New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in its enlightened wisdom has launched a pilot program drastically limiting books, fresh produce and other inmate care packages to six approved vendors selected by the department and listed on its website. Two of the vendors are mail-order companies selling sneakers and electronics, and two more will be added soon. As of December, Directive 4911A is in effect at Greene, Green Haven, and Taconic correctional facilities. If the new rule is deemed a success, the restrictions will be extended to all New York prisons. When DOCCS announced maintain an efficient operation” and “enhance the safety and security” of prisons – aka to stop drugs, cell phones and other contraband from being smuggled in, presumably via novels and oranges. Members of PEN and prisoner advocate groups like Critical Resistance say the rule “appears to have no reasonable basis.”
It could, however, be pretty effective at discouraging reading, which leads to thinking, which leads to learning, growing and, according to research on recidivism, getting it together to make a new life, all of which trends might lead to cutting into profits for the greedy old white men who run prisons. The current, draconian, almost laughably pathetic list of approved titles seem highly unlikely to spark that sort of educational passion. Of just 77 titles approved, 45 are puzzle or coloring books; the rest are junk romance/sex novels, Bibles and religious texts, incongruous how-to books, and the occasional dictionary or thesaurus. Selections from one vendor include Running a Restaurant for Dummies, A Beautiful Satan, A Beautiful Satan 2: Natasha’s Wrath and a Scrabble dictionary; another offers the Bible, coloring books and magazines including GQ, People, and Car and Driver.
“No books that help people learn to overcome addictions or learn how to improve as parents,” notes Books Through Bars Collective. “No Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, or other literature that helps people connect with what it means to be human. No books about health, about history, about almost anything inside or outside the prison walls.” For inmates enduring the solitude, isolation, shame and numbing monotony of prison, says one inmate relative, “Books are everything,” offering rare hope and sense of connection to the outside world. Because prison libraries are dismally overcrowded and understocked, he usually sends books to his father, incarcerated on a robbery conviction. For Christmas, he sent him two books: “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawking, and “Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity,” by Carlo Rovelli. No coloring books in sight.
The volunteer activists, librarians, teachers and readers of Books Through Bars – “There is no greater crime than the waste of time”- have protested the new directive, arguing that “literacy (is) a human right.” Ranging from prison abolitionists to reform advocates, they view reading as an important harm-reduction and educational equity strategy: “The violences of prison are many. The denial of access to education and contact with the outside world is one.” Founded over 20 years ago by a young activist dismayed by women’s prisons full of inane romance novels, the group now sends about 600 book packages a month to prisoners in 40 states. An all-volunteer project – their time, space and books are all donated – their only expense is postage. Because inmates who are indigent or earning an average of 25⍧ an hour at prison jobs often can’t afford their own stamps, much of their mail contains requests from multiple people. Over two decades, no contraband has ever been found in any of their packages.
The group has a wish list of over 1,600 books, compiled from inmate requests that are broad and deep. In the spirit of the recently barred The New Jim Crow, manyask for books about black, queer/trans, Latino/a and indigenous history, resistance and justice, or fiction in the same vein – Eldridge Cleaver, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Jeanette Winterson, James Baldwin. They ask for social science, science fiction, writing, drawing, math, biology, photography, military history, horror stories, Spanish or other language books; one inmate writing a paper for a Chinese class that required eight sources – access to the Internet is banned – needed a $60 textbook. They ask for Bertrand Russell, Roland Barthes, Maxim Gorki, Knut Hamsun. They want travel stories. In many request letters, they promise to pass their cherished books to fellow-inmates or donate them to tiny prison libraries. They also thank the group, again and again, for “these donations of food for the soul,” and “bringing a bit of light to this darkest corner of New York.”
Their letters are eager, poignant, thoughtful, heartbreaking: “I can’t wait to start The Great Gatsby…Thank you for introducing me to The Aeneid and Aeschylus. These challenging but much welcomed works of classics will occupy me and fellow inmates for some time to come… You help us escape the world we find ourselves in… Enclosed find three stamps…” An inmate in solitary asks for Shakespeare, “hopefully a complete works.” “I am 58 and have 21 more years to go so I guess you know I will die in this house that makes rich folks here in Texas richer,” writes another, who has just heard of the death of his daughter and grandson; books, he writes, “help me to escape the pain I feel.” One seeks to explain his gratitude to the group: “Many of us feel as if the world has forgotten us. Our own shame and disappointment keeps us from asking others for help. When we do, loving people like yourselves remind us there is hope.” He is getting out in a few months, he adds, and will stay in touch: “My hope is that I make you proud.” And from 2002, one shattering letter of thanks for books sent the month before: “I’m going to be executed May 30th, but I’d like you to know those books will give me much pleasure in the days remaining to me.”