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A Win for the Right to Read: NY Rescinds Prison Ban on Book Donations

Jordan Calhoun

Staff Writer

Jordan is a writer and pop culture savant in New York City. He holds a B.A. in Sociology and Criminal Justice, B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Japanese, and an M.P.A. in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy. He might solve a mystery, or rewrite history. Find him on Twitter @JordanMCalhoun.

If you go the extra mile to be an ethical steward of books, you might be the type of reader who donates books to prisons. Donating books to prisons is one of the kindest moves you can make with your bookshelf, transforming a few dust-collecting shelves into reading material for a book-starved prison system that has a narrow selection, limits library access, and in the case of three New York prisons was taking a frighteningly terrible step to siphon literature from being accessible.

Last month, news broke that the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision filed Directive 4911A, banning books from being donated to inmates. Thanks to community pressure and advocates like PEN America and Books Behind Bars—where I donate my own books—Governor Cuomo has directed that it be rescinded. At least for now.

“Concerns from families need to be addressed,” Cuomo said, “while we redouble efforts to fight prison contraband.”

Directive 4911A was shortly enacted as a pilot program on three New York State prisons with the intention of tightening security by severely restricting most care packages to inmates, including books. Instead, to receive books, inmates would have to purchase them from one of six pre-approved vendors and pay retail-level prices in order to read. The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision noted that inmates would still have access to the prison library, yet advocacy groups and families rebutted that libraries are actively controlled, meaning that prisons decide who has access to them. Someone in solitary confinement, for example, does not.

While the directive lasted only briefly from its December 2017 announcement until being pulled last month, it was still a scary move in its implications: not only are prisons willing to restrict the right to read, but prison restrictions such as these are intended to spread more widely and, as Books Behind Bars put it, favor “exploitative prison industry businesses.”

The threat is over for now, but we should take the opportunity to remind ourselves that not everyone has access to the life-saving power of books; alas, not everyone even agrees with their power and people’s un-infringed right to read.

Books are a source of knowledge, adventure, empathy, and a catalyst for growth and change in our lives, but they’re about to be a lot more difficult to come by for some who may need them most. If you have a stack of books collecting dust—and who are we kidding, we do—consider donating them to Books Through Bars or other reading advocacy organizations. You can find a deeper guide on donating your books to prisons here.