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Censorship in Prisons and Jails: A War on the Written Word

“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” — Ray Bradbury

by Christopher Zoukis

In its landmark ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) – which held political campaign spending is a form of protected speech – the U.S. Supreme Court noted the First Amendment is “[p]remised on mistrust of governmental power.” The Court has also held that such mistrust extends to bans on books and other reading materials, since “freedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is also freedom to read.” See: King v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 415 F.3d 634 (7th Cir. 2005).

In addition to the many other privations prisoners experience, they are often subjected to censorship of books, magazines and even correspondence by prison officials. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit wrote, “The simple opportunity to read a book or write a letter, whether it expresses political views or absent affections, supplies a vital link between the inmate and the outside world, and nourishes the prisoner’s mind despite the blankness and bleakness of his environment.” See: Wolfish v. Levi, 573 F.2d 118 (2d Cir. 1978), rev’d sum nom. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979).

Yet restrictions on books and magazines have become commonplace in prisons and jails. In February 2018, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) – the parent organization and publisher of Prison Legal News – filed suit against the Illinois Department of Corrections after prison officials refused to allow prisoners access to the publication and the news it contains about the criminal justice system.

HRDC filed a similar complaint in April 2018 against Santa Fe County, New Mexico, when officials rejected books sent to prisoners at the county jail. HRDC had already reached a settlement in 2017 in a similar case against Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque. Another settlement was reached that year in a lawsuit brought by HRDC against Management and Training Corp. (MTC), a private prison firm that runs the Otero County Prison Facility in New Mexico and the North Central Correctional Complex in Ohio. [See: PLN, Sept. 2017, p.44].

Among other cases this year, HRDC has also filed censorship lawsuits against jails in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina and Forrest County, Mississippi, and against the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority. HRDC and PLN have a decades-long history of bringing First Amendment suits challenging censorship by prison and jail officials nationwide. [See, e.g.: PLN, May 2015, p.12].

And in September 2018, HRDC filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, appealing a ruling by the Eleventh Circuit that upheld a long-standing statewide ban on PLN by the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC). [See related article on p.12]. Prison Legal News remains the most censored publication in the United States.

Constitutional Considerations

In 1974, the Supreme Court affirmed “[t]here is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.” See: Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974). Writing for the majority that same year, Justice Thurgood Marshall stated, “when the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.” See: Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974).

Crucial to that need for self-improvement is the ability to read and study, to thereby learn new ideas and ways of thinking – and thus behaving.

As a result, federal courts have found that incarceration does not automatically deprive prisoners of the First Amendment’s protection from policies that abridge the freedom of speech, though such rights may be restricted. See: Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987).

Beginning with Turner, courts have upheld prison rules and regulations that impinge on a prisoner’s constitutional rights so long as they are “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” The Turner standard is based on a four-prong test:

1. Is there is a valid, rational connection between the regulation and a legitimate governmental interest?

2. Are there alternate means available to exercise the constitutional right that the regulation limits?

3. What is the impact on prison resources of accommodating the right?

4. Are there obvious, easy alternatives that accommodate the right at de minimis cost?

In addition to these considerations, courts are required to “accord substantial deference to the judgment of prison administrators,” who not only promulgate institutional policies but also oversee “the most appropriate means to accomplish them.” See: Overton v. Bazzetta, 539 U.S. 126 (2003).

In Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401 (1989), the Supreme Court said prisons could not bar access to all books because prisoners retain rights under the First Amendment. Instead, it said each publication must be examined for inappropriate content.

But that same ruling granted the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) “broad discretion” when upholding a regulation that permitted the censorship of any publication it “determined detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity.”

Thornburgh has since been applied to uphold bans by prison and jail officials on sexually explicit materials, publications that include non-obscene nudity and “blatant homosexual” content, and publications containing information on making weapons, hiding contraband, facilitating escapes or manufacturing alcohol or drugs.

But courts have used Thornburgh and Turner’s four-prong test to strike down bans on publications sent from “unauthorized organizations,” as well as total bans on reading materials with sexual content that also have “literary value.”

Sensing a possibility for abuse inherent in the Supreme Court’s approach to prison censorship, Justice John Paul Stevens dissented in both Turner and Thornburgh, expressing concern that the “substantial deference” provided to prison administrators could combine with Turner’s broad “reasonably related” standard to produce unconstitutional results.

An “[o]pen-ended ‘reasonably related’ standard,” Justice Stevens wrote, “makes it much too easy to uphold restrictions on prisoners’ First Amendment rights on the basis of administrative concerns and speculation about possible security risks rather than on the basis of evidence that restrictions are needed to further an important governmental interest.”

In other words, Justice Stevens worried, any “reasonable relationship” between a prison regulation and a “legitimate penological concern perceived by a cautious warden” could quickly render the standard “virtually meaningless.” The result “would seem to permit disregard for inmates’ constitutional rights whenever the imagination of the warden produces a plausible security concern and a deferential trial court is able to discern a logical connection between that concern and the challenged regulation,” Justice Stevens noted.

Taken to extremes, he pointed out “there is a logical connection between prison discipline and the use of bullwhips on prisoners,” and “security is logically furthered by a total ban on inmate communication, not only with other inmates but also with outsiders who conceivably might be interested in arranging an attack within the prison or an escape from it.”

His concerns proved prescient.

In Beard v. Banks, 548 U.S. 521 (2006), the Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania DOC regulation that prohibited prisoners in a high-security segregation unit from receiving any newspapers, magazines or photographs, ruling that the deprivation of those privileges as an incentive to improve the prisoners’ behavior was “reasonably related” to the “legitimate penological interest” of rehabilitation.

Justice Stevens dissented in Beard as well, writing that the policy’s “logical connection” to the DOC’s alleged interest in rehabilitation was “highly questionable” and came “perilously close to a state-sponsored effort at mind control.”

“The state may not ‘invad[e] the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment of our Constitution to reserve from all official control,’” he wrote.

How is it that the courts end up repeatedly adjudicating restrictions on reading materials, as prison and jail officials continue to censor books and other publications?

Criminologist Sharon Dolovich put the argument like this: “It is hard to find a minority more despised and politically disempowered than prisoners, and if the fundamental protections in the Bill of Rights for people accused and convicted of crimes are to have any meaningful content, their enforcement cannot be left to the political branches.”

HRDC executive director Paul Wright agreed that litigation is more effective in fighting censorship than other tactics, which government officials frequently ignore.

“We want to make sure we lock these changes in, and we don’t want to deal with the same problems over and over and over again,” he said.

Unfortunately there seems to be no end to arbitrary and unjustified censorship by prisons and jails, which means there will be no end to litigation around that issue.

Prison Censorship Across the Nation

Based on the judicial parameters set by decisions like Thornburgh and Turner, the federal Bureau of Prisons restricts certain reading material available to prisoners, as do state prison systems.

The list of books banned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) includes over 10,000 titles, ranging from Where’s Waldo and A Charlie Brown Christmas to the 1908 Sears Roebuck catalog and The Color Purple – a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker. All the Dave Barry You Could Ever Want is also on the list, though its comedian author said he can’t imagine why – unless prison officials are “worried that the inmates will overpower the guards using fart jokes.”

James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association (ALA), said banning Where’s Waldo does not preserve order but rather perpetuates “ignorance and imprisonment” – especially when the TDCJ allows such publications as Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler, and books authored by former Klansman David Duke.

Gilad Katz, who in 2017 became the head of Israel’s consulate for the southwestern U.S. in Houston, contacted Texas Board of Criminal Justice chairman Dale Wainwright to protest the prison system’s failure to exclude Hitler’s work.

“Letting prisoners read Mein Kampf is not moral,” he wrote.

TDCJ staff may also reject books not on the banned list that are nonetheless deemed to violate prison policy. A January 2018 report discovered it was a prison mailroom staffer who apparently determined that Freakonomics – a bestseller that attempts to explain modern sociological issues in economic terms – contained objectionable “racial intent” and was “written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption.”

The well-known Grits for Breakfast blog, which reported the TDCJ’s decision to ban Freakonomics, noted that the authors – University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner, whose book has sold over four million copies – “might find it surprising to learn that anyone, anywhere, ever interpreted their writings that way.”

“I give the prison officials credit,” Levitt said, “for reading Freakonomics carefully enough to make specific arguments for banning the book. Somehow though, I can’t imagine that the type of prisoner who would read Freakonomics would be particularly disruptive to law and order in the prison.”

As a result of negative publicity, state Rep. James White, who chairs the Corrections Committee of the Texas House of Representatives, said the TDCJ’s censorship policy – which actually makes no mention of “racial intent” – was “under review.”

PLN filed suit against the TDCJ in 2009 for censoring several books mailed to Texas prisoners, including Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System and Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime, because they contained short passages of non-explicit sexual content. Yet the TDCJ allowed other books with sexual content, including Lolita and Pimpology. Regardless, the district court upheld the censorship, which was affirmed on appeal by the Fifth Circuit in 2012. See: Prison Legal News v. Livingston, 683 F.3d 201 (5th Cir. 2012) [PLN, Aug. 2013, p.28].

North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety also maintains a list of books banned in state prisons, including various dictionaries and magazines, The New York Times Essential Guide to Knowledge, Fifty Shades of Grey and The Dog Encyclopedia.

In 2010, the Alabama Department of Corrections determined Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name was a security threat and banned the book, which won a Pulitzer for its analysis of the use of incarceration and debt to effectively re-enslave millions of black Americans after the Civil War. The Michigan DOC banned psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks in 2000 for similar reasons, while Arizona prison officials bar prisoners from reading Batman: Eye of the Beholder and E=MC2: Simple Physics.

In 2009, the federal supermax facility in Florence, Colorado prohibited a prisoner from receiving two books authored by President Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, because they were “potentially detrimental to national security.” Following news coverage, Bureau of Prisons authorities allowed the books in.

A policy instituted in May 2015 by the New Hampshire DOC barred incoming greeting cards and printed postcards, as well as all incoming mail containing “any drawings ... or other depictions,” including those in ink or pencil. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.33]. As noted by attorney Ned Sackman, in doing so the DOC had “eliminated one of the few ways young children could communicate with parents who are in prison.”

The ACLU filed suit challenging the policy, which it called “among the most restrictive” in the United States because the justification for it – prison staff claimed the rule was needed to keep contraband from being smuggled through the mail – was undermined by the agency’s own records which indicated it had not documented “a single incident ... where drugs were smuggled into the state’s prisons using handwritten drawings or pictures on regular, non-cardstock paper since 2010.”

In a September 2017 settlement, the New Hampshire DOC agreed to change its policy to allow “certain types of original handwritten drawings and pictures that are done in pen or pencil,” so prisoners will be able to receive their children’s artwork, while continuing to ban drawings made with “markers, crayons, colored pencil, glitter, chalk, lipstick, or adhesive material.” See: Y.F. v. Wrenn, U.S.D.C. (D. NH), Case No. 1:15-cv-00510-PB.

Approved Vendor Policies: Bans by Another Name

The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) came under fire in January 2018 when it proposed a policy intended to staunch the flow of contraband that would restrict prisoners to ordering books from just six approved publishers.

As reported by The New York Times, Directive 4911A appeared to limit prisoners to fewer than 80 titles in total – including a dictionary, a thesaurus, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, 14 religious books, 24 coloring books and five romance novels.

NYC Books Through Bars (BTB), a volunteer group that donates books to prisoners, sent a letter strongly condemning the proposed policy to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci. The governor quickly put an end to the policy, calling it “flawed.”

The proposed DOCCS policy made no exception for donated books, so BTB – which sends 700 packages each month to prisoners, primarily in New York, New Jersey and California – said “groups like ours [would be] no longer able to send free reading materials to those incarcerated in the affected facilities.”

Melissa Marturano, a professor at Hunter College and BTB member, said 30 states have implemented policies limiting shipments of new books to a list of approved vendors, though many still allow groups like hers to continue sending free books directly to prisoners.

BTB does not supply prison libraries, which, according to Marturano, suffer from too few staff members and too much demand. She also expressed concern that titles appealing to non-white prisoners – the DOCCS’ proposed policy left “no books by African-American intellectuals” and “no Latino history,” she said – would be excluded from state prisons.

Like many states, New York allows prison officials to ban books that appeal to “prurient sexual interests,” which are defined by community-based standards. And those communities, particularly in up-state New York, tend to be largely conservative and white.

But it was the use of a sparse list of approved publishers as a censorship tool that drew Marturano’s strongest criticism.

“We don’t want vendors profiting off the misery of prisoners,” she stated.

Joining BTB in criticizing New York’s proposed Directive 4911A was PEN America, a non-profit that advocates for writers and their First Amendment freedoms. PEN was also involved in getting the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) to drop a similar policy in June 2018 – just two months after it was implemented.

Under that policy, Maryland’s 20,000 prisoners could no longer receive books from friends or family members, and could only purchase them from two approved vendors – Edward R. Hamilton Books and Books ‘n Things.

Like their New York counterparts, Maryland prison officials initially defended the policy as being necessary due to a surge in drug trafficking within state prisons – especially Suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid withdrawal that is sold in small strips easily hidden inside the pages of books, magazines and letters.

DPSCS officials said investigators found 660 Suboxone strips concealed in books within the past three years. They also claimed that some book vendors had conspired with prisoners to smuggle contraband.

While agreeing that corrections officials “have an obligation to keep their prisons drug-free,” Summer Lopez, senior director of PEN America’s Free Expression Programs, called the restrictive book policy “misguided and unwise.”

PEN maintains a nationwide prison writing program and offers an annual Prison Writing Contest. Under the policies in New York and Maryland, though, the organization would no longer have been able to send prisoners copies of its Handbook for Writers in Prison.

Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney for the Maryland ACLU, said her group challenged the DPSCS policy for two reasons. First, by finding so many Suboxone strips, prison authorities had demonstrated that existing procedures to interdict contraband were working. More importantly, though, there was “absolutely no basis for asserting that a package from one of the two vendors selected by [DPSCS] is particularly less susceptible to tampering than any other bookseller.”

The new policy, the ACLU added, “effectively den[ies] more than 20,000 Maryland prisoners access to the overwhelming majority of books in existence, and prevent[s] those of us who wish to communicate with them through books from doing so.”

In announcing his decision to reverse the restrictive book policy, DPSCS Secretary Stephen T. Moyer acknowledged the rehabilitative benefits of reading. But he also insisted his department would prioritize safety over other concerns.

The approved vendor book policies in New York and Maryland were modeled on a pilot program developed by the federal Bureau of Prisons. Tested at USP Atwater in California and USP Lee in Virginia, the policy restricted purchases to an approved vendor that was allowed to mark-up books sold to prisoners by 30 percent. The BOP program – which included a ban on “homemade” greeting cards similar to the one discontinued by the New Hampshire DOC – was set to expand to Florida before it was rescinded in May 2018, following public criticism.

After the BOP’s director was questioned about the pilot program during a congressional hearing, prison officials said they would withdraw and review the policy to “ensure we strike the right balance between maintaining the safety and security of our institutions and inmate access to correspondence and reading materials.”

A similar but more draconian program was announced by the Pennsylvania DOC in September 2018. Diana Woodside, who serves as director of policy, grants and legislative affairs for the state prison system, said the DOC was responding to a surge in smuggled Suboxone strips – which, in one case, reportedly arrived at a prison hidden in a Bible shipped from Barnes & Noble. Dozens of prison staff members claimed they were sickened by an unknown substance that had been mailed to prisoners, possibly through paper soaked in synthetic drugs.

Some experts, however, were skeptical. Jeanmarie Perrone, a toxicologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said adverse drug reactions among prison employees from skin absorption or inhalation were “very unlikely.”

Along with $15 million worth of new security measures, the DOC announced it was ending free books-to-prisoners programs, including BTB and Pittsburgh-based Book ‘Em. Since the DOC pays prisoners as little as $0.19 per hour for their labor, reading materials from the non-profit organizations were in high demand. Jodi Lincoln, a member of Book ‘Em, said the group supplies Pennsylvania prisoners with 2,700 books each year.

Under the new policy, prisoners also were no longer able to order books directly from publishers or distributors, according to Woodside. Rather, she said they could purchase e-books from a catalog of approximately 8,500 titles provided by a private vendor, prison telecom giant Global Tel*Link (GTL) – provided prisoners bought an e-reader tablet for $149.

Further, prisoners could no longer receive original copies of letters; rather, all correspondence had to be sent to a screening facility, where it would be scanned and the resulting digital copies printed and delivered. Legal mail was to be opened in the presence of the recipient, who would receive a copy; the original would be kept for a short period of time and then destroyed.

Responding to public outcry, including criticism from books-to-prisoners projects and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, DOC Director John E. Wetzel stated in a November 1, 2018 press release that the policy changes were being revised.

“We have listened to inmates and their families and friends and to publication organizations and we have developed what we believe is a fair procedure that balances our need for security with the inmates’ access to books,” he said.

Donations from books-to-prisoners programs will continue. Families and friends cannot have books and magazines sent directly to prisoners, but can buy them from “original sources,” such as publishers, book stores and online distributors, and have them mailed to a central secure processing center. Prisoners may purchase e-books or books from catalogs, and Wetzel said prison libraries would “expand their offerings based on inmate requests.”

Still, imprisoned parents will not be able to see or keep their children’s original art or drawings, since the DOC’s $4 million contract with Florida-based Smart Communications, to digitally scan and forward prisoner mail, remains in effect. There have already been reported problems with the scanning process, with some prisoners saying they have received copies of letters that are illegible or missing pages.

Can Knowledge be a Security Threat?

Since publishing The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in 2010, author Michelle Alexander has sold over one million copies. The book argues that the “war on drugs” is the modern incarnation of racist Jim Crow laws, resulting in mass incarceration that serves to keep black people segregated and impoverished in extensions of social constructs rooted in slavery.

Alexander’s publisher, The New Press, said dealing with book bans by correctional facilities has been “a game of whack-a-mole, working prison to prison to get the book to prisoners.”

In January 2018, the same month the New York DOCCS suspended Directive 4911A – which The New Press publisher Ellen Adler called “painfully stupid and wrong” – New Jersey prison officials rolled back a ban that had been in place on The New Jim Crow at the State Prison in Trenton and the Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont.

A June 2016 report by The Sentencing Project – a criminal justice research and advocacy organization – had found that New Jersey’s incarceration rate for blacks was over twelve times higher than the comparable rate for whites. It was the highest discrepancy in the nation. New Jersey’s incarceration rate was 94 per 100,000 whites and 1,140 per 100,000 blacks.

ACLU attorney Alex Shalom fired off a letter to New Jersey DOC Commissioner Gary M. Lanigan, saying that for a state “burdened with this systemic injustice to prohibit prisoners from reading a book about race and mass incarceration is grossly ironic, misguided, and harmful.”

Shalom asked why the two state prisons had banned the book, even though it was one of the texts being used by prisoners enrolled in the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education Program. In response, he merely received a list of books disallowed at each facility. Shortly after that, though, The New Jim Crow was removed from the banned list.

New Jersey DOC spokeswoman Melanie Weiss noted the book was not banned in all of the state’s prisons, adding the department was reviewing its banned book policy for “appropriate revisions.”

Michelle Alexander, currently a visiting professor at the Union Theological Seminary, said she hopes media coverage surrounding policies that prohibit prisoners from reading her book will inspire people to wake up to the reality of mass incarceration.

“I’m glad New Jersey has lifted the ban, but it shouldn’t have existed in the first place,” she stated.

In January 2018, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) removed The New Jim Crow from its list of banned book titles following a demand by the ACLU. It had been added to the state’s Master List of Disapproved Publications in February 2017. That list also included Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the USA – written by imprisoned activist (and PLN columnist) Mumia Abu-Jamal – as well as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, titles with erotic content and some encyclopedias, magazines and tattoo books.

DPS spokesman Jerry Higgins pointed out that some books are banned due to their size, though The New Jim Crow was not one of them. Chris Brook, legal director for North Carolina’s ACLU chapter, called the attempt to ban Alexander’s book “cruelly ironic.”

“For North Carolina – a state with such stark racial disparities in its criminal justice system – to keep a book about racial injustice away from those incarcerated is not just shameful and wrong, it’s also unconstitutional,” he said.

Brook added that in 2016, African-Americans made up 52 percent of the state’s prison population but only 22 percent of its overall population. Nationwide, the black incarceration rate is five times higher than that of whites, according to The Sentencing Project.

Heather Ann Thompson, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and the author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, pointed to the historic practice of keeping knowledge and information from black Americans.

“Slaves weren’t allowed to read because reading would directly lead to rebellion,” she observed, drawing a parallel with policies that prevent prisoners from reading books that address racial disparities and inequalities in the criminal justice system.

A Sordid History of Censorship

As of July 2018, Michelle Alexander’s award-winning book remained banned in Florida state prisons due to “racial overtures.” But its publisher, The New Press, has joined advocacy groups to supply prisoners across the country with special editions of several of its other book titles, including 11,000 copies of a 2017 memoir by former prisoner Susan Burton, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women.

In a March 2018 op-ed published by USA Today, three criminal justice experts at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law considered the cruelty of a state using its power to keep books out of the hands of prisoners.

Myesha Braden, director of the group’s Criminal Justice Project, joined Michael Huggins, its George N. Lindsay Fellow, and its counsel, Courtney Alexander, to highlight the similarities between U.S. systems of slavery and incarceration, both of which “demand the suppression of thought, activity and expression.”

“Just as pre-Civil War literacy bans perpetuated the institution of slavery, restrictions like [the one in North Carolina] perpetuate mass incarceration and ensure that prisons, jails and the industries that serve them continue to flourish,” they wrote.

Quoting Frederick Douglass, who said “knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave,” the authors added that “knowledge also makes individuals less likely to become or remain incarcerated.”

Or as stated by the American Library Association: “Learning to be free requires access to a wide range of knowledge, and suppression of ideas does not prepare the incarcerated of any age for life in a free society.”

On the issue of prisons banning The New Jim Crow, Alexander lamented that “some prison officials are determined to keep the people they lock in cages as ignorant as possible about the racial, social and political forces that have made the United States the most punitive nation on earth,” adding, “Perhaps they worry the truth might actually set the captives free.”

“All too often,” agreed James LaRue with the American Library Association, “prison censorship, in addition to being an arbitrary abuse of authority, denies the incarcerated the chance to get out of jail and stay out.”

The reality is that even though prisoners who participate in educational programs have lower recidivism rates – as much as 43 percent lower according to a study by Rand Corporation, a research group – those same results also threaten jobs that depend on filling prison beds. After all, the multi-billion dollar prison industrial complex is a very profitable industry.

Thus, while exposing prisoners to books, literacy programs and educational opportunities may help them stay out following their release and result in lower recidivism rates, it does little to help a criminal justice system that depends on a constant influx of prisoners.

As author Upton Sinclair once said, “It is hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.”

The Importance of Books Behind Bars

Reginald Dwayne Betts, a critically-acclaimed poet and graduate of Yale Law School, said that when he was incarcerated, “books became magic.” Now 38, he served time for a trio of felony convictions related to a car-jacking at a Virginia shopping mall when he was 16.

“When I got locked up [reading books] became magic, it became a means to an end,” he stated. “It became the way in which I experienced the world, but more importantly, I think, it became the way in which I learned about what it means to be human, and to be flawed and to want things that you can’t have.”

Books are also a cure for chronic idleness, which the Vera Institute’s Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons called one of the greatest threats to safety in correctional facilities. Victor Kersey, the Utah DOC’s director of institutional programming, said “[a]nytime you keep an offender engaged and busy, they’re less likely to display negative behavior.”

Ellen Adler, publisher of The New Press, called it “morally reprehensible to try to strip incarcerated people of their humanity and limit what they can read.... Books have the power to teach and inspire and help people rebuild their lives – who could possibly object to that?”

Kimberly Hricko, 53, serving a life sentence for murder and arson at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, shared an amusing story with The Marshall Project about the prison’s mailroom officer, known to her only as “Miss Beatrice.”

Though one pair of earrings and a $10 bill sent in letters got past her, Beatrice pounced on a fabric ribbon bookmark in a Bible, maps in the Game of Thrones book series (maps are prohibited, apparently including fictional ones), a photo of a wedding reception – it showed a forbidden alcoholic drink – and even a thank-you seedling mailed by an environmental group, because “trees are contraband.”

Fortunately, the people making a difference in the literary lives of prisoners are not all like Miss Beatrice.

In November 2017, Nicole Juranek celebrated her 40th birthday, but “in lieu of a party, I asked friends and family to send/drop off paperback books” for prisoners, she said. The communications professor at Western Iowa Community College had already donated 300 books collected during the past two holiday seasons to the Pottawattamie County Jail, so she set herself a challenge.

“My goal was 400,” she said.

After her party, she delivered 800 books to the jail. The self-described “believer in literacy and, of course, second chances,” stated, “If I can increase literacy in any way, I think the world is slightly a better place.”

Before her first son was born, Juranek volunteered 20 hours a week to teach literacy classes at the Omaha Correctional Center in Nebraska, where she met “some of the most intriguing people” she had ever met, she said. Alone with an elderly nun who was her co-volunteer – they had no security present in their class – she admitted “it was intimidating, at first,” but that she “just really saw [the prisoners] as people.”

Now that her sons are ages six and nine, she has signed them up to help her make deliveries of books to the local jail.

In 2008, Toby Lafferty visited the Utah State Prison in Draper to donate seven copies of a book by a California prisoner that she thought was important to share. She met with the prison’s librarian, Christie Jensen, who described her out-of-date book collection. Ten years later, “Draper doesn’t need us” or her book donations, Lafferty said.

That’s because the facility now has 55,000 books, many provided by Books Inside, a non-profit that Lafferty founded in 2010 to supply prison libraries.

“Where we’re most effective is when there’s somebody in a facility who wants to get books out to the inmates,” she said.

Like a prison librarian in South Carolina, who contacted Books Inside because the 1,200 prisoners at that facility had only “3,000 volumes, mostly old war romance novels.” The librarian now receives a package of 50 books each month from Lafferty’s group with a range of genres and reading levels – “something in every box for everybody,” she said.

Many prison libraries are deficient. As Maryland’s former head prison librarian Glennor Shirley recalled, “budget, staff shortages and the lack of interest and pushback from the prison authorities made it difficult to make the library standards more than just a document.”

At the Hot Springs County jail in Thermopolis, Wyoming, where she has been employed as a guard since 1993, Sgt. Beth Price felt frustrated that she “couldn’t find a way to help” the small facility’s 32 prisoners. The jail’s library of decades-old books sat unused while detainees played cards, watched TV and got into fights with each other.

Two years ago, a volunteer called from Books Inside. The effect of the donated books on the prisoners was impressive.

“All of a sudden inmates want to talk to you about something other than their life of crime or how they’re going to get out of this case or that charge,” she remarked. “I think this has done as much for me as it has for them.”

Janene Bellock, 66, is the longest-serving volunteer with Books Inside. Her stepson has a history of mental health problems and crime, which motivates her.

“I don’t feel I ever really helped him,” she said. “I feel like I need to do something for someone to make up for him and this is what I can do.”

And the prisoners who benefit from the book donations that she helps arrange are extremely grateful that she does. 

Ed. Note: PLN contributing writer Christopher Zoukis, recently released from prison, is the author of the Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide and the forthcoming Directory of Federal Prisons. He serves as managing director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a boutique federal criminal justice consultancy that assists attorneys, criminal defendants and prisoners with their prison preparation, in-prison and reentry needs. He can be contacted online through

Sources: New York Times; New York Post; USA Today; NBC News; Publisher’s Weekly; Dallas Morning News; Texas Tribune; Raleigh News-Observer; Manchester Union-Leader; Santa Fe New Mexican; WRAL-TV;;;;;;;;;; “Canons of Evasion in Constitutional Criminal Law” in The New Criminal Justice Thinking by S. Dolovich and A. Natapoff, eds. (NYU Press, 2017); letter dated May 31, 2018 from ACLU of Maryland to Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services;;; The Marshall Project;


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