Books in Jail


UPDATE - the assholes relented. The world churns a little more towards sanity.

I realize that I am conflating jail and prison here, but bear with me:

On November 16th, Allegheny County Jail’s incarcerated population got a memo from ACJ warden Orlando Harper letting them know that, due to the security issue of potential contraband, they are no longer allowed to receive books from the outside. Instead, said Harper, incarcerated individuals now “have the ability to read over 214 free books and 49 free religious books through our tablet program.” 
Yes—where incarcerated individuals were previously able to receive books through Barnes and Noble and the Christian Bookstore, now they can only access a set library of 263 books via entertainment tablets. The prison charges by the minute for tablet use. 
This is self-evidently cruel. Restricting book access restricts access to knowledge, restricts access to transportive experiences, and hinders mental health, which ACJ has already come under fire for neglecting during the pandemic.

Richard Lauffer, currently incarcerated at ACJ, says that books were “brain food” for himself and others at ACJ. “My only pastime is these books. And now that I don’t have them, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Lauffer said. “I’m going to be lost now.” 
“I love to read . . . but now I’m being limited to only certain titles and if I want to read longer than my free credits allow, then I have to pay,” says Christopher West a.k.a. Brother Hush, a musical artist and activist currently incarcerated in ACJ. (A county spokeswoman has now gone on record saying that all tablet reading is free, unlike other tablet usage.) “What makes this situation worse is that because of coronavirus, we spend 23 hours a day in our cell. Books at least made that somewhat bearable and they’ve taken that away.”

 It would be considered "reasonable discourse" to sit here and say, "it serves them right, those damned prisoners." But that's what we should reject outright.

There is a tendency to think that everyone in jail is there for the right reason--to keep other people safe. Plenty of people are in jail who end up never being charged or convicted of anything. We know that the police lie. We know that prosecutors are corrupt. Innocent people going to jail or prison is a feature of our legal system that has never really been solved. There are far too many people sent to prison for multi-decade sentences who end up being exonerated. There are way too many who end up being put to death as well. Innocent people should not be executed let alone left in custody.

One of the most influential articles that I read this year was about how everything has been revealed to be a sham. I prefer to substitute the word bullshit for sham, but that's me. The rules for our society are based on what reactionary, imperfect people have decided should be in place to maintain their idea of order. This has always been based around keeping minorities in a position of subservience and, to do that, you have to keep them broke. If you come up with enough non-violent offenses that you can slap onto people, you can confiscate what little money they have and then turn around and cut property taxes so that wealthy white people don't have to pay as much. They get richer, everyone else gets poorer, and the cops go from maintaining the peace to making sure there is a flood of revenue into the coffers of the people who make the laws. It's utter bullshit.

These practices are bullshit:

Police helping landlords evict tenants in times of financial trouble? Due to the coronavirus, not anymore in New YorkMiami, and New Orleans. But—and you see where this is going—why do the police aid evictions when tenants are stricken with other, noncoronavirus illnesses?


The city shutting off your water, or your power, as punishment for hardship? During this public health emergency, plenty of cities and companies have suddenly found a way to keep service turned on. “As long as COVID-19 remains a health concern,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, “no Detroit resident should have concerns about whether their water service will be interrupted.” Why in the hell should any Detroit resident have concerns about their water service being interrupted, ever? Shouldn’t clean water be the absolute base level of service delivered by a city to its residents?


Sick employees forced to take unpaid leave or work while sick if they want to keep their jobs? Walmart recently announced it would provide up to two weeks of paid leave for any employee who contracts the coronavirus. And the House just passed a bill to address the problem, though as the New York Times editorial board notes, the House’s failure to make the bill universal “is an embarrassment that endangers the health of workers, consumers and the broader American public.” But why should any sick worker fear losing their pay or their job at any time? And why are the most vulnerable to punitive sick leave practices the workers making the lowest wages?

In every single one of these cases, it’s not just that most of these practices are accepted as “standard.”

It’s that they are a way to punish people, to make lives more difficult, or to make sure that money keeps flowing upward. Up until now, activists and customers have been meant to believe that the powers that be could never change these policies—it would be too expensive, or too unwieldy, or would simply upset the way things are done. But now, faced suddenly with an environment in which we’re all supposed to at least appear to be focused on the common good, the rule-makers have decided it’s OK to suspend them.

The rules for who gets thrown in jail, particularly for non-violent offenses, is bullshit. Cash bail requirements, that's bullshit as well. The punitive, small-minded nature of our society is an absolute expression of bullshit on a wide scale. We do not need to treat people like this. If you're in jail for using marijuana, for example, then that's bullshit. The dam has broken and states are beginning to legalize the use of this drug. The entire war on drugs is a failure anyway. 

Now think of what it means to be in jail in Allegheny County and not be able to read a book because of someone's idea of an enforceable rule. Books are absolutely plentiful and cheap right now. If you really wanted to, you could build a massive library of books for any jail in the country simply by asking for donations. Use bulk purchase options to add titles to a simple library designed to maximize the ability of the prisoners to read what's there. In no time, you could assemble a reading library of several thousand books for a rotating jail population of 500 or 600 prisoners. Better yet, let all of the non-violent offenders out and reduce that number.

As to that enforceable rule about how many books are available to prisoners. Why even have a limit or a rule? Who set that rule and why did they do it? How did you come up with that number? Was it another budget cut designed to ensure nobody in power would have to pay a little more in taxes? Come on.

If we scale that out to digital copies and devices, the sky is the limit in terms of what's available. I don't get why they charge by the minute for tablet use. That seems like bullshit to me as well. Our society has to address who really needs to be locked up and who doesn't. It needs to reform the jail system and the prison system and eliminate the idea that these can be for-profit businesses. That's a whole other animal entirely, of course. But the act of denying people books is draconian and ridiculous. If you're going to lock people up, let them read.

What's the harm that could come of it? None. There is no valid reason, none that registers with any understanding of how to treat human beings. It's just a reflection of outdated rules and a punitive, shit-headed mentality that thinks that you have to be "tough on crime" and make prisoners suffer needlessly. Let them have some books, let the quality of life for prisoners be something that we can estimate as bearable. 

This is not the 19th Century anymore but you wouldn't know it from how we act.

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