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Notebook: (1) Prison Writing, Prison Reading
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Lisa Bateman, Next Year (2012–2014). Installation: Offset print on newspaper broadsheet, 141 pages, reading magnifier, chain, furniture. Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia
A few weeks ago, Chris Gelardi, a journalist covering New York State’s criminal-legal system for the nonprofit news site NYS Focus, learned from a volunteer working with incarcerated artists that the New York State Department of “Corrections and Community Supervision” had enacted a sweeping new directive constraining publication for writers who are in prison. NYS Focus is one a small but hardy band of news outlets, some nonprofit (Gotham Gazette, Gothamist, The City), some not (Hell Gate, NY Politico), endeavoring to cover city and state-level politics in New York after both the New York Times and (after a brief effort) The Wall Street Journal shelved their local sections and focused on a national subscription audience. New York’s capital Albany is a notoriously murky ecosystem that thrives on inattention. New York readers are lucky, though, in having a strong historic culture of journalism resisting, as Gelardi did on that day, the ruination of local news and its aftermath, impunity (see former New York Times and Washington Post media observer Margaret Sullivan’s recent book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy).
Gelardi found that these new rules had not been announced, and correction watchdogs and advocates he spoke with were unaware of their existence. The Department did not post them to its web site until he asked for comment. The rules codified a number of constraints that have historically been imposed on prison writing and have historically been found unconstitutional. In 1996 the Supreme Court struck down, for instance, as a violation of the First Amendment, New York’s 1977 “Son of Sam” law, which required that writers forfeit income from work describing crimes of which they have been convicted; the New York rules actually forbid depictions of incarcerated people’s crime and victims. After Son of Sam was overturned, administrators generally turned to one of two vehicles for constraining prisoners’ expression. The first relies on prohibitions against conducting “mail-order business” from prison, though this maneuver was found unconstitutional in a 1998 case brought by author Mumia Abu-Jamal. Nevertheless the new New York directive prohibited writers’ receiving any “prize, gift, or proceeds” from work published while incarcerated. Prison censors also lean on decisions, such as the Supreme Court’s Turner v. Safley (1980) and Thornburgh v. Abbot (1989), that give prison administrators broad discretion to restrict civil liberties in the name of security, persuant to “legitimate penological concerns.”
In the event, one day after Gelardi published his exposé of the new restraints, to broad condemnation, the Department of Corrections rescinded the new rules, saying the directive was “not being interpreted as the Department intended.” A victory for local journalism and a stark illustration of the urgency of its survival, though probably not an enduring guarantee of First Amendment protections for incarcerated people. The opacity of prison conditions and the silencing of its constituencies are paired realities.
The New York rules (whose brief tenure on the Department of Corrections website has elapsed, but which linger in Gelardi’s piece) revealingly mirror the grounds often invoked to prevent literature from entering prison: writings were prohibited that “promote sexual activity” (a widespread constraint that has been used to block books about art, anatomy, yoga, and the Holocaust, as well as LGBTQ+-themed material); that appear to be “written in code” (a constraint that has been used to limit books in foreign languages and dictionaries); and that depict symbols of “unauthorized group activity,” “advocate rebellion against government authority,” or portray “law enforcement officers or [the department of corrections] in a manner which could jeopardize safety or security.” These security-minded provisions are perhaps the most misused category and the most subject to overreach, depriving incarcerated people of access to serious works of journalism, history, and scholarship like Ida B. Wells’ exposes of lynching and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Last year author Heather Ann Thompson had to sue the State of New York to get her Pulitzer-winning book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, permitted behind bars. Keri Blakinger, whose own prison memoir has been banned in Florida, has noted in The Marshall Project that this resistance to books on political history seems rarely to extend to texts favored by white-supremacist agitators, like Mein Kampf and the conspiracist tract The Turner Diaries. A 2019 PEN report called out the expansive excuses used to keep books out of prison, and in 2021 The Marshall Project began keeping a list of banned works by state (50,000 and counting). The American Library Association will soon is release updated “Standards for Library Services for the Incarcerated or Detained,” which includes a much more robust section on censorship than the last (1992) version, as well as a firm statement that “individual circulation records must never be shared with anyone other than library staff without written permission from the individual or under subpoena.”
The ALA standards include a “Library Bill of Rights,” first adopted in 1939, and “Prisoners Right to Read” statement, first adopted in 2010, that states in part, “The right to choose what to read is deeply important, and the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. The denial of intellectual freedom—the right to read, to write, and to think—diminishes the human spirit of those segregated from society.” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote of the Turner v. Safley decision that the rule at issue “comes perilously close to a state-sponsored effort at mind control.” This spring U. S. Representatives Emanuel Cleaver, II, Sheila Jackson Lee, and Shontel Brown introduced the Prison Libraries Act to invest $10 million per year through 2029 in expanded library access and administration.
Chelsea Jordan-Makely, a librarian with the ALA’s Library Services to the Justice Involved interest group, which worked on the standards, referred me to a fascinating new white paper by Ithaka S&R, an academic think tank, that endeavored to uncover all the existing constraints on what imprisoned people have access to read. The Ithaka report describes a thicket of orders embedded “within documents that are variously codified as handbooks, regulations, rules, directives, policy, or procedures … found under rules and regulations about mail, correspondence, or publications … In some cases, policies also reference attachments or addendums, which are seldom easily discoverable.” PEN echoed this characterization in their 2019 report, noting that there is “very little public visibility into how these policies are considered, adopted, implemented and reviewed.” Often “the ultimate decision-maker about a person’s right to read is housed in the prison mailroom.”
Ithaka, and, with less detail, the ALA standards and PEN report, provide concrete recommendations for confining these restrictions to their meaningful purpose: sexual descriptions and nudity prevented only such materials would be harassing of fellow inmates and staff; works in foreign languages must be permitted; constraints on maps and blueprints (books like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have been turned away because of pretend maps; Daniel Genis, the author of Sentence: Ten Years and a Thousand Books in Prison, told me authorities tried to block a gift of The Peloponnesian War, though its maps are two thousand years old and in Greece) should be constrained only when they describe the immediate area of the facility in question; threats to “security, good order, and discipline” must be “immediate, tangible, and immanent,” such as manuals for making weapons or explosives, or investigations of gangs with a current dynamic of violence within the specific facility. Ithaka and PEN also reject widespread policies requiring that books be sent directly by certain commercial vendors, and in certain formats (no hardcovers). They find that claims that books are a significant vehicle for contraband are undocumented, noting that prohibiting hardcovers presents an undue burden on students.
Coming soon for subscribers! Edward Mendelson on Bible translation, Àlvaro Enrigue on the documentary fiction of Cristina Rivera Garza, Emmanuel Iduma on the great kingdoms of Africa
More important than refining specific rules for what to keep out of prisons, though, Ithaka argues, is demanding a transparent, rules-based process for withholding literature from prison settings: lists of forbidden works should be publicly available, and there should be a robust, third-party appeal procedure for rejected works.
Technology, of course, has presented opportunities for expanded access to information in prison even as it has enhanced opportunities for administrators to interfere with it. Early in the 2010s, when public outcry finally limited extortionate rates for outgoing phone calls from US prisons, the private prison technology companies that were enriched by that monopoly seized the moment by signing contracts to distribute tablets in prison providing email access and downloads of books, games, videos, and music—for a price. After an outcry over charging inmates by the minute for access to free books in the Gutenberg Library, reading of free books on the tablets became free (celebrated with a press release), but observers remain concerned at the privatization of prison communications. (Shane Bauer’s American Prison traces the long history, going back to colonial times, of the configuration of the American penal system around commercial gain.) Incarcerated writers welcomed the access to digital books and writing software and storage, but, in addition to charging them for access, the tablets have been known to erase files unpredictably with very limited recourse to customer service. Users are left to assume that they will lose their personal files and the downloads they buy if they are moved or released or their systems change providers. Zeke Caligiuri’s poetry group in Minnesota’s Stillwater Correctional Facility lost its anthology when “the computers went dark” due to budget cuts. Demetrius Buckley wrote for The Marshall Project that “the power to accept or reject” what he can keep and see on his tablet “falls on whoever the Michigan Department of Corrections appoints.” As Tonya Riley wrote in Mother Jones, “while the national prison population has swelled to unprecedented levels, corrections systems have provided inadequate funding for programs, services, and essential goods. At the same time, corrections officials have outsourced this spending to private corporations, which have turned prison services into a multibillion-dollar retail industry.”
Mail is increasingly digitized; some prison systems are replacing in-person legal services with LexisNexis searches, evan as, as Shane Bauer, Daniel Genis, and many others have described, budget cuts for prison staffing have limited access to in-person educational programs and recreational opportunities. (In just the last few weeks New York Mayor Eric Adams proposed cutbacks to programs in the city’s notoriously violent and chaotic Rikers Island jail complex, where the city’s promises of reform were just this week called out as hollow by an independent monitor’s report.) The tablets—whose contracts require access to paid content, can stipulate vendors for e-books and other downloads, and can bar digital library access—become a kind of toll booth for contact between incarcerated people and their families and the outside world. Ithaka notes that the prison technology companies are already expanding into textbooks and educational materials in anticipation of the restoration of Pell Grants for incarcerated people—a resource whose withdrawal in the nineties eviscerated inmates’ access to higher education, a significant determinant of their post-carceral prospects.
Yes, we are getting to writers! Read Part Two of this post here.
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post.
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