Failure to Protect the Rights of Prisoners to Access Books

PEN America nonprofit logo courtesy of Mltellman – under
CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

“One 2013 study found that people who participate in correctional education programs while incarcerated had a 43 percent lower odds recidivating than those who did not.To Make Prisons “Safer,” Some Are Banning . . . Books, Tariro Mzezewa, NY Times

Maryland’s statewide policy limiting direct access to books represents a failure to protect the right to read for thousands of incarcerated individuals, PEN America said in a statement on Tuesday.

On May 27, the Washington Post reported that Maryland prison officials recently imposed a new policy prohibiting people in prison from directly receiving books from any source other than two prison-approved vendors, Books & Things and Edward R. Hamilton. The restrictions block people in prison from receiving literature directly from friends or family members or from online retailers. The new restrictions prevent people in prison from buying books that are sold at cheaper prices from other online retailers, or from buying books that are simply not available in the two vendors’ catalogs. There are approximately 20,000 people in Maryland state prisons.

Prison officials reportedly implemented the policy as a measure to reduce the trafficking of drugs, most notably the medication Suboxone (buprenorphine and naloxone, used to treat addition to opioids); however, prison officials were reportedly unable to answer how many strips of seized Suboxone had been found hidden in books in 2017 or 2018.

“While we respect that prison officials have an obligation to keep their prisons drug-free, this policy is misguided and unwise,” said Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “As a result of this policy, thousands of people in prison now have their access to reading and educational materials primarily dictated by the offerings of just two companies. Even with the presence of prison libraries, it’s clear that this represents a serious blow to the right to read in Maryland prisons. The policy should be rescinded and a solution found that does not restrict access to books for incarcerated individuals.”

Earlier this year, PEN America joined prison reform and civil liberties groups in voicing opposition to policies in New York State prisons and in federal prisons that similarly aimed to implement an ‘approved-vendor-only’ system for book delivery to prisons. Both policies have since been rescinded.

PEN America has run a national prison writing program for over 40 years, including an annual Prison Writing Contest available to anyone incarcerated in a federal, state, or county prison. Under this policy, PEN America would be barred from directly sending people in prison copies of its Handbook for Writers in Prison, a detailed guide to writing designed specifically for writers in prison.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. The organizaton champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.