After Pa. prison book ban, inmates must rely on ebooks

Some criticize the ebook library as small and cost-prohibitive to prisoners


By Samantha Melamed
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Book deliveries to prisons across Pennsylvania were terminated this month, as part of an aggressive, multi-pronged security overhaul meant to eliminate avenues for drug smuggling. That meant an abrupt end to direct donations from programs like Books Through Bars, as well as orders shipped from Amazon or even from publishers.

The Department of Corrections says inmates will still have abundant access to books, though, including prison libraries and, coming soon, a mechanism by which inmates can request that staff purchase books for them. It also trumpeted inmates' access, as of Sept. 18, to a library of 8,500 ebooks that inmates, who make as little as 19 cents per hour, can purchase and read on $149 tablets provided by the vendor GTL.

But an initial review of that library left some unimpressed, both by the prices and the offerings. Many of the books are public-domain titles that are available for free through Project Gutenberg — which GTL links in its press materials as the source of ebooks — but that cost anywhere from $2.99 (Moby Dick) to $11.99 (The Federalist Papers), all the way up to $14.99 (Joseph Conrad's The Rescue). Many more recent titles also are priced far higher than the same Kindle ebooks. For instance, Stephen King's prison tome, The Green Mile, costs 66 percent more on prison tablets than out in the free world.

More surprising, perhaps, is what's not available at all — including many of the titles that make it on lists of most-read books in prison. The Autobiography of Malcolm X didn't make the cut, though The Autobiography of Tony Bennett did. Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl isn't available, but interested parties can download Diary of a South Beach Party Girl. Also missing are modern-day carceral memoirs: Erwin James' A Life Inside, Jeffrey Archer's A Prison Diary, and Piper Kerman's Orange is the New Black.

Michelle Alexander's study on mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, which has been banned in other state prison systems, was omitted as well.

There are no titles by John Grisham, Robert Ludlum or Donald Goines — all cited as popular authors in prison libraries. There are, however, four volumes from the oeuvre of Tori Spelling.

Amy Worden, a Department of Corrections spokesperson, said the selections were "just a first step," and that other titles may be added based on demand.

Books Through Bars' most-requested books are dictionaries and legal dictionaries, which are not available on the tablet. Another frequent request is the Qur'an, said Rebecca Makas, a member of Philadelphia Books Through Bars who happens to have a doctorate in religion concentrating in Islamic studies. She was alarmed to see the translation GTL offers is a "nonstandard" version not commonly used in academic or religious settings and containing departures that would be "extremely offensive to most observant Muslims."

"What we see on the list is, wow, there's an entire page of Louisa May Alcott and a page of Jane Austen. There's two pages of Trollope, which is absurd," said Keir Neuringer, another member, noting that he could not recall an inmate ever requesting Austen. "It's heavily weighted toward books that are readily available for free, that nobody wants anyway."

Of course, the tastes of inmates vary widely.

A few years back, the New Yorker' published a rather lyrical account of the literary consumption of Daniel Genis, a one-time publishing assistant who read 1,046 books while incarcerated in a New York state prison.

"I started out with books that helped me make sense of the situation around me," Genis explained — Solzhenitsyn's gulag narratives, like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Ted Conover's memoir, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. (Neither's available on Pennsylvania inmates' tablets.) Then, he moved on to histories of authoritarianism — "awful stuff that made me feel better by comparison" — and studies of morality, like Dostoyevsky's Crime & Punishment. (That one they have, at $3, $6 or $15, depending on the edition.)

Worden said GTL had created the book list and negotiated the prices. She said the Department of Corrections was not aware of access to free Project Gutenberg titles, but would look into it. GTL referred questions about the ebook library back to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Worden emphasized in an email that the e-books are not inmates' only means of accessing literature. "Lost in this discussion of ebooks and book donations is the fact EVERY prison has a full service general interest library and a law library," she wrote.

But inmates cite an array of reasons they may opt not to use the library: To visit it may require requesting a pass and visiting at a set time that may conflict with other obligations. And losing a book can result in discipline in addition to fines. One inmate said that years ago, at the Camp Hill state prison, he received 45 days in-cell confinement for returning a book late; he promised himself never to risk borrowing from the library again.

In response, Amistad Law Project on Sept. 21 is organizing its second mass call-in event to lawmakers and state officials calling for the restrictions to be lifted.

Stephen Wilson, an inmate at Smithfield State Correctional Institution, wrote an open letter that it's urgent: "We are effectively being prevented from learning, making connections to and communicating with the outside world."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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