Allegheny County Jail Deeply Restricts Access to Literature for Incarcerated Individuals

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

In a story that continues to play out again and again, Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Jail has increased restrictions on the books incarcerated individuals have access to during their time at the facility.

Effective November 16, those who are incarcerated can no longer receive materials from vendors such as Barnes and Noble or Christian Books. In jails across the country, access to printed material is often restricted to new books that come directly from publishers or vendors. This means organizations that donate books to prisons often find the materials they’ve sorted through that meet an ever-changing range of criteria returned to sender. Rather, those who are incarcerated can only receive books which are sent to them brand new. And because of how much latitude there is in leadership at prisons and how little transparency there is to outsiders, censorship thrives in these institutions.

Allegheny County’s new restrictions, though, don’t remove books entirely. Instead, they limited the material accessible to individuals to a whopping 214 books and 49 religious books and whatever might be in their pod’s library. Noteworthy though is that the 263 books are accessible only through tablets purchased through the prison’s contract with Global Tel*Link (GTL).

In other words: these books are only free for incarcerated individuals who have the money to pay for a tablet.

This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it one that will likely be ending any time soon as prisons continue to find ways to charge some of the most vulnerable populations in the country for tools that should be free.

GTL made news earlier this year when it became clear how much exploitation prisons sought within their own facilities — those who deserve access to accurate information, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic, are forced to pony up what little money they have or go without. Many jobs available to those who experience incarceration have been winding down, meaning that the small amount of money individuals could earn (sometimes as meagre and inhumane as 4¢ an hour) is no longer an option. In an era where access to reliable, accurate, factually-based information is especially vital, charging vulnerable populations dehumanizes citizens who are already more likely to be among the most marginalized in the U.S.

“People in jails, prisons, and detention centers are extremely vulnerable populations in terms of censorship and exploitation by prison profiteers like Securus and GTL,” said Michelle Dillon in a PEN America press release from April. Dillon is the public records manager of the Human Rights Defense Center and co-signer on the letter. “Especially during a global pandemic, it is crucial that prisoners retain access to tools for connecting to information and their communities, and that these tools be made available without exorbitant price tags.”

In that same statement from earlier this year, James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America, emphasized the need for companies like GTL to do the right thing and offer these tablets at no charge. “Tablets offer a needed access point for news, books, and other information that provides knowledge, comfort, and connection. Aventiv and GTL can do the right thing by suspending all fees and providing this vital window to the outside world.”

Of course, these contracts offer incentives to the facilities that use them, and in the case of Allegheny County, over $4 million dollars in kickbacks have been received from the telecom company. While incarcerated individuals who can afford a tablet are able to utilize an hour and a half of free credits — this includes reading books, the news, emailing with friends and family, and video visits with loved ones — once they reach that limit, they’re expected to pay for additional time.

The books available via GTL tablets are extremely limited. As Christopher West (who goes by Brother Hush), a current individual incarcerated at Allegheny County said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Current, books like To Kill a Mockingbird are inaccessible.

“But I gave it a try, I thought I would re-read To Kill a Mockingbird.” They don’t have it,” Hush said. “You limit us to reading classics,, but you don’t even have Mockingbird? It’s a bad joke.”

“Mostly it’s the stuff from high school that you didn’t want to read in high school,” Hush said. “We’re stuck with old books nobody wants to read or authors you never heard of on a device that’s so Fugazi, it never works.”

As always, the explanation given by the prison is an unsatisfying and untrue one that points the blame to potential contraband entering the facility. But as prisons already limit their materials to books purchased directly from a vendor — such as Barnes and Noble or Christian Books — it’s a weak excuse to cover up what is hard to deny as a move to increase profits and continue to belittle, dehumanize, and deny access to information and entertainment to those who are stuck in the system.

Reading reduces recidivism, but in the US prison industrial complex, profits matter more than rehabilitation. People passionate about censorship and the right to informational access should be appalled by this move.

Contact Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at 412-350-6500. Tell him to restore and expand access to books for people in Allegheny County Jail.