The lockdown at Pennsylvania’s state prisons is over, but a number of sweeping policy changes are left in its wake.
The Pa. Department of Corrections says it instituted new book, mail, and visitation policies in order to combat a “growing drug crisis” and protect employees — as well as incarcerated persons — from synthetic substances that are entering prisons via “paper products.”
The fallout for people confined to state facilities is far-reaching, advocates say, from possible privacy issues to alienation from their legal representatives.
People in these prisons have also lost access to something much more basic: donated literature.
Each year, the Philadelphia-based Books Through Bars receives thousands of letters and sends about 7,000 packages containing one to five books each, member Keir Neuringer said. Book ‘Em, which is run by the Big Idea Bookstore and Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh, sends more than 2,000 packages a year.
Neuringer called the new book policy “wrongheaded,” “regressive,” and “cruel.”
In the past, incarcerated persons could individually request free books through Books Through Bars or similar DOC-approved programs. Going forward, it’s “unlikely [these programs] will be donating to individual inmates,” said Diana Woodside, the DOC’s director of Policy, Grants, and Legislative Affairs.
There are discussions about whether the DOC will accept donated books for libraries, Woodside said, but no policy or procedure has been finalized.
Under the new policy, incarcerated persons can purchase physical books through the DOC or e-books through approved tablets that cost $147 plus tax. (For context, most people confined to Pennsylvania’s state prisons make between 19 and 42 cents an hour.)
The DOC is “looking at avenues to provide lowest cost and potentially free e-books,” Woodside said. She added that incarcerated persons — and eventually family and friends — can request to purchase a book through the DOC, which will then look for the lowest cost option. The DOC will not limit its purchasing search to certain vendors, put additional restrictions on approved content, or cap the number of books incarcerated persons can purchase.
There are libraries at each state prison, Woodside noted, and the DOC plans to expand the selections based on incarcerated people’s requests. The number of periodicals and magazines will also be increased, she said.
At the moment, Neuringer said Books Through Bars is often told by incarcerated people “that libraries are inaccessible, out of date [and] poorly stocked.” Jodi Lincoln, a Book ‘Em committee member, said the No. 1 complaint they hear from inmates is about limited content.
“We’re able to send a much broader variety of topics than a library has,” Lincoln said. “We have more books than a library has in general.”
Woodside said increased funding for prison libraries is part of an ongoing conversation.
“Our intent is to improve libraries,” she said. That may mean a “purge [of] books that are no longer of interest to anyone at a certain facility,” the acquisition of new books, or library expansion.
She emphasized that librarians are “listening to the inmates at that specific facility” about what they want to read.
“I believe our librarians do an excellent job.”
Are books really the problem?
A DOC spokesperson said last week books and mail “are really the leading way drugs get into the system,” adding that “eliminating incoming paper products, whether mail or books, is essential to shutting down the drug flow.” A log of staff illnesses shows one positive field test for synthetic cannabinoids linked to paper.
But advocates for inmates, along with drug experts, are not convinced.
Kris Henderson, legal director of the Amistad Law Center in Philadelphia, said the issue of synthetic drugs in prisons is not new. But now that staff have reported illnesses — which multiple sources believe is likely anxiety, not actual exposure — the DOC has decided to spend $15 million to implement new policies that don’t directly address the issue.
Meanwhile, “incarcerated people are suffering more and more and their families are suffering more and more,” said Henderson, who uses the pronouns they, their and them.
Henderson said they were surprised by the new policies, thinking that the DOC would instead increase training and protective gear in prison mailrooms. They called a new policy where prison staff copy and destroy legal mail “ridiculous.”
Both Lincoln and Neuringer cast doubt on whether free books from their programs are the source of drugs.
Woodside, the DOC policy director, said there’s been an “incredible increase” in drug-related contraband recently, and part of the problem is “the inability to detect it and find it.”
“If [paper has] been compromised by a synthetic liquid, it’s very difficult for us to detect it,” she said.
Woodside said the DOC has intercepted mail from incarcerated persons to the outside world explaining “in vivid detail” how to go into a public bookstore, spray a certain page with drugs, then have it shipped to look like it came from an approved vendor. (That’s what Hakim Hopkins of Black and Nobel claimed led to his store being kicked off the DOC’s approved vendors list.)
“For every one case we’ve intercepted, I’d got out on a limb and say there’s 10 that weren’t intercepted,” she said. “We truly believe we have found a solution that will improve the safety of inmates and staff.”
A push to change the changes
Books Through Bars and Book ‘Em are supporting a petition spearheaded by the Amistad Law Project that calls for an end to the new policies as they “further punish, restrict and control people incarcerated in PA prisons.” More than 1,600 people had signed the petition as of Wednesday morning.
Henderson said Amistad plans to send the petition to the DOC and Gov. Tom Wolf in the coming weeks. The organization is also leading a Friday call-in that targets elected officials and the DOC.
Neuringer said Books Through Bars doesn’t always agree with the DOC on policies like which books are banned from facilities, but he added that volunteers are always told to be respectful.
“We’re not here to push the envelope on things like that and then risk everybody’s opportunities to get books,” he said. “We think that’s a conversation that can be had between book programs, educators and the DOC.”
But to effectively eliminate books-to-prisons programs doesn’t solve a problem, Neuringer said — it just furthers emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation.
“We think banning free books for society’s most vulnerable people is not the way to deal with this issue.”