November 7, 2018

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections lifts book ban


We’ve covered quite a few book restriction policies that belong in Fahrenheit 451 dystopia, especially ones instated in correctional facilities. Today we actually have some good news: The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections repealed its restrictive policy and allowed prisoners to directly receive books again, thanks to a whole lot of pressure from a number of book donation groups, as well as enraged citizens who wrote to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and roused the community via social media.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf

“It was really public pressure, we believe, that led to the DOC updating their policy to allow us to again send books directly to inmates,” said Jodi Lincoln, an organizer with Book ‘Em, a book donation program based in Pittsburgh. “It’s a good sign that our state system and elected representatives actually sometimes listen.”

While the original policy still technically allowed prisoners to access books, inmates had to pay $147 for a tablet to access e-books and then pay a private company for electronic versions of their reading material. Considering that most prisoners earn less than $1 per hour, these costs posed an essentially insurmountable barrier to access to books, magazines, pamphlets, and other reading materials. Now that book orders have been resumed, all texts will be sent through a centralized processing center, which, according to Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, “allows inmates to have direct contact with book donation organizations… and ensures that publications will not be used as a path by which drugs are introduced into our facilities.”

Photo via Anomaly/Unsplash

Inmates now essentially have two different means of attaining books: they can either receive books mailed directly to them from friends and family, or they can place their own orders from a catalog with which the facility provides them. Unfortunately, the other highly restrictive anti-contraband regulations – body scanners for visitation, digital mail delivery, drone-detecting equipment – which were initiated along with the book ban are yet to be lifted. But the repeal still represents an encouraging reinstatement of inmates’ access to educational material, and demonstrates the power of public pressure, both on the organizational as well as the individual level.

And if you’re wondering how you can help provide reading material to inmates, check out this list of book donation programs which will tell you exactly what kind of materials certain facilities need. Donations should include graphic novels and instructional art books to dictionaries and test prep, to non-fiction texts on history, politics, and women’s health.

We all have some books collecting dust on our nightstands, so go ahead and donate.




Julie Goldberg is an intern at Melville House.