No Books for Prisoners: An Open Letter to the MWDC .
Update July 9th from Dan Kellar: In fact, the rule about new books sent directly from publisher/bookseller is still in place. Inmates ARE allowed to receive these books provided they are considered “appropriate” in content. It may be necessary, however, to exert pressure if senders learn that books are not getting through.
July 5th 2012
To whom it may concern:
I arrived at the Metro West Detention Centre one week ago. Other than a few Bibles and Korans I haven’t seen a book since I got here. When I requested to have the library cart sent to the range so I could borrow a book, the guards told me they haven’t seen the cart in ages. The guys on the range tell me they haven’t had access to books in almost five months. There seem to have been a few sightings of either the cart itself or the volunteers who push it, but those feel something akin to Sasquatch sightings.
It would appear that their so-called “Corrections System” is not interested in the literacy of those they have in prison. As one inmate put it, they want us to stay stupid. I’ve spent most of my first week here trying to look into this. I’ve questioned several guards, a few captains, and some of the long-term or frequent inmates. I’ve even had people make inquiries from the outside. Here is what I’ve been able to figure out: The MWDC does have a library, though in reality it is likely just a closet where a cart stacked with some books is held. The actual librarian was laid off nearly a decade ago due to funding cuts. That’s around the same time they started sleeping three to a cell, with the third man on the floor having to roll up the mattress every morning.
Since then, access to books has depended on the student volunteer program. There have been some sightings, but from what I can gather, it would appear that the students stopped showing up –at least, on the general population ranges — about four or five months ago. Since then, those of us locked up here, most not yet having been convicted of any crime, have had no access to books to read.
I have no idea why those in charge of the system would want to deny people books. I would think Corrections would encourage literacy in here, especially when so many of those incarcerated are so young and undereducated. I’ve been assured by captains that the library program has not been cancelled and that there’s no active plan to deny people books, but they do confirm that there has been no access. And while it may be true that the library program has not been formally terminated, other things I’ve heard suggest that there is indeed some malicious intent.
About a month before I landed at Unit 2A, there was a raid in which every single book was confiscated from the range and from people’s cells. Not only books and magazines from the “library”, but also books and magazines that were people’s personal property bought through the canteen. All gone. The raid seems to have been in response to the corrections officers finding a crudely made plastic shank on the range – for which someone already sat many days in the hole. Regardless, when the guards turned the range, they not only threw out all the books and magazines, they actually went so far as to throw a Bible and two Korans into the garbage; an obvious sign of malice and spite. So, given the reported sightings of the book cart somewhere up on the first floor, there is a possibility of the absence of books being a specific punishment.
However, inmates from other ranges also say that it’s been ages since they’ve had access to the library , captains have confirmed the no volunteer narrative and calls to the prison from the outside have not contravened that. On other ranges I’ve heard there are “remnants” left. That is to say, some people still have some books from the last time the cart came around months ago. However, as raids are a predictable monthly occurrence on every range in the building, and every time they search their cells, they almost always take or toss something, whether there is some reason or not it seems inevitable that sooner or later there will literally be no books for prisoners in the MWDC.
Making matters worse is that due to budget cuts or malicious reasons, the cable package for televisions in this jail have been cut, and all the educational channels – History, Discovery, etc. – are no longer available. It seems they really do prefer to keep us as uneducated as possible. Making matters worse, it is an unfortunate reality that the less intellectual stimulation there is where it needs to engage with, the more violence there is in this shockingly overcrowded jail. In many ways, to use the old cliché, this place feels like a powder keg waiting to explode.
The rules seem to say that to get books sent in from the outside requires specific permission from the superintendent and then someone on the outside might be able to coordinate and also order the books direct from the publisher. Most people in jail don’t have access to people like that or necessarily the negotiation skills to deal with the superintendent. Regardless, the guards always have free reign to prevent that meeting from happening and also to confiscate whatever they want. Including books which have been sent in from the outside. This means that whatever few books make it in from the outside are unlikely to be read by more than a few prisoners before the books get taken away.
Getting the library program running again seems to be the solution to the no books for prisoners problem. From my conversations on this matter with the captains, commonly referred to as “White Shirts”, it would appear that if there were a new crop of volunteers to push the book cart, then people in here could, in theory, have access to books again. Nobody can tell me what happened to the old volunteers, other than the fact that they were students. Why inmates from the work range, where prisoners who work kitchen, laundry, and janitorial duties are held, can’t push the cart, I don’t know.
What I was told by a White Shirt is that the library program is not run through the John Howard Society or the Salvation Army but directly through the MWDC Volunteer Coordinator’s office. It would appear that all people would have to do to get the library program running again would be to call the jail, ask to volunteer for this program and then pass some degree of security screening. It is also possible that the story about no volunteers is bullshit and that the guards and captains are telling lies. If this is true, a little bit of pressure exerted from both the inside and the outside may be enough to get the right to read reinstated for prisoners in the MWDC.
Denying people books feels like somewhat cruel and unusual punishment. But regardless of whether it is easier for people on the outside to volunteer or simply exert a little bit of political pressure, I hope someone decides to do that. Because while I’m content reading my newspaper every day, which I’ve been able to get in here, it seems to me that at a community and societal level it is in all of our best interests to ensure that inmates’ right to read is respected and to make sure that books are available to prisoners who want to read them.