Prisons Around the U.S. Are Banning and Restricting Access to Books

“We live,” wrote philoso­pher Alain Badiou, “in a con­tra­dic­tion.” Dehu­man­iza­tion must be nor­mal­ized in order to keep the econ­o­my going. “A bru­tal state of affairs… where all exis­tence is eval­u­at­ed in terms of mon­ey alone—is pre­sent­ed to us as ide­al.” Yet the mar­ket that promis­es free­dom just as often strips it away, in pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships that bring cen­sor­ship and rent-seek­ing into hap­py sym­bio­sis.

In recent years, free mar­ket oppor­tunism has tak­en hold in the most unfree places in the U.S., the country’s pris­ons, which hold more peo­ple pro­por­tion­al­ly than in any oth­er nation in the world: a huge, pre­vi­ous­ly untapped mar­ket for sales of hygiene prod­ucts and vis­its with fam­i­ly. “Like the mil­i­tary,” writes Adam Bluestein at Inc., “the cor­rec­tions sys­tem is a big, well-cap­i­tal­ized cus­tomer.”

One recent com­mer­cial encroach­ment on pris­on­ers’ free­doms arrived this year when the West Vir­ginia Divi­sion of Cor­rec­tions issued inmates tablets, under a con­tract with a com­pa­ny called Glob­al Tel Link, who charge them by the minute to read books online. One might make the argu­ment that forc­ing inmates to pay for basic needs sat­is­fies some ide­al of pun­ish­ment. But to restrict access to books seems to dis­pense with the pre­tense that prison might also be a place of reha­bil­i­ta­tion.

“Any inmates look­ing to read Moby Dick,” reports Rea­son, “may find that it will cost them far more than it would have if they’d sim­ply got­ten a mass mar­ket paper­back.” Katy Ryan of the Appalachi­an Prison Book Project, which donates free books and mate­ri­als to pris­ons, points out how lim­it­ing the scheme is: “If you pause to think or reflect, that will cost you. If you want to reread a book, you will pay the entire cost again.”

West Vir­ginia is not ban­ning print books, pur­chased or donat­ed. It is, how­ev­er, charg­ing inmates for already free mate­r­i­al. The books they pay per minute to read online are all on Project Guten­berg, the open plat­form for thou­sands of free eBooks. That the pro­gram amounts to a kind of eco­nom­ic-based cen­sor­ship may hard­ly be coin­ci­dence. Oth­er states around the coun­try have begun lim­it­ing, or out­right ban­ning, books in pris­ons.

The Wash­ing­ton State Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions has pro­hib­it­ed all books donat­ed by non­prof­its, pre­sum­ably because they might be used to smug­gle con­tra­band. Prison offi­cials at the Danville Cor­rec­tion­al Cen­ter in Illi­nois made clear what they con­sid­ered con­tra­band—books about black his­to­ry, 200 of which were removed from the prison library—including W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk and Har­ri­et Beech­er Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cab­in—after they were deemed “too racial.”

These are only a few exam­ples of a wide­spread phe­nom­e­non PEN Amer­i­ca details in a new report, “Lit­er­a­ture Locked Up: How Prison Book Restric­tion Poli­cies Con­sti­tute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban.” Para­dox­i­cal­ly, some restric­tions can seem at odds with mar­ket demands—such as lim­its on inmates’ abil­i­ty to order books from online retail­ers. But like many con­tra­dic­tions in the sys­tem, per­haps these also serve a larg­er goal—preventing pris­on­ers from edu­cat­ing them­selves may ensure a steady stream of repeat cus­tomers in the huge­ly prof­itable carcer­al indus­try.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Inmates in New York Prison Defeat Harvard’s Debate Team: A Look Inside the Bard Prison Ini­tia­tive

On the Pow­er of Teach­ing Phi­los­o­phy in Pris­ons

Artist is Cre­at­ing a Parthenon Made of 100,000 Banned Books: A Mon­u­ment to Democ­ra­cy & Intel­lec­tu­al Free­dom

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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