Karen Fratti
January 16, 2018 2:15 pm

We already know that private prisons are expensive and end up being less safe than ones run by the state, but a new pilot program in New York State is really pushing the limit when it comes to inmates’ wellbeing. The program, announced last week, is already underway in three prisons and will be rolled out statewide this year. The problem? The private program bans inmates from getting books and fresh food in packages that are sent to them from the outside. All around, it’s really a terrible idea, just like pretty much anything a private company brings to the prison system.

According to Think Progress, the move is an attempt to make security guards’ lives easier when it comes to screening packages. It’s not an outright ban on things like fresh apples and novels. The program simply forces inmates’ friends and families to order from a certain set of companies. So far, six companies have been approved to sell books to inmates from a list that includes one dictionary, one thesaurus, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, 14 religious books, 24 coloring books, and five romance novels. When it comes to other treats, they can expect price-inflated TV dinners, potato chips, and other garbage. It also means they can’t receive donated books through organizations dedicated to improving inmates’ lives.

Jack Beck, director of the Prison Visiting Project at the nonprofit Correctional Association of New York, told the New York Times, “The department’s response has been in every way to use security as a tool — and I see it as a weapon — to retaliate against the population of inmates and their families.”

Prisoners will still be able to use the prison library, but there are problems with that, too. Amy Peterson with NYC Books Through Bars told WNYC, “The problem with prison libraries is that [the prisons] control who has access to them. So people who are in solitary confinement don’t have access to prison libraries.” She added, “We get letters from people saying they had to borrow a stamp in order to write to us. So if these people can’t even afford postage, we don’t know how they’re going to be able to afford buying books from a vendor.”

In addition to controlling who gets access to books, prison libraries also censor content.

Books with nudity or maps are banned, so that prisoners can’t plan an escape or, apparently, be potentially aroused by bodies. That means that they also can’t learn about geography in places they’re interested in or study classical painting in an art history book. In New Jersey this week, the American Civil Liberties Union won a battle with the state’s department of corrections after they banned a book about mass incarceration called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, which makes a comparison to society’s constraints on prisoners and felons and the Jim Crow era.

ACLU lawyer Tess Bordern wrote a letter to the department of corrections, noting the fact that New Jersey prisons also have the largest racial disparity in the whole country. “For the state burdened with this systemic injustice to prohibit prisoners from reading a book about race and mass incarceration is grossly ironic, misguided, and harmful,” she wrote.

But prisons ban books all the time for the most arbitrary reasons.

In December, Texas banned 10,000 books from its prison libraries and from being sent in the mail, including the Color Purple, Harry Potter, and Freakonomics. However, Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler and two books from KKK spokesperson David Duke are still on the shelves. The ban includes any book or magazine with “criminal schemes” or explicit images of sex or drugs (because these could be detrimental to an offender’s rehabilitation by “encouraging “deviant criminal sexual behavior,” according to Slate). Another banned category includes any book that is about a breakdown of prisons through strikes or gangs, but that also means civil rights books that include the n-word are also banned. In 2011, South Carolina prisons tried to ban every single book and magazine except the Bible. Luckily, the ACLU got some books back on the shelf.

Books have a long history of being in prisons, with many former inmates noting that sometimes, reading was got them through their sentence, in addition to helping them learn, just like books do for everyone. There are some exceptional stories, like a man who was sentenced to prison at 16 years old, and because he was able to read in prison, was able to prep himself for college, which he attended when he got out, according to the New York Times. He eventually went to Yale Law School.

But we shouldn’t insist that all prisoners show us that they can change the world after reading poetry in solitary confinement or that they read a novel instead of engaging in drama during free time. There are studies that show that inmates who participate in education programs have 43 percent lower odds of going back to prison and better chances at getting jobs when they leave.

Given the racial disparity in American prisons, it’s hard not to think of banning books in prison as an updated version of not allowing slaves to learn how to read and write. Giving them coloring books seems particularly cruel, especially since they’re going to be way more expensive than the box of intellectually challenging books gifted by donors or loved ones. According to one of the vendors, most of the paperbacks cost around $12-16, while an inmate earns anywhere from $.23 to $1.15 an hour for labor in jail, according to Prison Policy.

New York’s pilot program and all prison initiatives that forbid inmates to learn or get healthy snacks — and profit from it — is something we should all be concerned about. There has to be a better use of private money in federal and state prisons that could better the lives of inmates and rehabilitate them instead of further chipping away at their rights. Rehabilitation is supposed to be the whole point, right?

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