New policy rewrites rules on donated books for inmates


Photo courtesy of Book ‘Em/Thomas Merton Center

Volunteers at Book ‘Em — a volunteer project run by the Thomas Merton Center — package books to send to prisoners in Pennsylvania on the first three Sundays of every month.

By Emily Wolfe, Staff Writer

Amanda, an inmate at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute at Cambridge Springs, always had one thing to look forward to — a package from Book ‘Em, a Pittsburgh-based program that operates through the Thomas Merton Center, a nonprofit social justice organization, and donates books to Pennsylvania prisoners.

“Your program really helped me,” she wrote in a letter to Book ‘Em. “When I’m feeling down and depressed, I read. It takes my mind off things.”

Now, government policies preventing inmates from receiving books have halted Book ‘Em in its tracks.

After several staff members became sick, concerns about synthetic cannabinoids arose and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections initiated a 12-day lockdown from Aug. 29 to Sept. 10. Midway through the lockdown, Gov. Tom Wolf and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced the arrival of new security protocols for the DOC, which include a ban on donated books from organizations like Book ‘Em. Inmates who want books must now pay to download an e-book onto a $147 tablet.

“In a state where we pay people $0.19 an hour when they’re incarcerated, it’s ridiculous,” Jodi Lincoln, Book ‘Em’s co-chair, said in an interview.

The new security protocols were to be phased in over the 90 to 100 days following the lockdown. The DOC’s Sept. 5 press release heralded the department’s “transition to e-books.” Concerns about synthetic cannabinoids influenced both the lockdown and the new measures, the DOC said.

“Pennsylvania’s corrections officers put themselves in harm’s way to make our commonwealth safer,” Wolf said in the press release. “It is up to us to provide them protection from harm.”

Book ‘Em plans to take legal action against the policy in the next few months, Lincoln said. She said that the DOC has not provided evidence that packages from book donation organizations have been linked to drugs, and that she was optimistic about the success of a lawsuit.

In the short term, Book ‘Em and its sister organizations like Books Through Bars in Philadelphia are advocating for opponents of the ban to call the offices of Wolf and Wetzel and pressure them to end the ban.

In the past, Book ‘Em has held packing sessions twice a month, where volunteers put together packages of one to three books for inmates who had written to request them. Those have been replaced with events spent writing letters to prisoners they’ve served in the past.

“Our rule is that we can serve people every three months,” Lincoln said. “We have people who have been in prison for years, and every three months, we’re sending them a package.”

As of mid-September, the DOC offers a library of more than 8,500 e-books for inmates to buy. In order to access that library, the prisoners must purchase a $147 Global Tel Link tablet through the DOC.

The selection itself is limited, according to Lincoln. The list of available books includes pages of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, but no dictionary — the most common item prisoners request from Book ‘Em.

“It’s missing a lot of what people actually want,” Lincoln said. “There’s no legal books, there’s no graphic novels.”

Many consider the available e-books overpriced as well. One inmate incarcerated at SCI Coal Township called the e-books a “rip-off” in a letter to Book ‘Em.

“I’ve been incarcerated for over 36 years now. I’ve never been married and I have no children. As such, I don’t have outside financial help on any kind of regular basis,” he wrote. “I have a ‘block job’ where I sweep and mop the floor … no money to be made there. There’s no way I can afford the GTL rip-off e-books.”

The inmate, who signed his letter as “Chuck,” added that another inmate he knew owned a physical book that had cost $9.95 at Barnes & Noble. The other inmate had checked and found the same book in GTL’s store for $15.95.

“They’re price-gouging a captive audience,” Chuck wrote.

Another letter came from Ciara, incarcerated at SCI Cambridge Springs, who said her face lit up every time she received a package from Book ‘Em.

“I think they need to take the time and spend the money on a machine that can detect the drugs,” she wrote. “We should not have to suffer for something they should have been monitering before hand [sic]. We are not all bad people so not everyone should be punished.”

Lincoln said she finds the policy at odds with the governor’s other efforts to fight addiction. On Sept. 27, Wolf called for “a continued focus on increasing access to medication-assisted treatment” to fight the opioid crisis. Lincoln sees the opposite of that happening under the new prison policy.

“Gov. Wolf and [DOC Secretary] Wortzel have very publicly talked about addressing the opioid crisis and addiction policies by trying to be less punitive. And then [they’re] taking this and turning it into an excessive punitive response,” she said. “Those don’t match up. If there is an issue with drugs being smuggled into prisons, the answer isn’t to ban books.”

Other aspects of the new protocols have met with pushback as well. Under the new policies, prisons will photocopy all legal mail sent to inmates and keep the original for 15 days, leaving lawyers concerned that mail they send their clients inside prisons will no longer be confidential.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week that the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union plans to serve the DOC with at least one First Amendment lawsuit in the coming month.

The DOC told The Pitt News it is “exploring ways to safely begin receiving donated books again,” and that “all prior book shipments … have been proved subject to compromise.”

For now, the ban on donating paper books to individual prisoners is in effect, Lincoln said, Book ‘Em will adapt to serve prisoners as well as it can. That might mean helping prisoners pay for tablets and e-books, or donating to the general prison library – but she’s hopeful that Book ‘Em will be able to return to its original model of providing personal packages to inmates who request them.

“You create a connection with an incarcerated person,” she said. “There’s something a lot more meaningful about getting a shipment sent directly to you.”

This story has been updated to include comment from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections