From relatively minor infractions, to blatantly unjustified crimes, prison serves as punishment for breaking the law. Although the severity of each violation varies, most sentences are doled out with the underlying goal of rehabilitation and release in mind. However, many states have enacted measures that effectively curtail the possibility of redemption by depriving inmates of the one tool that’s often instrumental for success: books.
Late last year, New York State introduced Directive 4911A, which features the Secure Vendor Program. To “enhance the safety and security of correctional facilities through a more controlled inmate package program,” the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) issued strict rules limiting incoming packages for inmates to only those from “approved vendors.” However, in January, the directive drew ire as the public discovered that this measure would prevent inmates from receiving new or used books from friends, family, and non-profit organizations.
Books Through Bars, the non-profit that’s been sending books to people in prison across 40 states at no charge for more than 20 years, expressed its disdain for the directive. Incarcerated people and their families can write to Books Through Bars to request any book on any topic, and the all-volunteer organization sends 600 packages every month fulfilling those requests. However, this measure would prevent the group from providing inmates with the materials necessary to facilitate personal growth and eventual preparation for release.
“No books that help people learn to overcome addictions or learn how to improve as parents. No Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, or other literature that helps people connect with what it means to be human. No texts that help provide skills essential to finding and maintaining work after release from prison,” Books Through Bars said in an official statement regarding the directive.
Books Through Bars member Amy Peterson told ThinkProgress that a man once wrote the group to praise the books it provided, as they helped him learn English—a skill that greatly increased his job prospects upon release. Other people in prison have asked Books Through Bars for books about business. Peterson also noted that many people in prison, as well as their families, face financial challenges, but this measure forces inmates and families to purchase books at full retail value, while Books Through Bars can and will provide them for free.
“It’s already difficult to get books as it is. It’s almost like they’re barring books without actually having to bar them,” Michael Shane Hale, an inmate at Sing Sing serving fifty years to life for a murder conviction, told the New Yorker in January. Hale, who’s enrolled in a prison education program, said he was expected to buy a textbook for 60 dollars to remain instep with his Chinese class. However, at a wage of about 25 cents an hour, and no access to the internet, it’s nearly impossible for most inmates to afford the education and enrichment they need to succeed. “When you go to the general library, you’re basically competing for books with a thousand other people,” Hale added.
Yet, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo ultimately called for the dissolution of the directive in response to this widespread outcry, many states across the nation still have similar obstacles in place. In 2016, Texas’ Department of Criminal Justice came under fire after the public discovered that officials banned 15,000 books, including works by Bob Dole, Jenna Bush Hager, Alice Walker, and John Grisham. Yet, books by David Duke and Adolf Hitler are still permitted, calling into question the words of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
As part of the Procunier v. Martinez verdict, Marshall noted that libraries and librarians serving prisoners at correctional facilities are required to prohibit material that instructs, incites, or advocates criminal action or bodily harm, or violates the law. Only literature that presents a compelling and imminent risk to safety and security should be restricted. Thus, while materials tied to negative influences, such as Duke and Hitler, would qualify under such guidelines, truly educational texts should never be prohibited.
“Participation in a democratic society requires unfettered access to current social, political, economic, cultural, scientific, and religious information. Information and ideas available outside the prison are essential to prisoners for a successful transition to freedom. Learning to be free requires access to a wide range of knowledge, and suppression of ideas does not prepare the incarcerated of any age for life in a free society,” Marshall declared.
“When free people, through judicial procedure, segregate some of their own, they incur the responsibility to provide humane treatment and essential rights. Among these is the right to read,” he added. “The right to choose what to read is deeply important, and the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. The denial of the right to read, to write, and to think—to intellectual freedom—diminishes the human spirit of those segregated from society. Those who cherish their full freedom and rights should work to guarantee that the right to intellectual freedom is extended to all incarcerated individuals.”
And that’s exactly what prisoners deserve—they deserve to be treated like humans if they’re to return to civilian life and become productive members of society. Oftentimes, offenders end up incarcerated because they feel lost. They become mixed up with the wrong crowd because they lack the social skills or education necessary to escape their less than stellar life circumstances. Prison, however, offers these individuals a second chance at life, as these institutions can serve as rehab centers, not mere cages for the convicted.
In an article by Ian Cummins and Daniel Newman published on The Conversation in 2014, the duo focused on the need to prepare prisoners for life as normal citizens. Norway’s Bastoy Island, for instance, allows even the most serious offenders to live in wooden bungalows, six men to a cottage, each with their own room, so they may get used to living as they will live when they are released. As a result, Bastoy’s reoffending rate remains astronomically low, at only 16 percent, while the average for other European prisons holds steady at 70 percent.
Cummins and Newman also highlighted Brazil’s approach to reading, as they country offers inmates four-day sentence discounts for every book read. With escalating violence in mind, Brazil believes access to books can leave prisoners “more enlightened and with an enlarged vision of the world”. Thus, inmates can gain reductions of up to 48 days off their term per year by reading the books and writing reflective essays to show that they have engaged with their themes.
By treating inmates like the humans they are, correctional facilities can truly live up to their name by aiding inmates who are determined to right the wrongs they have committed. If prisoners recognize that the justice system believes in them—that the justice system genuinely wants them to succeed—inmates might be more likely to believe in themselves and do all they can to turn their lives around. Those within the prison system may feel disillusioned because they think society has cast them aside, and while not all who enter are capable of remorse and rehabilitation, depriving inmates of books will only act as another roadblock on their path to progress. With educational tools, inmates are far less likely to reoffend, thereby halting the vicious cycle of crime. In fact, the only thing criminal here would be robbing these people of a new lease on life.
(This post originally appeared on Storia.)