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Restricting Books behind Bars Books-to-prisoners groups face roadblocks

American Libraries: “Backlash was swift when it was publicized in January that the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) had begun requiring that packages to prisoners come from a handful of state-approved vendors only.  While the package contents were not limited to books, the proposed change hampered books-to-prisoners organizations in their mission to provide reading material to the incarcerated. A large part of the controversy stemmed from the initial five vendors’ limited selection of fewer than 100 books, many of which were coloring or puzzle books. Stories in The New York Times and elsewhere exposed the decision, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to reverse the policy. That rapid change in response to public scrutiny mirrored one that took place in New Jersey a few days prior to Cuomo’s decision. The New Jersey Department of Corrections had banned prisoners from reading Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which explores the US prison system and the incarceration of African Americans. The decision to lift the book ban came within hours of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sending a letter to the department of corrections demanding it remove the restriction. On May 3 the US Bureau of Prisons made a similar move when it rescinded a policy that banned direct delivery of books from publishers, book clubs, and bookstores to inmates in federal prisons.

Ben Schatz, a public defender in New York City who runs a program called Books Beyond Bars, says efforts to block books-to-prisons groups is “enormously frustrating.” “This is not an attempt to get The Anarchist Cookbook to prisoners,” he says. “It’s largely people who want to learn a skill or trade.”

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