Pennsylvania Jail Tells Inmates: Stop Ordering Books

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Photo by Irati Herrera via Flickr

Thomas Stultz is an avid reader.

Since arriving at Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) Jail last November, he’s read dozens of books, from the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series to the original translation of the Holy Bible.

He reads “all day, pretty much every day,” he said, often trading books with other inmates.

For Stultz, reading helps pass the time, especially since the pandemic began.

The jail has been operating on a restricted schedule, with inmates able to leave their cells for only one hour per day. For many, there’s little else to do besides getting lost in a book.

But on Nov. 16, Stultz and most other inmates at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) received a written message on the new tablets the jail provided to them: Books ordered from the outside would no longer be allowed inside the jail.

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Screenshot Allegheny County Jail website. Courtesy PublicSource

Inmates will instead have to limit their reading to what is available on the tablets, and what jail authorities said was “wide variety” of printed texts already in the “leisure library on each pod.”

But there are just 263 free books, including 49 religious titles, in the facility’s  digital library.

According to jail authorities, the book policy was adopted to protect against contraband.

Potential contraband is “a safety and security issue,” ACJ Warden Orlando Harper wrote in an email to PublicSource.

He said the policy “is by no means permanent,” and added that the facility is discussing with the tablet provider “how to add additional books and resources, and how it may handle requests for specific books.”

In addition to the books available on the tablet, Harper said inmates on each pod have access to a leisure library and a room in the education department designated for donated books.

“There are over 1,000 different titles in that library which will be rotated throughout the facility for the inmates,” Harper wrote.

Reading for Mental Health

But inmates and advocates worry that the new policy will further erode inmates’ mental health by limiting one of the only outlets available at the jail.

With limited recreation time, visits from loved ones suspended during the pandemic, and a chronic shortage of medical staff, mental health issues at the jail were already a serious concern.

Studies show that reading can improve mental health and is even used as a form of therapy. In Brazil and Italy, inmates can reduce their sentence by three days for every book they read.

“I get very anxious when I don’t have something constructive to do. And reading is one of those things,” Stultz said. “…I think a lot of us would be in very dire straits if we didn’t have a way to pass our time constructively.”

Jodi Lincoln, co-chair of the local books-to-prisoners program Book ‘Em, said ACJ’s book policy was already “extremely restrictive.” Before, inmates could order books from Barnes & Noble or Christianbooks.com.

She and Bethany Hallam, an Allegheny County Councilwoman and member of the county’s Jail Oversight Board, have been working to change the policy and allow books from other booksellers, publishers and books-to-prisoners programs.

“We were not a fan of the policy they had to begin with, but this is a step back even from that,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln also pointed out that many of the available titles are not modern or “culturally relevant” and fall short of inmates’ interests.

“It’s all the Jane Austens, but there’s not a lot of good educational resources,” she said.

Some inmates PublicSource spoke to also raised First Amendment concerns: they felt their religion was not represented in the 49 religious books available on the tablets.

‘A Sense of Self’

Rebecca Ginsburg, director of the Education Justice Project, noted that most people in jail have not been convicted of a crime — yet they can spend months or years awaiting trial. She said books can help inmates “maintain a firmer grip on who they are,” rather than letting their sense of self and social skills deteriorate while incarcerated.

“Providing people in jail access to a wide range of reading materials can help them fight off depression and even suicidal thoughts,” she said.

“Let’s face it, 214 books does not constitute a wide range of reading materials.”

According to Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, managing attorney of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, the Supreme Court ruled that prisons cannot ban all books but instead “must examine each book individually for inappropriate content. ”

Access to a trifling 214 books is tantamount to a complete ban,” she wrote in an email to PublicSource. She also said the small number of religious texts make it “virtually certain” that some faiths have been ignored, violating both the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Sheffield isn’t the only inmate worried about their religious freedom.

Every holiday season, Richard Lauffer looks forward to reading Christian literature.

“It’s something from my childhood, something from my youth that I can look back on and have a happy smile for Christmas,” he said. “It’s meant a lot to me to have, and now I can’t have it this year.”

Lauffer, a Pentecostal Christian, said the tablet does not include his religious sect.

“There’s nothing on there for Pentecostal people like myself. None whatsoever,” he said.

On top of bringing him “closer to God,” Lauffer said the books were “brain food” for himself and other inmates.

“My only pastime is these books. And now that I don’t have them, I don’t know what I’m going to do; I’m going to be lost now.”

Editor’s Note: ACJ is not the first prison facility to encounter a hard-cover ban—and it likely won’t be the last. According to a 2018 investigation by The Crime Report, 45 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons contract with an electronic legal database company to replace textbooks in prison law libraries.

That’s up from nine states a decade ago. The move to replace print with digital media is having a significant impact on how prisoners access court, the investigation found.

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story that appeared in Public Source this week. The full story can be accessed here. Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource and a former John Jay justice reporting fellow.She can be reached at juliette@publicsource.org or on Twitter at @julietterihl.

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