11/30/20 UPDATE: Sheriff says books ARE still allowed at the jail as long as they come from "legitimate" distributors or publishers, and that there was never a plan to ban books at the facility.
This is good news for the folks at the jail, and we'll be trying to get on that "legitimate" distributor list (it's absurd that facilities are still citing long-discredited narratives about contraband when they have never been able to point to ONE single instance of contraband coming in through a book sent by our organization, but we'll just have to keep swatting down these ridiculous justifications...)
The fact that we were initially given incorrect information by jail staff which then had to be clarified by the Sheriff, is a reminder that often all it takes for incarcerated folks to lose access to books is a misinformed or vindictive mail room employee who decides to implement their own version of a policy whenever they feel like it. Now that won't happen here and if it does, we'll be able to resolve it quickly.
When book access is restricted or cut off, a swift and strong response from our community is assured.
When we fight, we win yall!
Original Post - 11/25/20
Asheville Prison Books recently learned that Onslow County Jail in Jacksonville, NC is planning to ban ALL books except Bibles and Qurans in conjunction with a plan to roll out tablets, which prisoners will have to pay for.
The exclusion of other religious books is blatant religious discrimination, but even more harmful is the blanket censorship this policy would impose across all categories of reading material. The tablet program would deprive pre-trial prisoners of legal resources, and all people confined at the jail of all sorts of written resources.
Asheville Prison Books has been sending free books to prisoners in North and South Carolina since 1999, and periodically facilities will try to ban us or other books-to-prisons programs from sending books to the facility. We successfully fought such an attempt by Alexander Correctional Institution in 2018.
But these days, jails and prisons have started moving toward these blanket bans of all physical books. For many reasons, digital content on tablets and other devices is an unacceptable substitute for free, diverse reading material.
The goal is censorship
Earlier this month, Onslow County jail rejected and returned a package of books we had sent to someone there. When we called to ask why, they told us that not only does the jail only accepts books from certain vendors such as Amazon, but that we should not bother trying to get on the approved vendor list because the jail would soon be banning all books as they begin to sell tablets to prisoners.
Jail staff we spoke with openly acknowledged that censorship was a primary goal of the shift to tablets: "We only want it to be the books that we want to go in, so we don't have to look through the NC ban list," one staff member said, referencing the list of hundreds of books banned in NC state prisons.
This banned book list contains many books by and about black, queer, and other marginalized people. A few notable entries on the list include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands by Stephen King, and Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars by Clifton Collins, and Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez.
You can see a copy of the NC ban list obtained in 2018 here: http://media2.newsobserver.com/content/media/2018/1/23/BannedBookList.pdf
Tracking a dangerous nationwide trend
While prisons and jails already engage in an egregious level of censorship, switching to tablets introduces a new, draconian level of censorship as prisoners are limited to accessing a very small selection of authorized titles available on the tablet.
At another jail in Pennsylvania that recently switched to tablets, prisoners only have 214 books to choose from. To make matters worse, they can only use the tablets for 99 minutes per day and can't use them after 10:00PM.
Prison profiteers such as Global Tel*Link and JPay who sell tablets have received criticism from other books-to-prisoners programs for engaging in predatory behavior after gaining a monopoly on prison reading such as charging prisoners per-minute to read on the tablets and making money by selling public domain books transcribed by Project Gutenberg.
Why ban books?
Tablets aren't necessarily a bad thing—prisoners may want to purchase them, and may benefit from some of the content they provide—but the trend of banning free resources in favor of predatory, for-profit, devices can't be allowed to continue. Simply put, people who want books should be able to continue to receive them.
Currently, 72% of the population in custody at the Onslow County jail are pre-trial, meaning they haven't been convicted of a crime but can't make bail. Prisoners who can't make bail likely also can't pay for a tablet. And while the majority of the letters we receive from jails include requests for legal resources, tablets typically do not include these kinds of materials.
Banning books also cuts prisoners off from important outside connections. Many prisoners who are isolated and have no support from family or friends write to us not only to request books, but to have some connection outside the prison walls—sending their art, poetry, and thoughts to someone who cares.
We read every letter sent to us, and hand-select books to send back. This connection is one of the reasons we do the work of sending free books to people inside; and when people receive these books, they are reminded that someone reached back through the bars to put something in their outstretched hand.
What's at stake
Tablet programs are spreading in popularity with corrections administrations nationwide because they make censorship efficient and provide an opportunity for major giveaways to prison profiteers capitalizing on a literally captive market.
For people trapped inside jails and prisons, the outcome of such programs include escalating levels of deprivation, isolation, and desperation, as people find themselves cut off from the already-meager resources they depend on.
This is unconscionable in the context of America's notoriously cruel, bloated and racist carceral system – and it is particularly appalling in the context of the covid19 pandemic, which has exacerbated suffering behind bars to an almost unimaginable degree.
We should be emptying our jails of people, not books.