Home > Uncategorized > No Books for Prisoners Part 2

No Books for Prisoners Part 2

July 18 update:

A security manager at CNCC who took my call today has now had a conversation with Alex in which they’ve worked out a plan for books sent to actually be delivered to him (provided they fit within the institution’s parameters of what is considered suitable).  There’s even a possibility Alex may be allowed to pass the books on to other inmates when he’s done with them and possibly even to donate them to the prison library if senders have no objection. This would deal with the prison’s concern about accumulation of property in individual cells and maximize the reach of each book.

Alex’s Mom 


Sometimes life presents wonderful moments of synchronicity. The first time since getting locked up that I have been able to see a copy of the Toronto Star there was an article titled Inmates Denied Access to Books. When one week earlier, the same day that I sent a letter to the superintendent of the Metro West Detention Center trying to get something done about the absence of books available for prisoners to read in the jail known as the West, an article appeared in the July 4 Globe and Mail titled Prisoners Read Their Way to Freedom. That article, however, was about the prison system in Brazil not Canada.

In Ontario the so-called Corrections System has passed off the responsibility of ensuring access to reading material and literacy skills onto volunteers. The provincial government’s response to the Toronto Star article, where prison staff defended the lack of library access by claiming that “recruiting volunteers for prisons [is] not easy,” was to claim that they were going to work with the John Howard Society to get books to prisoners. But such compromises and reliance on outside agencies should not have to be made; running the library should be part of what the institution does instead of relying on volunteers. Ensuring prisoners’ rights, including the right to read, should be the responsibility of the institution and the state that has chosen to lock up so many people.

Even a conservative notion of ‘corrections’ or ‘rehabilitation’ requires programming in the jails; literacy and libraries should be a primary strategy not an afterthought. That such things are neglected illuminates ours as a ‘punitive’ system rather than one that seeks to ‘rehabilitate’ or ‘reduce recidivism’ let alone one that seeks to help people break free from cycles of imprisonment. Meanwhile in Brazil, the federal prisons have instituted a new program called Redemption through Reading. For this program, prisoners can actually reduce their sentences by reading books and submitting book reports. The program is designed with “hopes of reducing recidivism and to give convicts a different view of the outside world.”


While at the West I was privileged enough to get a single novel to read, though it was a struggle. When I first tried to find out if it was still possible to receive outside material – to have books sent direct from the publisher or distributor, as I understand to be the official policy at all provincial detention and correctional centers – while several staff indicated that such a thing was still possible, when I actually had a book sent in the mail clerk informed me that the policy no longer existed and indeed the book had been returned to sender. It seemed the rules had changed.

I was explaining to the mail clerk that I considered it to be “cruel and unusual” of the institution to have cancelled the policy of allowing in books from the outside given that the internal library program has also been essentially cancelled.

One of the guards overheard this conversation and unaware of the lack of books for prisoners seemed genuinely concerned and suggested that I write a letter to the superintendent. So in addition to formal “requests” to a) have access to the library or book cart, b) permission to receive outside reading material, and c) to get clarification of the official rules regarding receiving books, I also sent a letter to the superintendent requesting a meeting to discuss the fact that the Metro West Detention Center functionally has a ‘no books for prisoners’ rule. That was on Friday July 6th and on the following Monday I was transferred out of the West to Penetang. When I was transferred I had received no response to either my letter or any of my numerous requests.

For clarification sake, “request forms”, other than talking directly to guards which is highly frowned upon, are the only and technically proper way to get things done in here.

In theory it is a bureaucratic system whereby filling out the proper paperwork enables communication with authoritative institutional decision-makers and access to things or rights to which we are supposed to be entitled. At the West however, in practice, request forms are often ignored or tossed away outright by the guards and the range is typically collectively punished when any inmate tries to assert their rights. I have heard that doesn’t happen here in Penetang. We’ll see.

At the West I persistently inquired with various captains and had someone from the outside call the jail to ask about the rules for receiving books. We were both eventually told that such a thing is still possible at all provincial institutions, at least according to policy.

After non-responses to any of the requests I had submitted to the volunteer coordinator, the operational manager and the deputy superintendent in charge of programs, amongst others, I eventually did what people with privilege have always done to help circumvent institutional discretion: I had one of my parents call the person in-charge. My mother called the superintendent’s office and was told that, in fact, prisoners are supposed to be allowed to receive books direct from the publisher or distributor provided the pass security screening. I have already been told by Penetang’s correctional intelligence officer that this applies here. A good friend had the same confirmed by a call to the superintendent’s office.

Within hours of my mother’s call to the West, I had a book to read. The same one that the mail clerk had told me was being returned to sender. When the clerk brought it to me, they said it was security who denied me permission to receive the book.

The last request I submitted before getting transferred from the West was to the head of security to find out why they had deemed Patrick DeWitt’s multiple award-winning novel The Sister’s Brother – a book about cowboys – to be considered a security risk. Of course, I never got a response to that question either.


In Brazil the Redemption through Reading program has been created with the intention that prisoners will not only improve their literacy skills but so that “a person can leave prison more enlightened and with an enlarged vision of the world”. Even at Penetang we don’t have access to the kind of literature that is likely to achieve those goals.

Here there seems to be a fairly decent education program. Inmates are able to receive actually high school credits through a well-developed program run by the Simcoe Country Board of Education. I have to admit that it seems to be a fairly impressive program. However, the fact that the School Board also runs the library is deeply problematic.

Because the library is not run by prison staff, inmates are not allowed to “work” in the library which means there is but a single individual running the whole “program”. Further, only inmates enrolled in classes, who have been moved to the Education Range, are allowed to access the actual library and only on the rarest of occasions. The rest of the prisoners here have to wait for the library cart to be brought around. While I haven’t seen the cart yet, I have heard that it tends to come at least twice a month, which seems quite reasonable.

The biggest problem has to do with the books themselves. From what I have seen on the range, what is available is predominantly pulpy crime and mystery novels. Hardly the type of books that will “enlighten a person” or give them an “enlarged sense of the world.”

And unfortunately it gets worse from there. An inmate I trust passed on a story that was told to him by the librarian. She told him that while donations are often made to the library – meaning in theory people can send quality books in that would be available to prisoners – security never lets these books through. What happens to them I am not sure, but no prisoner ever gets to read the books that are donated to the Central North Correctional Center.

This would appear to be the same thing that happens to books sent directly to prisoners through publishers or distributors: they don’t get read because security won’t let the books into the hands of prisoners. So while a Corrections Intelligence Officer assured me that the prison’s policy is that provided there are no obvious security concerns regarding a book’s content, the policy of the institution is that books can be received by prisoners. In reality, security apparently has a no books for prisoners rule, though I can’t for the life of me imagine any reason why other than as part of the punishment of being in jail. So much for rehabilitation.


The Globe and Mail article about books for prisoners finishes by reminding its readers that “in Canada two out of three convicts have low literacy skills and nearly a third have failed to finish elementary school.” Given this reality, it seems to me that encouraging literacy in jail would be a primary strategy of the so-called correctional system and a core part of what the jails do to combat recidivism (as well as violence in jails – an intellectually stimulated prisoner is much less likely to lash out at guards or other inmates).

Unfortunately in provincial jails, literacy seems to be at best an afterthought and there is even evidence of actual intent to deny books to prisoners, apparently for “security” reasons. However, even without interference from Corrections security, the attitude displayed by the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services as reported in the Toronto Star is utterly shameful.

The suggestion that what should be a core program of any prison system – the library and literacy – should be a purview of outside agencies or volunteers, and only available if it can be provided “for free”, is reflective of a sad state of affairs in our society. However it is becoming increasingly common in the age of austerity that many services that people used to understand as part of what the state and its institutions are supposed to be providing, are being replaced by the need for volunteerism and being passed off onto the community – especially when those services are needed by vulnerable and targeted people like prisoners or migrants or the poor.

Ironically, it was organizing protests against the austerity agenda that got me thrown in jail in the first place.

You can read part 1 of No Books to Prisoners here

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. torontogoat
    July 16, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Alex Hundert – behind bars and still getting shit done 🙂

    Rock on, Brother!

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