plays out.”

Through a friend, I contacted an inmate at SCI Albion outside Erie. Malakki (born Ralph Bolden) went inside when he was 28 years old. Malakki was arrested in 1994 on armed robbery and murder charges and is serving a life sentence. [Malakki was sentenced to death, but had his sentence overturned on appeal and was subsequently resentenced to life without parole.]

He has been imprisoned for 24 years, nearly half his life. He is an avid reader and writer. Some of his favorite writers are Shakespeare, Cheikh Anta Diop and Toni Morrison. But books didn’t mean much to Malakki as a young man. He discovered the joys of reading in prison. By his own account, books have made him a much better man. He now works as a Certified Peer Specialist (CPS), which he explained via the DOC email system, “entails supporting those with mental health challenges. The goal is not to tell our peers what to do but empower them by discussing their options and stand by them when they fail.

“We’re always on call on the blocks we live on and even at the chow hall or in the yard I’m called into action. I go to the SNU (Special Needs Unit) in the evenings for a couple hours.”

Malakki wrote that for himself, and for many other prisoners, books are like good friends. “Reading is paramount to help create a vision for prisoners who want to change. Places like Book ‘Em have tremendous resources to help us become better & not let the bad decisions of our personal histories dictate our future destinies,” he wrote.

Even while incarcerated, humans are capable of remarkable growth and evolution. Reading is essential to that. For men and women already cut off from friends and family and quotidian interactions that we all take for granted, they are a lifeline of communication.

In Trop v Dulles (1958), the Supreme Court case dealing with the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (the amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment), Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man. While the state has the power to punish, the Amendment stands to assure that this power be exercised within the limits of civilized standards.” And further, “The Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Not having access to books in the 1780’s, when literacy rates were lower, doesn’t seem quite as manifestly indecent as it does in 2018.

One of the things that motivates Jason Clearfield to give his time to Book ‘Em is a desire to be part of the solution. “There needs to be a correctional apparatus,” he said. “The failure that I’m seeing in our institutions are provisions to correct. People don’t have the means to get better. If they don’t have a library, if there aren’t classes to take, if there’s not any structural things to help them make it outside of prison, then they’re going to relapse.”

Back in the basement at the Merton Center, I pitch in. There’s a bin of letters; I grab one and get to work. That’s it in a nutshell. The letters are handwritten and extremely polite. Almost all open or close with something along the lines of, “Thanks for this great program,” “The chaplain told me about this program,” and “I really appreciate the work you do.”

Some inmates say they’ll take anything to read. Others have specific textbook needs as inmates prepare to take the GED or the SAT. Some want how-to books, with an eye toward working upon release. Others are more esoteric and specific. I got a letter from an inmate who was interested in learning more about anarchism. He also was really interested in punk music. I made my way over to the section where there were books on urban life, anthropology and the like. I figured I might find some books on political philosophy, including anarchism. I did. But the first book was hardback and the instructions on the envelope noted, “PB only.” Meaning, paperback books only. I put the hardcover back in favor of a paperback book titled In Defense of Anarchy.

Patti Smith’s, Just Kids was in the memoir section. She’s a wonderful writer and it’s a good, gritty account of the early years of punk in NYC, so I grabbed that, too. I understood the real satisfaction Lincoln described in putting together a perfect book shipment for an inmate.

After the packing session, I ask Malakki why he reads and writes. He says that he does it to hang on to his humanity, to live with his remorse, to expand his capacity to love, and to not disappear into institutional oblivion. “Reading begins the journey to discover what’s beyond your reach,” he wrote. “The people who work there (Book ’Em) are like Saints to us.”

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