If you want to know how reading saves the lives of people behind bars, listen to the poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts. At 16, in 1996, Mr. Betts was sentenced to eight years for a carjacking. Books, he has said, “became magic.” Reading became the way that he “learned about what it means to be human.” After being released from prison, Mr. Betts got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, received a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College and graduated from Yale Law School.
Or ask Michelle Jones. Last fall, after serving more than two decades in prison for murdering her son, Ms. Jones began a Ph.D. program at New York University. While incarcerated, she’d read avidly and discovered her love for history — including the history of the prison where she was locked up. In 2016, along with another woman in prison, she won the award for Indiana Historical Society’s best research project.
Mr. Betts and Ms. Jones may be exceptional people, but their experience is backed up by research that reading and education lead to lower recidivism rates. 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.
So it’s mind boggling that this month, in an effort to “enhance the safety and security of correctional facilities,” the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision began implementing a ban that forces incarcerated people in New York state prisons to receive packages from only a handful of select state-approved sellers. The new rule, which has so far been enforced in three state prisons (Green, Taconic and Green Haven) and will be expanded to the entire state in September, has the effect of banning not just items typically sent to them in care packages from loved ones and organizations, like fresh produce, but also many books.
So far, six companies have been approved by the state to sell books, and the first five announced offer one dictionary, one thesaurus, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, 14 religious books, 24 coloring books and five romance novels. The next Mr. Betts or Ms. Jones will be unlikely to find inspiration in a coloring book.Continue reading the main story
There have long been policies in place to keep people in prison from reading materials that could encourage them to protest or escape, thereby threatening the general security of the prison. Federal courts have allowed prisons to censor books, and it’s common practice for states to keep lists of books they consider dangerous.
That makes sense, in theory. New York, for example, has long restricted books with maps as well as those with nudity. Yet a nudity ban means that art history, figure drawing and anatomy books are also banned. Meantime, the Texas Department of Criminal justice has a confounding list of 10,000 banned books that includes “Where’s Waldo? Santa Spectacular,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Freakonomics” and “The Color Purple.”
What’s clear is that in most states such policies are unclear, with people finding out if a book is not allowed only after it has been mailed, leading to frustration, wasted time and money.
“There needs to be transparency and accountability in the process which determines what materials are censored,” Amol Sinha, executive director of New Jersey’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter, wrote me in an email this week, after New Jersey came under fire when news broke that two prisons had banned Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” The New Jersey Department of Corrections has since lifted the ban.
“It’s really arbitrary what’s banned,” said Amy Peterson, who works with Books Through Bars collective, an organization that sends books to incarcerated people in 40 states free of charge. She estimates they send about 700 packages a month. Within the past year, a human figure drawing book was sent back for being pornographic, as was a history book featuring Nick Ut’s famous “Napalm Girl” photograph.
“We get letters from people in solitary who have no access to the library, from indigent prisoners and people who don’t have anyone on the outside to send them anything, asking us for books,” says Ms. Peterson. The new ban forces New York families to purchase books for their loved ones, while organizations like Books Through Bars provide them free.
This new policy may seem inexplicable. But the strategy of keeping information and limiting access to knowledge from black Americans — blacks make up only 14 percent of New York’s population but 49 percent of its prisoners — has a sordid history.
“Slaves weren’t allowed to read because reading would directly lead to rebellion,” Heather Ann Thompson, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and the author of “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.”
“Censorship was a main reason prisoners in Attica were so upset,” she told me. Every month an administrative committee would review what titles to allow, but “books having to do with black studies or dealing with the African-American condition were kept from people, and if they were found they were tossed out.” Black community newspapers like The Amsterdam News and The Buffalo Challenger were banned, while letters and books written in Spanish were thrown away for simply being in a language other than English.
Amazingly, according to Ms. Thompson, incarcerated people in Alabama and Texas have recently been denied her book.
That doesn’t surprise Elizabeth Hinton, a professor of history and African-American studies at Harvard. “The more checked into internal prison world and isolated, the harder it is to challenge the conditions,” said Ms. Hinton. “It’s in the interest of prison authorities not to oppress that kind of information — the history of social justice.”
But denying people the right to read, especially books that reflect their own lives, goes deeper than politics. “Every living human being has the right to be able to understand the condition of their life,” said Elizabeth Alexander, a poet and Wun Tsun Tam humanities professor at Columbia University. “Anything short of that is cruel.”
Update: Shortly after this piece published, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office said the department of corrections would suspend and review the “flawed” program.Continue reading the main story