New Policy Restricts Book Access for Inmates in Ohio Prisons

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There is a program in Columbus that is helping prisoners in Ohio get books, but a new policy is making that harder.

It’s a typical Sunday evening in the living room at the Midden, a housing cooperative in Columbus. Paintings made by inmates lean against the coffee table, and volunteers circle the dining room table packing books to be mailed to prisoners throughout Ohio.

The Redbird Books-to-Prisoners book packing night fills this four-story rowhouse with the sounds of wrinkling paper and ripping tape every first and third Sunday of the month. Dedicated to organizing against oppression, the Midden makes their house available as a meeting hub for multiple groups that participate in direct action. But Redbird Books is the only one build into the foundation of the house.

Not only is the library housed in their basement, the program is also on their chore sheet. Madeline Smith, a PhD student at Ohio State University, is one of the members of the house. Running Redbird Books is her house job.

“We try to make the house available as a community space for community projects and things that build solidarity and help combat alienation,” she says.

What would evolve into redbird books started in 1999 by former inmate Dan Cahill, who knows the power of books.

“Breathing and eating is pretty important. But as far as after that, I’d have to say books,” Cahill says.

In and out of prison over the course of 35 years, reading was Cahill’s way of staying sane. He read so many books in prison he didn’t even realize the effect they were having on him.

“It changed my spelling, my grammar, everything. And I didn’t even realize it because I would read anything,” says Cahill.

He improved so much from just reading books, that he aced the California Achievement Test. Twice. He had to take it again because the instructor thought he had cheated the first time. Dan was equally surprised.

“When I took that test and I realized, how much I’d grown because of the books, then I went on to college. Instead of being the guy that just barely passed. I made the dean’s list like 9 quarters. 3.8 was my GPA. That was the beginning of the change,” he says.

Dan today knows his life would have been different if he hadn’t passed that test.

“I probably would still be in prison,” he says. “Or dead.”

But starting late last year, Redbird Books’ ability to get prisoners the books they want changed. This past December Redbird Books-To-Prisoners received a letter from a prisoner at Grafton Correctional Institution about a new policy banning prisoners from receiving used books. There are currently at least three other prisons in Ohio with this particular policy: Chillicothe Correctional Institution, Lebanon Correctional Institution, and Ridgeland Correctional Institution.

“It seems just like a basic human right that you’re allowed to read,” Smith says. “Are you really supposed to be just in a cage, doing nothing?”

The policy means prisoners can only receive books if they are brand new and bought from a list of approved vendors. After an internal complaint was filed, Grafton amended its policy to include Redbird as an approved vendor. But, that still means that the books received would have to be new.

Purchasing new books is costly. New books usually cost around $20. But on average, inmates only have a monthly income of about $24, according to data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative. Buying a new book would mean inmates would potentially have to spend their entire monthly wages on one item. For prisoners who don’t have family that can send them items in prison, it would be a financial hardship to pay for new books on their own.

“Basically they’re saying you can’t read books if you’re poor,” says Smith.“That’s another level of…discrimination that I think is just unconscionable.”

Prisons in Ohio are not the only ones changing their policy on books. Recently three prisons in New york, launched a pilot program under Directive 4911A. The goal- of the policy was to eliminate contraband from entering the prisons, by banning items such as used books. But in January, the governor of New York suspended the policy for further review.

While the reason for recent policy changes is unclear, what is clear, advocates say, is the power of books to make positive change.

“I mean there hasn’t been an academic study on us in particular, but there have been studies showing that books decrease recidivism,” Smith says.

One of those studies was conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2010. It shows that access to education helps decrease recidivism by 43%. Basically, education can reduce the chance former inmates will commit crimes and go back to prison.

“You can definitely tell if you’ve opened a lot of letters from prisoners and what they’re asking for that they are looking for ways to improve their lives and set themselves up to do better when they get outside,” says Smith.

One way to set themselves up for success is through reading. Some of the most requested books are dictionaries, addiction treatment resources, self-help books, parenting books, and how-to books. But even if prisoners are not reading for education, Madeleine argues that access to books should still be a right.

Since purchasing new books is not feasible for the donation-based group, they are still figuring out what direct actions they can take to help overturn this policy. In the meantime, Redbird Books-to-Prisoners continues to send books to the prisons throughout Ohio that still accept their donations.

To volunteer or donate books contact them on Facebook @RedbirdBookstoPrisoners.

Anna Turner  and Salgu Wissmath contributed to this report.