Thursday, December 02, 2021

American Prison Is Purely Punitive and Exploitative - In No Way Rehabilitative

proteanmag  |  his April, the Iowa Department of Corrections issued a ban on charities, family members, and other outside parties donating books to prisoners. Under the state’s new guidelines, incarcerated people can get books only from a handful of “approved vendors.” Used books are prohibited altogether, and any new reading material is subject to a laundry list of restrictions.

The policy is harsh, but far from unique. In fact, it’s only the latest in a wave of similar bans. In 2018, the Michigan prison system introduced an almost identical set of rules, and Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington have all made attempts to block book donations, which were only rolled back after public outcry. Across the United States, the agencies responsible for mass imprisonment are trying to severely limit incarcerated people’s access to the written word—an alarming trend, and one that bears closer examination.

The official narrative is that donated books could contain “contraband which poses a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the facility”—the language used in Michigan—and should be banned for everyone’s safety. This is a flimsy justification that begins to fall apart under even the lightest scrutiny. While it’s true that contraband is often smuggled into prisons (cell phones, tobacco, and marijuana being some of the most popular items), it’s not originating from nonprofit groups like the Appalachian Prison Book Project or Philadelphia’s Books Through Bars. In fact, twelve of the seventeen incidents used to justify a book ban in Washington didn’t involve books at all

Instead, the bulk of the contraband in today’s prisons is smuggled in by guards themselves, who profit handsomely from their illicit sidelines, sometimes making as much as $300 for a single pack of cigarettes. If prison officials’ concerns were genuine, the appropriate move would be to limit the power and impunity of their officers—not snatch books away from those who are already powerless. The old cartoon scenario of a hollow book with a saw or a gun inside just isn’t realistic, and its invocation is a sign that something else is going on.

That “something else,” predictably enough, is profit. With free books banned, prisoners are forced to rely on the small list of “approved vendors” chosen for them by the prison administration. These retailers directly benefit when states introduce restrictions. In Iowa, the approved sources include Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million, some of America’s largest retail chains—and, notably, ones which charge the full MSRP value for each book, quickly draining prisoners’ accounts. An incarcerated person with, say, $20 to spend can now only get one book, as opposed to three or four used ones; in states where prisoners make as little as 25 cents an hour for their labor, many can’t afford even that. 

With e-books, the situation is even worse, as companies like Global Tel Link supply supposedly “free” tablets which actually charge their users by the minute to read. Even public-domain classics, available on Project Gutenberg, are only available at a price under these systems—and prisons, in turn, receive a 5% commission on every charge. All of this amounts to rampant price-gouging and profiteering on an industrial scale. 

The rise of these private vendors has also been mirrored by the systematic dismantling of the prison library system. In the last ten years, budgets for literacy and educational resources have seen dramatic cuts, reducing funding to almost nothing, and incarcerated people have been deprived as a result. In Illinois, for instance, the Department of Corrections spent just $276 on books across the entire state in 2017, down from an already meager $605 the previous year. (This means, incidentally, that each of the state’s roughly 39,000 prisoners was allotted seven-tenths of a cent.) Oklahoma, meanwhile, has no dedicated budget for books at all, requiring prison librarians to purchase them out-of-pocket. Many books in its small stock are “falling apart, dilapidated and may be missing some pages.” These cuts are part of capitalism’s more general push to privatize or eliminate public goods and services—libraries among them—so massive corporations can receive windfalls. In prisons, the method is especially devastating.