States across the country have issued bans on charity organizations, family members, and other outside groups donating books to prisoners, Alex Skopic reported in a November 2021 article for the online magazine Protean. Bans on book donations not only limit prisoners’ already restricted reading opportunities, but also produce sales and profits for large retail chains, such as Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million, which “directly benefit when states introduce restrictions,” Skopic wrote. “With free books banned, prisoners are forced to rely on the small list of ‘approved vendors’ chosen for them by the prison administration.” Skopic’s report explained the “alarming trend” of “agencies responsible for mass imprisonment” aiming to “severely limit” incarcerated people’s access to books. Even in states with no outright ban on book donations, Skopic reported, there are still “content-specific” bans on specific books and subjects.
States including Iowa and Michigan issued bans on book donations, in 2021 and 2018, respectively. Similar efforts to block book donations to prisoners in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington only failed after “public outcry,” Skopic reported. Advocates of book donation bans cite smuggling of contraband as the justification for restrictions, even though a 2018 study found that most contraband items in prison came from prison guards and staff.
Approved vendors of books charge prisoners the full manufacturer’s suggested retail price for titles. As Skopic reported, an incarcerated person with $20 could afford three or four used books, but only one new title under these restrictions. And, for prisoners in states that pay as little as 25 cents per hour for their labor, “many can’t even afford that,” Skopic wrote. E-books are no solution. Although some companies, such as Global Tel Link, supply “free” tablets, they charge readers by the minute to read. “All of this amounts to rampant price-gouging and profiteering on an industrial scale,” Skopic reported.
Two major media outlets have covered topics similar to Skopic’s Protean article. In January 2022, the Washington Post published an opinion piece, “Prison Systems Insist on Banning Books by Black Authors. It’s Time to End the Censorship,” by two board members of the nonprofit Books to Prisoners. The article explained the mission of Books to Prisoners and how titles by Black authors, including Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, have historically been subject to prison censorship. However, this editorial did not address how the cost of books amounts to a de facto form of censorship for many prisoners. Back in February 2020, NPR published an article on the topic, titled “Who Should Decide What Books Are Allowed In Prison?” NPR’s coverage drew on a 2019 PEN America report about how book restriction policies in prisons amount to “the nation’s largest book ban.”
Source: Alex Skopic, “The American Prison System’s War on Reading,” Protean, November 29, 2021.
Student Researcher: Gabriella Valdez (Diablo Valley College)
Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)