As Pa. overhauls prison book policies, inmates’ rights groups cry foul

Cells are shown at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017 (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

Cells are shown at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017 (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

After a rash of incidents that saw prison staff sickened by unknown substances and prompted a 12-day lockdown, Pennsylvania’s Corrections Department has changed many of its rules related to inmate privileges — including where and how they’re allowed to get books.

That has groups that advocate for inmates’ rights concerned — especially ones that donate free books to incarcerated people.

Under the old book policy, inmates could order reading material directly from publishers via catalogues. Families and friends could also send books through publishers, or approved vendors could donate.

But that sometimes led to drugs making their way into prisons.

So now, all books have to go through the Department of Corrections — or at least, they will.

Diana Woodside, with the Corrections Department, said inmates will be able to buy books via kiosks in prisons within a week, after the DOC fixes some IT issues.

However, they’re still not sure what the new policy will be on donations and book packages from friends and family.

“We’re still in conversations as to whether we would be distributing directly to inmates, or to increasing the library and putting more donated books in the library,” Woodside said.

She estimated the new book policy — whatever it is — will be solidified and in effect in 60 to 90 days. And she added, the department believes by distributing donated books itself, it will actually reach more inmates.

“We have a lot of inmates that may not even know these organizations [like Books Through Bars] exist,” she said. “We’d like to be able to reach all our inmates, and not just those who are making requests.”

In the meantime, though, donations aren’t happening.

Keir Neuringer, a volunteer with donation group Books Through Bars, said they’re concerned about how abrupt the policy change was. Books Through Bars has been an accredited vendor in Pennsylvania for 30 years — and now, Neuringer said they have no idea if they’ll be able to keep up the donations.

“There was no policy proposal. There was no discussion. There was no forethought,” he said. “This was rolled out suddenly — a raft of draconian policies that are already in place, with contracts signed.”

Neuringer estimated Books through Bars ships around 7,000 book packages to mid-Atlantic inmates annually, and around half go to Pennsylvania.

“We don’t view books as contraband,” he said. “We don’t view knowledge as contraband.”

The new book policy isn’t the only change the DOC has rolled out in response to drug concerns.

All 25 prisons are going to stop processing mail entirely. Instead, a central location will scan it, and a color copy will go to prisoners. Any legal mail will be copied on-camera in front of inmates and original documents will be preserved at the prison.

The DOC is also installing drone detection devices in all prisons and will expand the use of body scanners for visitors and staff. Staff for visiting rooms is being doubled, too, and if a visitor or prisoner is caught attempting to smuggle in drugs three times, they could face a lifetime state prison visitation ban.

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