Nila Bala is a criminal justice fellow at R Street and former public defender in Baltimore.
Books have always served as outlets for escape, comfort and learning. From Narnia to Hogwarts to Middle-earth, the worlds conceived in books allow readers to move beyond their immediate circumstances and often make real shifts in their lives.
But not everyone has access to these incredible resources. In fact, states have recently been threatening to make it more difficult for a group of people who may benefit most from books — those who live behind bars in our nation’s state prisons.
Last month, it was learned that New Jersey had attempted to ban the best-selling book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” in two correctional facilities. Ironically, author Michelle Alexander wrote the book for people “locked up or locked out of mainstream society.” New Jersey has since reversed its ban, thanks to efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Also last month, the state of New York issued Directive 4911A in an attempt to restrict the books available to prisoners at three of its prisons to material distributed by six vendors. This would have prevented free books — such as those provided by Books Through Bars — from reaching prisoners, leaving them with a dismal selection.
New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision claimed these efforts were announced to “enhance the safety and security of correctional facilities through a more controlled inmate package program.” In reality, the governmental regulations would have meant higher costs for families trying to send reading materials to loved ones. Thankfully, after a surge of outrage, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) stepped in to rescind the directive.
But prisoners in other states are not so lucky. Texas has upwards of 11,000 books on its banned list, including works by William Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth. Arizona forbids prisoners from reading “Batman: Eye of the Beholder” and “E=MC2: Simple Physics.”
This makes no sense. Educating prisoners is one of the simplest and most cost-effective interventions to implement in confinement settings, and it can have a huge payoff. Incarcerated adults have significantly lower literacy skills than ordinary Americans, making it difficult for them to reenter society when their sentences are up. But a recent Rand Corp. study covering 30 years’ worth of data shows that giving prisoners access to education can lower recidivism by 43 percent. Such programs could save states hundreds of millions of dollars, but they cannot be done without giving inmates the proper access to literature.
States can ban books in prisons because of a federal regulation allowing officials to censor material that is “detrimental to the security, good order or discipline of the institution,” or that “might facilitate criminal activity.” The Supreme Court upheld the regulation in 1989.
These regulations make sense when it comes to books that instruct readers how to make weapons, incite riots or escape prison. Yet prisons have wide latitude in determining what falls into these categories, meaning that, depending on the state, thousands of books may be banned.
Restrictions on books do not make sense for prisoners who want to rehabilitate themselves and learn. Access to texts can help inmates acquire skills essential to finding and maintaining work after release. As a public defender in Baltimore, I encountered motivated clients who took advantage of their time in prison to study and earn GEDs or to develop new skills that helped them secure employment upon release. Access to books enables these individuals to shape their own educations and dream beyond their current situations.
Clearly, regulations that allow officials to censor prisoners’ reading materials are too broad. Reading is not a trivial issue; it can single-handedly provide prisoners with hope, connect them to the outside world and turn former convicts into productive members of society.
Most prisoners will one day be released. Why not let them learn while they serve?
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