Why Books Matter

I teach literature inside prisons. My students are serious, observant, and purposeful readers. They light up with books. When one looked at the cover of Dwayne Betts’ memoir A Question of Freedom, he said, “I can’t wait to show the guys.” He meant the men not in our class who pay attention to everything that happens in class. In every prison I’ve taught, an outer circle of readers forms. One year, I received a long and beautiful thank you letter from one of them.

In APBP’s book clubs, the same thing happens. The books we read are shared widely. Six years ago, when we read our first novel, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, members told us there was animated talk in the cafeteria, on the yard: “What’s with the new book everyone’s reading?” The women were eager to get their hands on it.

There are great benefits to e-readers and tablets, and APBP is committed to increasing access to free reading materials inside prison, whether ebooks or paperbacks. We know the positive impacts of reading. But we are most familiar with how it feels to have a book in your hands and with the kind of community building that happens with print literature.

When we asked book club members about reading on tablets, they responded by talking about the feel and smell of physical books, the pleasure of dog-earring a page.

Thousands of requests for books arrive at prison book projects each month from people in prison. The need for books is enormous. So when we learned that the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCR) had contracted with Global Tel Link (GTL) to provide tablets to people in prison, we braced ourselves.

Reading on Tablets Comes at a Cost

GTL has a track record (Pennsylvania, Delaware, South Dakota) of exploiting imprisoned people and their families.

For those in WV prisons who want to use a tablet, there will be a 5 cents/minute reading fee. This fee extends to reading books from Project Gutenberg’s free online archive. Greg Newby, Chief Executive of Project Gutenberg, would prefer that imprisoned readers have free access to this valuable resource.

It is hard to imagine anyone not understanding how a per-minute charge could negatively affect a reading experience. This is particularly true for readers who like to pause, think, and reread passages. For many, reading is rereading.

In my classes, it is not uncommon for students to read a book two or three times before we meet. The same thing happens in book club. And book club members read a lot. One said he reads 4–6 hours a day, another a book a week, another five Westerns a week.

Our friends in prison consistently identify reading as central to managing stress and building confidence. For people with low literacy levels or dyslexia, reading with a meter running adds financial anxiety to an already challenging experience. Rates of dyslexia in prison are more than double the 20% found in the general population—potentially as high as 48%.

With the introduction of tablets, too often family members end up paying outrageous sums of money while private companies make millions. The WVDCR will receive a 5% commission on tablet revenue and has emphasized that this money will go into an Inmate Benefit Fund to assist with open house visitation, rec equipment, holiday dinners, and other typically unfunded activities.

If it is wrong to overcharge people, it doesn’t become right if you put the money in a Benefit Fund.

We have no reason to believe WVDCR has ever misused this kind of account, but in California, the Butte County Board of Supervisors tried to use $650,000 from an Inmate Welfare Fund to build a new jail. The Clay County Detention Director in Tennessee wanted to use the money to buy body scanners. San Diego Tribune tracked $6 million dollars raised in 2018 by phone calls and commissary in the county’s jails; some of it went to pay staff salaries and other routine expenses. The trend is not encouraging.

Here’s the breakdown of costs on the GTL tablets in WV state prisons:

  • Accessing content, which includes “music, games, electronic messaging, eBooks,” costs $0.05 per minute
  • Video visitation features cost $0.25 per minute
  • Instant messaging costs $0.25 per written message and is billed to the friend or family member on the outside
  • Sending a photo with a message costs an additional $.50
  • Video attachments cost an additional $1.00 each

It is easy to spend a large amount of money quickly, especially given the average wages of people in prison.

We are searching for better options. The American Prison Data System (APDS) is a B-Corp with a full library of current books that can be circulated for free. Jails in Washington DC use APDS. (Here’s a short video.) Maryland does not appear to charge at all for tablets. The tablets are purchased by the state and services are bundled. In collaboration with OverDrive, they offer a selection of books.

Options like these could supplement expanded access to print books and in-person education.

What About Prison Libraries?

As we’ve been talking about the GTL contract, some people have indicated that they are not sure what the big deal is. If people don’t want to pay fees on the tablet, they can just get books from the prison library or order them.

Depending on where you are and how much money you have, this may not be possible. People routinely tell us in letters and in person that their prison library is not well-stocked.

I have seen excellent prison libraries, and some prisons have strong interlibrary loan programs. But many prison and jail libraries are under-resourced and have limited titles, often donated by people incarcerated in that facility. Budget lines for prison libraries are notoriously low. In these cases, the collection is not curated or comprehensive in any sense.

Briane Turley, former Library Director at Stevens Correctional Center, estimated that when he began the position in 2017, he needed “to jettison 30% of the materials that were in such disrepair or inappropriate for my patrons.” APBP and others donated books, which helped “revitalize the library,” and he arranged for an MOU with McDowell County Public Library.

People can usually have books purchased and sent to them, with exceptions. If they can’t afford books and they’ve exhausted the library, they may not be able to access anything new to read.

This is where prison book projects come in. These groups emerged in the 1970s from an urgent need among imprisoned people for access to a wide variety of books. That need remains.

There are about thirty prison book projects in the country. The best estimate is that these largely all-volunteer efforts send, collectively, about 250,000 books every year.

APBP receives a hundred letters every week from incarcerated people in six states. We do our best to send people something they would like to read, and we are constantly fundraising and collecting books to improve our ability to do so.

We reach a fraction of the people who would like to read in Appalachian prisons. Many prisons across the country only accept books directly from a publisher or distributor. There are more than 40 prisons in our six-state region that are on our “no-send list.” This list consists of prisons where we have tried to send books in response to individual requests, but the books were rejected. People in prisons with no-used-books policies typically never write, because they know the books won’t be accepted. So, the actual number of no-send prisons in our region is, no doubt, higher than 40.

Still, letters never stop arriving. We are surrounded by evidence that books are vital resources. Books provide information, hope, connection, community, and purpose. But where we see ideas and possibilities, the prison mailroom sees trouble.

Physical books are suspected of being a conveyor for drugs, and several states, like Washington, have experimented with book restrictions to try to stop the flow of suboxone. Letters are now also seen as a risk to be managed.

The Mail Connection

In 2017, WV announced that imprisoned people would no longer be able to receive original mail. Incoming letters would be copied, originals destroyed, and copies given to recipients. This time-consuming and expensive practice is intended to intercept contraband. Related policies have led to legal concerns in Pennsylvania and in Indiana.

Books and letters are not a main route for drugs. They are, however, a crucial way to manage separation and isolation. When these resources are restricted, chances for growth and healing (rehabilitation) are restricted. It is possible to address addiction and drug use while protecting people’s right to read and their need to remain in touch with loved ones. Greater deprivation is not going to ease the drug crisis.

Of the quarter of a million books going out annually from prison book projects, there has not been a single incident of drug smuggling.

Receiving a copied letter is not the same as holding the original. Something is lost when a photograph or child’s colorful drawing is copied. People report letters arriving with missing pages and pages that have been poorly copied or long delayed. In the scanning process, faces of people of color can lose definition and detail. It begins to feel like no communication at all.

In contrast to this uncertain transmission, tablets promise clear messaging and videoconferencing at a serious cost.

In the past year, I have helped two friends in Illinois purchase tablets. One of them now has messaging, and it is an unbelievable joy to communicate with him, even though the system (GTL) malfunctions constantly. The benefit of being in better touch does not change the financial exploitation. And, in certain places, the move to videoconferencing has edged out in-person visits.

Moving Forward

People who work in prisons and people locked in prisons deserve health and safety. High quality programming is critical to this goal. When Departments of Corrections are serious about rehabilitation, they are serious about education, and that involves a commitment to increased access to information and books.

The Right to Learn Campaign in Illinois is building a movement to ensure this fundamental human right. To improve conditions inside prisons, the WV Criminal Justice Listening Project recently recommended guaranteed access to books for all incarcerated people.

People in prison deserve not to be nickel and dimed, private companies should not monetize public domain books, and there should be fair and standard contracts. There’s no reason for extreme prices when there are alternatives.

The GTL contract with WVDCR expires in November 2020. Perhaps this could be a turning point toward greater access to books and educational resources—and toward decarceration. We hope so.

Support the Appalachian Prison Book Project

At APBP, we rely on donations and volunteers to provide books and educational opportunities to people on the inside. Get involved today to help us continue challenging mass incarceration.

By Katy Ryan, with APBP

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