Changes at Pennsylvania prisons could effectively end book donation programs

New policies follow “numerous instances of staff and inmate exposure to suspicious substances,” according to the DOC.

A book shelf in the Book 'Em library inside the Thomas Merton Center on Penn Avenue in Garfield.

A book shelf in the Book 'Em library inside the Thomas Merton Center on Penn Avenue in Garfield.

Sarah Anne Hughes

Changes at Pennsylvania’s state prisons could effectively end book donation programs that serve hundreds of incarcerated persons each year.

The Department of Corrections has instituted a number of new policies regarding how people at its facilities can access mail and books in response to “numerous instances of staff and inmate exposure to suspicious substances” this year. Officials say synthetic drugs including K2 have been introduced into prisons through paper.

 An update published on DOC’s website this week states in part:

Effective immediately, the DOC will begin to transition to ebooks coupled with bolstered DOC library system featuring centralized purchasing and ordering process. No books or publications will be shipped directly to an inmate.

In an FAQ published online Thursday, the department said it “will no longer accept books donated directly to individual inmates.” A spokesperson said the DOC is “looking at ways to incorporate donated books into the libraries.”

Incarcerated persons will be able to purchase physical books through the DOC and download more than 8,500 e-books to tablets purchased through the prison system by the end of the month, per the FAQ. Tablets cost $147 plus tax. A DOC spokesperson said “the cheapest ebooks are $2.99 right now. We are looking at ways to obtain free ebooks.”

“Remember, we can’t stress this enough, books/mail are really the leading way drugs get into the system. With synthetic drugs in odorless, liquid form, applied to paper, they are virtually impossible to be detected,” the spokesperson continued. “Eliminating incoming paper products, whether mail or books, is essential to shutting down the drug flow.”

Already organizations that provide donated books to the state’s prisons are concerned about the impact the changes will have on their programs. Jodi Lincoln, a committee member for Book ‘Em, said via email the Pittsburgh-based group plans to “organize with other books to prison orgs and push back against this policy and try to get them to change it.” In April, Lincoln told The Incline that Book ‘Em mails between 200 and 250 packages of books to prisons each month.

The DOC instituted a system-wide lockdown in late August after staff members at facilities across the state reported various symptoms following contact with unknown substances. There have been nearly 60 such reports since the end of May. While staff reported symptoms including increased heart rate, nausea, and confusion, a University of Pennsylvania toxicologist told WITF the cause of the illnesses is likely anxiety rather than actual exposure.

The timing of the lockdown coincided with a nationwide prison strike. Inmates at one Pennsylvania prison circulated a letter calling for a boycott of “commissary and telephone services beginning Sept. 2” to protest various grievances, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

That the state DOC is changing its book policy is not a total surprise. Earlier this year, a spokesperson for the department told The Incline officials were exploring “other options for the future, among them making available e-books” as “paper products are a primary delivery method for contraband.”

If DOC sticks with the new policy, Lincoln said Book ‘Em would attempt to adapt its model.

“We are not sure yet, but we are not giving up on providing this service to the inmates in PA,” Lincoln said. “We consider access to books in prison a human rights issue and will fight for that.”

The Incline reporter Colin Deppen contributed reporting.