Books, E-Readers, and the Cost of Reading in Prison

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From Publishers Weekly:

During the Cost of Reading in Prisons: Book Censorship and E-Reader Tablets In Carceral Institutions, a panel of advocates for prison inmates outlined the struggle to provide incarcerated people with access to reading materials—as well as the benefits and mounting challenges facing the introduction of digital reading devices into prisons.

The online panel, a wide-ranging, often moving discussion sponsored by PEN America and held earlier this month, outlined the sad and familiar punitive scenario faced by incarcerated people around the country: growing restrictions on the ability of prison inmates to receive physical books; the banning of physical mail, postcards, children’s drawings, and, due to Covid-19, even visits from friends and family. Indeed, panelists pointed out how efforts to prevent the spread of Covid in prisons has exacerbated the situation, further isolating inmates from the outside world that they will eventually rejoin.

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Anthony Johnson, PEN America research and advocacy manager for initiatives on prison book bans, moderated the panel, offering a quote from scholar/activist Angela Davis to open the online session. “What kind of Democracy do we want or do we inhabit?” Johnson asked, quoting Davis. Johnson pointed to censorious restrictions enacted by state corrections departments and state legislatures: “How do you make the case for access when state legislatures don’t require it?” He emphasized that “democracy is defined by what is denied to people in prison” in relation to those outside.

In response, Cynthia Simons, formerly incarcerated and now a women’s fellow at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, said that “just because a person is in prison, they are no less human than us; incarceration is supposed to rehabilitate and give them the tools to survive when they get out.” Simons said that 81% of the women in prison “are mothers who have endured significant trauma. They need books on trauma, history, and works on peace and healing, and we’re limiting the tools that can help them.”

But the reality of incarceration and rehabilitation is quite different according to Jodi Lincoln, an organizer with the Pittsburgh Prison Book Project. Lincoln outlined how PPBP and other Pennsylvania-based prison book advocates fought against a 2018 statewide ban preventing organizations from sending physical books to inmates, a measure based on what she called dubious safety concerns. (Even before that ban, prisons would not accept books sent from family or friends.) The new restrictions, Lincoln said, were aimed at preventing contraband from entering prisons, and that were accompanied by claims that drug-saturated paper books were sickening prison personnel—claims Lincoln described as “hysteria.”

“We pushed back through the community and through the media and got the policy reversed,” she said. Nevertheless, books and mail must still be sent to a third-party location to be scanned. Lincoln cited a possible solution to providing access: the use of e-readers and tablets. “E-readers can be fantastic way to expand access to all kinds of education opportunities,” she said. Unfortunately, she was quick to note, in many cases for-profit technology companies, in partnership with prison officials, are undermining this utility.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly