The Fight for Prisoners’ Right to Read

Alex Skopic

The books came back from Clifton, Tennessee with a simple message, scrawled across the mailing slip in black ballpoint: “MALCOLM X NOT ALLOWED.” A few weeks earlier, the volunteer workers at Books to Prisoners, a nonprofit collective based in Seattle, had mailed a biography of the Civil Rights leader to the South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, responding to a request from an incarcerated reader. Those four blunt words were the prison’s response.

When I spoke to Michelle Dillon, a core organizer with Books to Prisoners, she made it clear that the Tennessee incident was just one example of systematic repression. “The main forms we tend to see with prison censorship are the content-based and the content-neutral bans,” she said; “in other words, the bans against the content that’s in a book, and the bans against types of books, or the groups who are sending them in.”

As I wrote in a piece for Protean last November, both types of censorship have been on the rise in recent years, with many American prisons forbidding their inmates to read certain books—especially ones dealing with radicalism, racism, and police brutality—or banning donated books altogether. In Michigan, for example, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, the classic work of anti-colonial political theory, has been banned since 2017. In Kansas, Dillon says, “if an incarcerated person wants to appeal the ban of a book or magazine, they have to pay to get it shipped to another facility for the review committee to look at,” making it functionally impossible for most prisoners to even attempt an appeal.

Policies vary wildly from state to state, and can be changed at any moment without warning. Occasionally, a particularly outrageous case will catch the eye of the media and draw public outcry. But all too often, the incessant crackdowns on books and incarcerated readers go unnoticed and unchallenged—just another deprivation in a system rife with brutality and injustice, in which all manner of cruelties remain obscured behind prison walls.

These are the headwinds that prison book programs face as they struggle to furnish incarcerated people with books, educational materials, and other resources that the state neglects to provide. Across the U.S., dozens of groups have sprung up, fielding hundreds of volunteers who donate their time, money, and labor to ship books to prisons, free of charge. In a nation that imprisons more than two million people, the scale of need is vast.

“We get more than a thousand letters a month,” Dillon tells me, “and we do our best to answer every single one, as long as we have the money to do so.” It’s a theme I hear repeated over and over from organizers across the country. “The day-to-day work of the organization, what most people do, is simply answering letters,” says Valerie Surrett, President of the Appalachian Prison Book Project. “Opening letters that people send to us, trying to match the requests in the letter with a donated book on our shelves, and putting that book in the mail. That’s the bulk of our work, that’s the heart of our work.”

According to Dillon, there’s a “friendly rivalry” over which organization can lay claim to the title of the first prisoners’ reading rights group in America. The two contenders are her own Books to Prisoners, founded in 1973, and the Massachusetts-based Prison Book Program, which is believed to date a few months earlier, to 1972, but lacks records going back that far. In any case, the first groups emerged from the radical bookshop tradition; the Massachusetts PBP was first organized by members of Cambridge’s Red Book Store collective (later renamed the Lucy Parsons Center after the famous anarchist and labor leader).

Originally focused on spreading political pamphlets and other agitprop, the Massachusetts program quickly expanded to literature of all sorts, driven by the wide variety of prisoner requests. Likewise, Books to Prisoners began as an offshoot of Left Bank Books, an anarchist bookshop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Another group, Books Through Bars, originated in 1990 under the banner of New Society Publishers, a Philadelphia small press run by socially progressive Quakers. From these small beginnings, members of each local community began to come together—some driven by connections to friends and family behind bars, others by a commitment to the politics of prison reform and abolition—and became the lifeblood of a mutual aid movement that endures today.

Tom Haney is the President of Books Through Bars, but he insists the title is largely a ceremonial one. A Doctor of Divinity, he’s spent decades as a counselor for incarcerated people with compulsive mental illnesses. He came to learn about the work of prison book programs through people he’d helped. “I’ve gotten in and out of various prisons, quite literally all over the world,” he tells me. “And over the years, I’ve seen a lot of changes to the prison system—I’ve seen a lot of good, a lot of bad. When I retired and came here to Philadelphia, I wanted something else to do, so I said, let me step to the other side.”

Like the Quaker faith that inspired its founders, his organization is avowedly non-hierarchical. “There’s no chairman of the committee,” he says. “When committees meet, they pick a person, today, to run the committee. Last evening, Books Through Bars had its monthly meeting, and I volunteered to be the facilitator. Next month somebody else is going to be the facilitator. So it’s not strictly run like that. It still has to be by a majority consensus for anything to pass—I can’t block a vote, just because I’m President. Sometimes it takes a little longer to do, but in the end, we’ve been working pretty well.” As he describes the cooperative process, it strikes me as the polar opposite of the rigid, authoritarian world of the prison—and perhaps a glimpse of a way entire societies might be run, in days to come.

There’s something inherently liberatory about the act of sending books, completely free, to people in prison. It defies the logic of the market, which insists that all things be priced and leveraged for profit, and it insists on a common humanity, refusing to think in terms of a law-abiding “us” and a criminal “them.” Almost inevitably, the work of providing books becomes a catalyst for changing attitudes about the carceral state itself.

“Whether you’re a communist or anarchist, whether you’re a moderate, whether you’re somebody who is slightly more right-wing—not a lot of people are going to say, ‘Yeah, take those books away from people!’,” Michelle Dillon tells me. Upon hearing this, my first thought was that affording that generosity to the right wing was itself a little too generous—but, as Dillon then pointed out, especially for “slightly” right-wing people, the subject’s self-evident cruelty can serve as an entry point:

“It’s a good way to ease people into other conversations about the deprivations that are inherent in the prison system. […] It’s been heartening, even in the ten years that I’ve been involved with B2P Seattle, to see how many more people are recognizing the terrible cruelty of the system, and pushing for things that, even if they wouldn’t call them abolition, are verging towards it. It’s a lot more than I was seeing a decade ago.”

Maybe these emancipatory qualities, these fundamental oppositions in worldview, are the reasons that wardens and guards seem to distrust book donations so deeply, and leap at any chance to restrict them. In speaking with Tom Haney, I was astonished all over again at the thoughtless, kneejerk authoritarianism that reigns in prison. Before COVID, he said,

“One of the more horrendous things that happened […] was a total ban on books being sent in from anybody, because here in Pennsylvania, the Department of Corrections said their staff was getting sick, and they made it sound like [book donations had caused infections at] several different institutions. Well, a lot of people, especially our groups here in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which are the two largest cities and have these kinds of outreach groups, got together and challenged them.

“Well, then they backed down and said no, it was only one prison. The groups challenged them again—what are you talking about, here? Finally they said (and they posted it on the DOC website) that they had a Bible come in with drugs, and the staff handling it got sick. Now, oddly enough, the drug they said came in is a cousin of Methadone, so it was somebody trying to kick their habit, that couldn’t get treatment inside! So they said that they smuggled this particular drug in, and overnight, everything stopped. Everything coming into the institutions stopped, we’re talking everything and anything. Chaplains could no longer bring their own religious material in. It stopped all books.”

In other words, one isolated incident of contraband—which was caused, in the first place, by a lack of addiction treatment—was enough to justify stripping reading rights from the prison population of an entire state, where over 30,000 people are locked away. The flimsiness of this pretense, which caused such senseless damage to the lives of thousands already-vulnerable human beings, would be remarkable—if it wasn’t so common to see prisons and police peddle the same kind of laughable falsehoods and flaunt their immunity with comparable gall.

There is hope to be found in this story, though. After months of organizing, Books Through Bars, together with other social justice groups, was able to raise so many voices in protest against the Pennsylvania DOC’s restrictive policies that the ban was ultimately reversed, and access to donated books restored for the entire state. Faced with nothing more than ordinary people, united together, the entire prison apparatus was forced to back down. “Eventually, everything was worked out,” says Haney, rather modestly. 

And yet the Pennsylvania ban is far from the sole example of such cavalier and indiscriminate cruelty—and successful resistance. In 2019, the state of Washington issued a similar blanket ban on donated books, only to be met with an unexpected storm of protest from Books to Prisoners and its supporters in the community.

Michelle Dillon was at the forefront of that campaign. She recalls how the power of social media helped to turn the tide: “So I found this,” she says, “and I just put out a quick communication on Twitter, thinking that it’d be seen by the usual two dozen groups that tend to keep in contact. Just to say ‘Hey, we have this new problem in Washington, and we want to help fight it, does anyone else want to join?’ And that ended up going viral. Mariame Kaba helped to boost that, and then a bunch of authors started jumping in, like Neil Gaiman. And by the time I woke up on Saturday, it had 4,000 retweets.”

Beyond sharing the news online, many people went a step further, and turned their outrage into real political action. “We found that we just had this groundswell of support from people saying this was wrong, what can we do to help rescind it? People made phone calls, people were willing to go to the DOC headquarters to protest, people got in contact with the governor and just raised a huge fuss.” Caught in the middle of preparations for his abortive 2020 Presidential run, Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee was unprepared to deal with the backlash—and, like in Pennsylvania, the book ban was hastily rolled back.

These victories are encouraging, and they serve as a testament to the impact prison book programs have had in the world. It’s all too easy, after all, to imagine a timeline where nobody was there to call out the abuses in Washington and Pennsylvania, and tens of thousands of incarcerated people remained deprived of their access to the written word. Through solidarity and collective effort, that particular evil was averted—but there are still plenty of struggles left ahead. In Michigan, especially, the situation is growing dire. “They do effectively ban all prison book programs right now,” Dillon says. “In Seattle, we can’t get anything in to them. As far as we know, not many other groups can either.”

Working from Pennsylvania, Tom Haney has his own issues with the Michigan Department of Corrections. “They banned dictionaries from other languages [than English],” he says, “including the Spanish language. And the reasoning behind it was, they don’t want prisoners to speak another language, because then they could be talking about things and the correctional officers wouldn’t understand it. And it wasn’t just the dictionary, it was anything that would help a person learn that language.”

Cloaked in a supposed concern for safety and security, Michigan’s prisons have instituted a nakedly racist anti-education policy; they have specifically banned both Spanish and Swahili dictionaries. European languages are glaringly exempt from the ban. It’s a new escalation in prison censorship, and a situation that groups like Books Through Bars are watching closely. (Incidentally, the main contact number for the Michigan DOC is (517) 335-1426, and it would be a terrible shame if hundreds of people called in and berated them.)

In organizing against these injustices, one of the main obstacles for prison book programs is a simple lack of resources. “There’s not really a lot of solid funding for it,” says Dillon, “and because it tends to be all volunteer-run, unless you have a really strong core group of volunteers who can keep that legacy running, there are a lot of groups who will manage to stay open for two or three years, but then find that they don’t have the long-term support needed to stay open longer. And so groups come in, groups fade out.” Almost everyone involved has a day job. (At the Appalachian Prison Book Project, Valerie Surrett works full time as an English professor, along with her duties as the group’s President.) While the volunteers are dedicated, their time and energy can’t always stretch far enough. Real, material support from the community, in the forms of money and labor, is always needed.

To that end, Surrett has some advice for anyone interested in helping out. “Most prison book projects—every one that I know—are very welcoming to talk to people about how to start one, or how to get involved with an existing one,” she says. “If you’ve got a local one, find them and connect.” To this, Michelle Dillon adds that the most obvious types of support aren’t always the most needed. “The easiest thing for our programs to get is books. People love donating books. They don’t necessarily have that inclination to donate time, or money. So if you don’t have a group near you, please also consider a financial donation.”

There are times, though, when certain kinds of books are in desperate demand. “If people have a good source for paperback dictionaries, that is a constant need for every group,” Dillon says. “Paperback dictionaries that are easy to mail, that are big enough—the dollar-store dictionaries often don’t have a lot of the necessary words, but the Merriam-Webster paperback dictionaries are perfect. We can’t use hardback, heavier ones because they’re more expensive to mail. But we found that about 25% of the requests we get include a request for a dictionary, which seems surprising until, again, you remember the level of deprivation in prisons. We can Google things, we have unlimited access to information. People who are incarcerated don’t have that access. And so something that basic, that most people don’t even have on their bookshelves anymore, like a dictionary, is a very prized, very sought-after resource. So if people have those, please donate them. I guarantee that your local chapter will be so happy to receive those.”

 “So much of what we’re seeing feels kind of doom-and-gloom,” Surrett tells me, “but the other side of this work is the beautiful moments where you get to put your hands on a letter that someone has written, where they’re asking for a book. And usually a lot of the letters will include little snippets of their lives, the kind of books they like. I think that the power of the work that we do really comes from that one-on-one communication with someone that society tries to keep you separate from. Most people who come in and volunteer with us get hooked, and the thing that hooks them are those letters—the physical letter in your hand, and wrapping a physical book in paper, and putting it in the mail. There’s a lot of beauty to this work, that can work against the walls. It can chip away at them a little bit, and allow communication to flow.”

It may seem like a small thing—a dictionary here, a novel or a biography there. Smaller still compared to the weight of cement and razor wire, and the centuries of suffering they hold. But to the people who receive them, a single book can mean the world. “When my eyes are skimming over lines along the page, racing over the hills, valleys, mountains, and endless tracts of letters, the words of great books, planted in the fertile fields of my imagination, I am free. Free as I ever was or will ever be,” says one thank-you letter, written to the Massachusetts Prison Book Program. This is the essence of these groups, and their mission—to reach out, and restore life and hope to people trapped in a system designed to crush them. As long as prisons exist, it will be a task well worth undertaking.♦




Alex Skopic is a freelance writer from Springville, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Anthracite Unite, Current Affairs, and Vastarien: A Literary Journal, among other places. 

Cover photo from The Appalachian Prison Book Project.

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