News

The people vs the Pennsylvania prison system

By JO TAVERNER

In early September the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) announced a number of initiatives to eliminate drug smuggling into state prisons. The DOC prohibited inmate access to mail-order books and publications as well as free volunteer book donation programs, among them the long-standing TMC project known as Book ’Em. In their place, tablets for the exorbitant price of $149 would be made available — an option beyond the means of most inmates, who make as little as $.19 an hour.

Ensconced in the basement of TMC, a number of volunteers organized by Jodi Lincoln have come together twice a month to fulfill inmates’ book requests. Individual prisoners can request around three pounds of books every 3 months. Annually, around 2700 packages of books are sent. Unfortunately, Book ’Em has neither the funds nor a donated book collection great enough to fulfill multiple monthly individual requests. Still, as more books enter the prison, an adhoc circulation system enables each requested book to be read by numerous inmates, showing their preference for donated books over the small prison libraries that have neither the range nor type of books requested by inmates. A late return of a library book can also lead to punishment. Prisoners in restrictive housing have no access to such libraries.

Soon after the policies were announced, Jodi Lincoln wrote to inmates, expressing her dismay. Calling the policies “extremely dehumanizing and a violation of prisoner rights,” Jodi wanted inmates to know that Book ’Em, along with other donation programs, were fighting to get the policies rescinded. She asked them to write back with thoughts about the new policies. “Let us know your story…, why free books are important to you, what your library is like; and what you think about Ebooks…” She ended her letter sending Book ’Em’s “support,” with the encouragement that prisoners “stay strong,” as she promised to stay in touch.

One prisoner wrote, “I have been receiving books for 4 years…and I’ve greatly appreciated it…Now in solitary we are only allowed one book a week from the prison library, which has a small selection of books mainly donated by other inmates. We have no access to the institutional library at all….Now I’m screwed. No family to look out for me and because of solitary I can’t work so I can’t afford ebooks or the tablet… Free book donations like Book ’Em kept me sane…I foresee my mental health slipping in the future…I look forward to hearing from you…I haven’t had correspondence with anyone for years…”And another said that he “was blessed to get donated books… I can’t afford to buy any and I don’t have anyone sending me money to do so… Below is my information…I would truly love to keep correspondence with you if you are willing….please write back.”

Clearly many prisoners need the donated books; they also need the human connection created by their interaction with organizations that supported and cared for them. It is still not entirely clear why such policies were put in place. DOC advanced the notion that drug smuggling was sickening their prison guards. In a three month period, however, few who were tested showed the presence of synthetic cannabinoids. Some critics of the new security measures, along with medical toxicologist experts, thought it unlikely that guards fell ill from incidental exposure. They advanced the notion that the symptoms experienced by guards more often than not arose from a “mass psychogenic illness — a contagious anxiety response.”

Jodi Lincoln believes that the calls to Gov. Wolf, the letters and the stories shared on social media were central to the DOC’s recent rescinding of the free book ban on November 1st. All donated books will now be processed at a centralized secure processing location. Concerns abound. How will the DOC insure that inmates receive their packages of books with all the supplemental material? What about the non-bound materials sent, like magazines and resource guides?

The ACLU also got involved. It has sued the DOC for its new legal mail policy — to open and digitally copy all inmate mail, including that coming from their lawyers, thereby violating the attorney-client privilege. Smart Communications, which recently received a $4 million contract to scan and digitally forward inmate mail, notes on its website that “converting inmate postal mail to electronic media allows for a searchable database of all inmate mail and opens a whole new field of intelligence” for law enforcement agencies. Some wonder if the drug scare was little more than a cover to introduce more stringent, and perhaps unconstitutional, surveillance measures, removing the last of inmate privacy rights.

Aside from the $15 million worth of security measures enacted, funds will need to be found for distributing the packages once they are checked at the Florida-based center. As state budget line items, they are more easily cut when the legislature needs to balance its budget. What choice might you make if it came down to funding either prisoner mail or anti-global warming protections?

Editor’s Note: If you would like to help by donating books or subscriptions, you can find the Book ‘Em Amazon Wish List at bookempa/books-we-need. You can also find categories of suggested books and other information.

 Jo Tavener is a member of the NewPeople collective with concentration on the relationship between culture and political economy.

(TMC newspaper VOL.48 No.10 December 2018. All rights reserved)

Categories: News

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