On November 16th, Allegheny County Jail’s incarcerated population got a memo from ACJ warden Orlando Harper letting them know that, due to the security issue of potential contraband, they are no longer allowed to receive books from the outside. Instead, said Harper, incarcerated individuals now “have the ability to read over 214 free books and 49 free religious books through our tablet program.”
Yes—where incarcerated individuals were previously able to receive books through Barnes and Noble and the Christian Bookstore, now they can only access a set library of 263 books via entertainment tablets. The prison charges by the minute for tablet use.
This is self-evidently cruel. Restricting book access restricts access to knowledge, restricts access to transportive experiences, and hinders mental health, which ACJ has already come under fire for neglecting during the pandemic.
Richard Lauffer, currently incarcerated at ACJ, says that books were “brain food” for himself and others at ACJ. “My only pastime is these books. And now that I don’t have them, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Lauffer said. “I’m going to be lost now.”
“I love to read . . . but now I’m being limited to only certain titles and if I want to read longer than my free credits allow, then I have to pay,” says Christopher West a.k.a. Brother Hush, a musical artist and activist currently incarcerated in ACJ. (A county spokeswoman has now gone on record saying that all tablet reading is free, unlike other tablet usage.) “What makes this situation worse is that because of coronavirus, we spend 23 hours a day in our cell. Books at least made that somewhat bearable and they’ve taken that away.”
The available 263 books are mainly classics in the public domain—along the lines of Shakespeare, Dickens, The Odyssey. “I thought I would re-read To Kill A Mockingbird. They don’t have it,” said West. “You limit us to reading classics, but you don’t even have Mockingbird? It’s a bad joke.”
Said Warden Harper in an email to PublicSource, “This policy is by no means permanent.” Let’s make sure it isn’t. You can contact Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at 412-350-6500 and Judge Kimberly Clark, head of the Jail Oversight Board, at 412-350-0269. Tell them to remove the restrictions on book access for people in Allegheny County Jail. After that, check out Books Through Bars and Book ‘Em, organizations that distribute free books to incarcerated individuals, and see if there’s a similar organization in your area.