Future Tense

Return to Sender: No More Mailing Books to Inmates in Pennsylvania

Corrections officials announced a shift to e-books as a way to fight contraband.

An inmate sits on a cot, smiling as he uses a GTL tablet with earbuds.
An Alameda County Jail inmate uses a GTL tablet. GTL/YouTube

On Sept. 5, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced a host of new restrictions on the way its inmates can interact with the outside world as part of what Corrections Secretary John Wetzel called an “all-hands-on-deck approach” to prison safety. Part of that “all-hands-on-deck approach”: banning direct book donations to inmates.

Previously, approved organizations on the outside could mail books or other publications directly to inmates, subject to inspection and approval by corrections officials. (For example, officials could deny publications they determined to be obscene, “racially inflammatory,” or potentially dangerous.) Now, no such direct donations are permitted. Instead, the Department of Corrections says it’s beginning a “transition to ebooks coupled with [a] bolstered DOC library system” in order to fight the flow of illegal drugs into facilities statewide.

In addition to banning the direct shipment of books and publications to inmates, the DOC announced it will no longer process inmate mail at correctional facilities; instead, mail will go to a processing center, where it will be opened, scanned, and then emailed back to individual facilities to print and distribute. The DOC will also expand its use of drone-detection technology and body scanners.*

The policy changes come on the heels of a statewide lockdown of correctional facilities that lasted from Aug. 29 to Sept. 10. The lockdown was in response to what a press release called “a series of cases of staff exposure to synthetic drugs.” Specifically, according to the press release, “more than 50 staff members and 33 inmates reported being sickened and were taken to outside hospitals” between May 31 and Sept. 1. According to the DOC, lab results showed staff and inmates had been exposed to synthetic cannabinoids—also known as K2 or spice.

But reporting from the Philadelphia Inquirer cites toxicology experts who posit that staff illnesses were largely the result of “a sort of contagious hysteria” caused not by dangerous exposure itself, but rather the fear of it. Even so, the article notes, there’s little question that synthetic drugs “have become ubiquitous in the state’s prison system.”

Under the new policies aimed at fighting this ubiquity, the DOC says, inmates can use tablets to access more than 8,500 e-books. Of course, this access depends on two factors: an inmate’s ability to purchase such a tablet, which costs $147, and an inmate’s ability to then buy e-books, which cost anywhere from $2.99 to $24.99. The tablets in Pennsylvania are sold by GTL, a corrections tech company which has faced criticism from advocacy groups over its pricing schemes, profit motive, monopoly power, and privacy policies. Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative, said that in many cases, contracts with private technology companies like GTL are an example of “prisons shifting the costs of incarceration to incarcerated people and their families.”

If an inmate can’t afford a tablet, they can access books through the prison library. On Twitter, the DOC said that inmates “still have access to hundreds of FREE books” through libraries and can request that titles be added to the collection. But Keir Neuringer, a volunteer with Books Through Bars, one of the book-donation organizations affected by the policy change, told me, “Tens of thousands of individuals incarcerated in the state prisons are not going to be satisfied by a couple hundred books in the prison library.” [Update, Sept. 20, 2018: The DOC has deleted that tweet. “[O]ur libraries have THOUSANDS of books (10-20k in each library) not hundreds. That was a typo on Twitter by one of our staff members,” a public information officer says.]

Books Through Bars, which is based in Philadelphia but sends books to prisons across the mid-Atlantic, gets thousands of letters from incarcerated people each year. Volunteers read through the letters and then try to match requests with books in their repository. In those letters, Neuringer said, there are common themes: that existing library collections are inadequate or inaccessible and that incarcerated people want books to support their mental health, self-transformation, and eventual reintegration. “Books are not contraband. Knowledge is not contraband,” he told me.

The DOC says it’s evaluating ways for book donation groups to start donating to libraries rather than individual inmates. But Jodi Lincoln, a member of Book ’Em, a Pittsburgh-based book donation group, said that would defeat their ability to provide inmates with individualized material, like legal or business workbooks, and resources they want to have on them at all times, like dictionaries.

Under new policies, family members will also no longer be allowed to order books through outside publishers to ship directly to their loved ones. Instead, inmates will have to use kiosks within the prisons to request books. Once an inmate submits payment for the book, the DOC is in charge of ordering and delivering. In a Change.org petition, the Amistad Law Project raised concerns over this centralized system for book ordering. “The Pennsylvania DOC’s move to E-books and a central marketplace that they control is censorship and a monopoly and we fully reject it,” the petition reads.

DOC officials told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the new policies—e-books, library expansion, and inmate ordering through the DOC—would actually “expand access to books.” But even if that’s true, advocates argue that book donation programs have value that extends beyond the books themselves: They allow incarcerated individuals to connect with people on the outside who care about their well-being. They are a “source of hope and humanity for incarcerated individuals,” Bertram told me. That’s something that can’t be outsourced.

Update, Nov. 5, 2018: On Nov. 1, in response to public pressure, the DOC updated its policies on book donations to allow book donation organizations to resume sending books to individual inmates. The books will now be screened through the DOC’s “Secure Processing Center” before being delivered to inmates. The processing center will also screen books from approved outside publishers or distributors, which family and friends will once again be able to use to order books for their loved ones.

Correction, Sept. 20, 2018: This article originally misstated that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections will expand its use of drones as part of new security practices. It will expand its use of drone-detection technology.