Author, Expert & Speaker

In prison, books are friends. They’re virtual tickets out of the prison yard and into worlds of escape. Science tells us that reading benefits our brain function and emotions.

Prison administrators should understand science-based findings that reading is good for people. In her article “8 Science-Backed Reasons to Read a (Real) Book,” Abigail Wise gives four reasons that are particularly relevant to inmate readers:

  • It [reading] increases intelligence
  • It can boost your brain power
  • Reading can make you more empathic
  • Reading can help you relax

In my blog, Prison Is a Good Place to Catch Up on Your Reading, I argue that the boredom inherent in doing time and the resultant numbing of the mind caused by the never-changing, predictable daily routine of life has an antidote in the reading of books. I wrote: “I found escape from the numbness by digging into books. Some books were in the yards, and some were sent to me from family and friends—under the strict prison regulations for receiving of books from outside people.”

Regulations Restrict Access to Books in Prisons

As with anything coming onto a prison yard, security questions arise. Visitors are always suspected of attempting to smuggle contraband into the prison environment. They are put through a TSA-like screening before being granted permission to enter a visitation room. Inmate mail is opened and scanned for security-breaching content, and packages received by mail are thoroughly inspected before being given to the designated inmate.

The overriding safety and security concerns are the potential for incoming mail and packages to harbor drugs, drug paraphernalia, tobacco (smoking is banned in California prisons), weapons or items that can be fashioned into weapons, and anything else enterprising inmates and their associates could use for banned purposes. Ingenuity to add to one’s pleasure or to gain an advantage over something or someone is not lost in prison.

Books Can Cause Safety and Security Risks

What does prison safety and security have to with books? The answer is in their construction. Hardcover books can be delivery vehicles for all sorts of contraband—use your imagination. Consider what you can hide in a book’s binder. In California, CCR Title 15 Section 3134.1(c) provides that hardcover books must have their covers removed before being given to inmates. It’s an attempt to reduce, but certainly not eliminate, the risk of books’ being used to transport bad stuff. Paperback books must be sent directly to inmates, prepaid, from online retailers such as Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

Inmates’ Access to Books Is Threatened

Recently, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS, came up with the daring idea of banning certain items inmates could receive in packages. In his January 9, 2018,  New Yorker article, “New York Makes It Harder for Inmates to Get Books,” Daniel A. Gross incredulously gives details of the ban:

The package ban applies not only to clothes, fresh food, and household items but also to reading materials, which has prompted critics to accuse . . . DOCCS of censorship.

More specifically, the New Yorker article reports that of the approved vendors, “the initial five . . . offered fewer than a hundred books for sale, two dozen of which are coloring books.” The DOCCS spokesperson sourced in the article confirmed that “prisoners will lose access to new and used book shipments from unapproved mail catalogues and online retailers, as well as family members.” Family members are always suspected of being sources of contraband. Simply put, the DOCCS was going to adopt California’s CCR Title 15 Section 3134.1, discussed earlier. Luckily, a public outcry ensued after word got out of the book access restrictions. Here’s one informed Tweeter’s reaction:

Molly Crabapple‏ @mollycrabapple [January 7, 2018]

Under new rules, people in NY prisons can only receive books from 5 certified vendors. They offer 5 junk sex novels, 14 bibles & religious books, 24 drawing/coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 guitar/chess/how-to books, 1 dictionary, 1 thesaurus. No other books can be sent in

I believe books are inmates’ best friends. New York’s attempt to provide safety and security with this overreaching policy is an example of a prison system that looks shortsightedly, or worse, unknowingly, at the science-based fact that reading is good for people.

Interestingly, New York’s larger problem is revealed in the New Yorker article, and it is a systemwide problem in both state and federal prisons: prison staff act as delivery vehicles for prison contraband. On this point, DOCCS’s acting commissioner agrees that, “at times, prison staff have helped smuggle contraband into prisons,” but he adds this qualifier: “The majority of staff are honest; they do a good job. But some number of a workforce of twenty-nine thousand will compromise themselves.”

An important aside: on January 12, 2018, three days after Gross’s New Yorker article appeared, the magazine released this update:

On Friday, January 12th, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Twitter, “I am directing the Dept. of Corrections to rescind its flawed pilot program that restricted shipment of books & care packages to inmates.” A spokesperson for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision explained in a statement that the program would be suspended until concerns about “the price and availability of products under this program” could be addressed.

Censorship Concerns

The restriction of books destined for inmate reading raises a censorship issue. Book and magazine content is highly regulated in California, but predominately on materials you’d expect to see banned, such as pornography or instructions on how to create bombs.

A recent situation in New Jersey highlights the censorship issue. On January 8, 2018, the New York Times ran an article by Jonah Engel Bromwich and Benjamin Mueller entitled “Ban on Book about Mass Incarceration Lifted in New Jersey Prison after A.C.L.U. Protest.” The New Jersey Department of Corrections had banned legal scholar and civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This New York Times bestseller is a scholarly account of the rebirth of an American caste-like system that results in the incarceration of millions of African Americans. It’s a must read. Alexander carefully looks at the history of slavery through the post–Civil War discriminatory Jim Crow laws enacted as a backlash against the gains that the Reconstruction Era afforded African Americans. Jim Crow discrimination has been redesigned by our society, as shown by Alexander, as mass incarceration of African Americans, for reasons carefully annotated and presented in this unrelenting scholarly tome.

In her preface, Alexander acknowledges that her book is not for everyone. Her target audience is “people who care deeply about racial justice but who . . . do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration.” What’s wrong with this book being read by inmates? What are the government’s concerns about this information getting out?

The New York Times article goes on to report that because of a no-nonsense legal letter written to the New Jersey correction commissioner by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the state backed down. The letter said that the ban violated the First Amendment as well as the correctional institution’s own regulations and “called for an immediate end to what it said was ‘an ironic, misguided, and harmful’ instance of censorship.” Subsequently, the ban of the book was lifted by the New Jersey state prison system.


Inmates depend on watchdog organizations and interested people to fend for their rights. Inmates’ rights are in a constant struggle with safety and security needs, and they can be easily trounced upon. The importance of books and their power to influence inmates in positive ways—including aiding inmates to be more empathic and relaxed in a constantly hostile environment—is a sane and intuitive reason to allow books to continue to flow onto prison yards.

The safety and security concerns that books may pose do not outweigh having policies that protect easy access to them. Using online book companies to ship books to inmates is a smart way to resolve the problem. Censorship threatens books and other printed content. New Jersey attempted to ban an important historically based book that educates about contemporary Jim Crow culture leading to mass incarceration. This is important reading for everyone.

Your comments are always welcome.

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