According to a 2019 report by Pen America, “the book-restriction regulations within the United States carceral system represent the largest book ban policy in the United States.”
While the benefits of reading during incarceration have been widely studied and documented, many states have implemented policies and restrictions that make it extremely difficult for those on the inside to gain access to books.
Paulie Tardie of the Inside Books Project, and author of Inside: Dissecting A County Jail, tells NBC News, “I believe a lot of those rules are arbitrary and unnecessary. Preventing access to information in any form is extremely harmful. It’s also about personal opinions and views. … It allows the corrections officers and wardens to control the population in ways that benefit them more than focusing on the growth of people that are locked up.”
Prison libraries were never well stocked to begin with, and now book censorship has left shelves even more bare.
As reported by the Illinois Newsroom, the Danville Correctional Center removed hundred of titles that were described as “racially motivated” in 2019. Just a year before then, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections halted book donation programs citing security concerns, but due to public protest, reversed the decision shortly after.
“Everyone who got involved called Gov. [Tom] Wolf, wrote letters, shared the story on social media — it was really public pressure, we believe, that led to the DOC updating their policy,” Jodi Lincoln, a volunteer for the Pittsburgh book-donation program Book ‘Em, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Also in 2018, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision attempted to implement a policy that would only allow book donations from pre selected vendors, however protests also shut the program down before it launched.
Rapper Noname runs a popular book club headquartered in Los Angeles for incarcerated individuals of color. It’s mission is to send radical books such as Becoming Abolitionists and ‘Live From Death Row’ to its members. The club also focuses on promoting Black owned bookstores, and group readings with the help of its local chapters.
Other grassroots groups like Abolition Apostles out of New Orleans have begun incorporating pen pal programs into their initiatives.
“Having access to books, education and self-improvement is a piece of basic human dignity,” David Brazil of Abolition Apostles told NBC News. “In many prisons, people don’t have adequate libraries, or any libraries, so we’re meeting needs that are absent. As a pastor, this work is a way of loving my neighbor as myself.”
While it was obviously difficult to get books inside of prisons before 2020, the pandemic has made it all the more arduous. Organizations have had to manage with fewer volunteers, and less funding, with members going into their own pockets to provide books.
“With books, it’s not just a tool for useful information,” Paul Tardie concluded. “It really helps get people outside of those walls. That has a major impact on the well-being of people.”