February 8, 2018
What are “TV facilities,” why haven’t we heard of them, and how do they limit prisoners’ access to books?
by Taylor Sperry
For the past few weeks, we’ve been following stories about banned book policies that are severely restricting inmates’ access to books in prisons across the country — and possibly violating those inmates’ first amendment rights. In both New Jersey and North Carolina, the ACLU has been pushing back, and in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo reversed a Department of Corrections directive following public outcry.
But for the Village Voice, Rebecca McCray reports that while Cuomo is earning approval for this “progressive” move, “the praise overlooks something sinister”: a policy that’s gotten little attention but has in some instances been in place for decades, effectively banning access to free books “for up to 13,000 inmates in at least nine [New York] state prisons.”
These prisons are called ‘TV facilities.’ At some point in the past, prisoners at each of them were instructed by state correction officials to vote by secret ballot on the option to buy personal TVs for their cells. If the vote passed, the TVs then had to be purchased from the prison commissary or an approved vendor, at a cost of more than $100 a piece.
And if such a vote passed, prisoners in the facility would be limited to receiving only two personal packages a year, and the vote is irreversible, and a person who might be locked up tomorrow won’t necessarily have any say in whether this policy remains in place going forward. Even prisoners who want to buy their own books have to make their purchases from a (surely limited) list of approved vendors, or borrow from libraries that also, often, lack selection.
As McCray reports, “access to free literature and educational materials in prison provides more than a way for inmates to pass the time”; studies have shown that it also reduces the rate at which people return to prisons after being released.
This is bonkers.
Insofar as there are systems in place for facilitating prisoners’ access to reading materials, the systems are bad or applied haphazardly. So at least as far as New York is concerned, if Cuomo is looking to position himself as progressive on criminal justice reform for a 2020 bid, he’s got some work to do.
Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.