January 11, 2018

New York prisons are severely limiting prisoners’ access to books


Earlier this week, we wrote about a policy that banned inmates in at least two New Jersey prisons from reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Following a letter from representatives of the ACLU, Jonah Engel Bromwich and Benjamin Mueller reported for the New York Times that the ban has been lifted.

Unfortunately, prisoners in New York still face unreasonable limitations on the books they’re permitted to receive in packages from friends and family.

In a piece for ThinkProgress, Addy Baird writes that Directive 4911A, which was issued in December, “limits packages that incarcerated people in New York state prisons can receive to items purchased from six vendors.” The first five of these vendors combined, Baird notes, offer “just five romance novels, 14 religious texts, 24 drawing or coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, one dictionary, and one thesaurus.”

Both Book Through Bars (a volunteer-run collective that provides books to people in prisons across the country) and PEN America have already spoken out against the directive.

In a letter addressed to Governor Cuomo and Acting Comissioner Anthony Annucci, Books Through Bars says the measure is “punitive,” “draconian,” and “closes off so much of the world to thousands of people.”

From PEN, Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs, called on the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to “promote responsible prison policies that uphold inmates’ access to information and safeguard the right to read.”

To help make sure this “pilot program” isn’t instituted more widely, offer your support to Books Through Bars. They’re doing good, important work.



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.