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Iowa State Prisons Ban Family Members, Third Parties From Sending Books To Inmates

An inmate leans out the bars of his cell in a one–-prisoner-per-cell block in downtown Los Angeles.
Brian Vander Brug/LA Times via Getty Images
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For people serving time, books have long been a means of education, self-actualization and connection.

Advocates are speaking out about a new policy banning family, friends and third parties from sending books to incarcerated Iowans, who must now buy books themselves and only from approved vendors.

Locked up in a cell for 23 hours a day at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Anji says one way her brother is coping is by reading a book a day.

“He's able to receive one book a day. And he's been trying to power through reading one book a day, basically,” she said. “This is going to put a huge damper on that just because of the fact of, if they're not working, they're not going to have the income. And they're going to have to rely on friends and family who are already stretched themselves.”

IPR is withholding Anji’s last name because her brother is in the process of appealing his sentence and is worried he may suffer negative repercussions for speaking out.

New policy requires inmates buy books only from prison-approved vendors

For people serving time, books have long been a means of education, self-actualization and escape, as a way to bond with their children, reading books together over a prison phone, and as a way to better understand themselves and the world beyond the walls.

“Books are everything in prison,” said Robbie Pollock, Program Manager of the Prison & Justice Writing Program at the literature and human rights advocacy organization PEN America.

“[Books] are like windows into community, into history, into the things that bind us together, that cut to the heart of our humanity,” Pollock said. “Books are also dangerous to the status quo.”

“Books are everything in prison [...] Books are also dangerous to the status quo.”
-Robbie Pollock, PEN America

Advocates say accessing books in Iowa’s prisons will be significantly more difficult now that the Iowa Department of Corrections has instituted a new policy banning family, friends and third parties from sending books, magazines and other publications into Iowa’s prisons.

Implemented this month, incarcerated individuals can only order publications through DOC-approved vendors, and must put in the order themselves.

“All publications shall be ordered and sent directly from an approved publisher or bookstore which does mail order business,” the policy reads. “Purchases may only be made by incarcerated individuals from an approved vendor. A third party may place money on an incarcerated individual’s account to purchase through an approved vendor.”

Advocates and loved ones are criticizing the policy, which they argue undermines the fundamental rights and basic dignity of inmates and their efforts at self-improvement.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has pretty clearly established that people who are detained have a First Amendment right to read a wide range of books and literature,” said Veronica Fowler, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. “When you deprive people in jail of opportunities to read or limit their ability to do so, that’s not only fundamentally at odds with the notion of the First Amendment but also with the ideal of rehabilitating.”

Added costs will be significant and may be prohibitive for some

Loved ones say that forcing inmates to purchase books from inside the prison, where a number of fees and taxes are levied on transactions, will result in significant cost increases that will be prohibitive for some. (According to a 2017 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, incarcerated Iowans earn between 27 to 87 cents an hour for their work.)

Ashley Castle, who has a loved one incarcerated at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, estimates that a $10 book will now cost her $18, due to the added fees that prison contractors charge in order to transfer funds to an inmate’s account.

Castle says her loved one and many others inside haven’t been briefed on how to order a book for themselves.

“When you deprive people in jail of opportunities to read or limit their ability to do so, that’s not only fundamentally at odds with the notion of the First Amendment but also with the ideal of rehabilitating.”
-Veronica Fowler, ACLU of Iowa

“There are several specific self help books he would like to be able to read. He is a combat veteran with PTSD, having access to books on the subject would help him through his journey of healing and growing,” she wrote IPR in a message. “All he knows is he has to order through a book catalog…but doesn’t know how to get the catalog.”

In response to questions from IPR, DOC spokesperson Cord Overton says the policy change is necessary because the prisons have seen an increase in contraband being smuggled into facilities through books.

“On occasions the contraband has been discovered during investigations or searches, but more often it has been discovered once an inmate experiences a serious health event caused by an illegal narcotic,” Overton said. “Since visiting has been suspended for over a year, the most common form of contraband introduction is by abusing the mail and publication submission system.”

"Since visiting has been suspended for over a year, the most common form of contraband introduction is by abusing the mail and publication submission system."
Cord Overton, IDOC Spokesperson

Officials in other states have provided similar explanations for similar policies, which have prompted legal challenges and public outcry.

Overton says that approved vendors may vary from prison to prison, but include AzureGreen, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and Christian Booksellers, as well as some access to Amazon.

Advocates: Ban undermines basic rights and dignity of incarcerated individuals

Advocates tracking these policies across the country say they’ve seen an increase in what some describe as “content-neutral bans” in jails and prisons. James Tager, research director at PEN America, authored a report on book bans in jails and prisons in 2019. He considers policies like Iowa’s to be “far more injurious” than content-specific bans, those targeting individual novels or certain issues.

“When people learn, say, that a single book was blocked from prisons because of its political view, there is, correctly, outrage. However, this is a [policy] that's going to block essentially all books that can't be bought through approved vendors. And that's just far more sweeping,” Tager said. “That's tremendously injurious to the interests of incarcerated people in Iowa and all Iowans.”

Tager said controlling the spread of contraband in prisons does not justify what he sees as a severe infringement on inmates’ rights, arguing that beefing up package screening protocols would be far more effective.

The policy would also apparently cut off access to the constellation of nonprofit organizations expressly established to send books to incarcerated individuals, many at no cost, such as the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project and Books To Prisoners.

Andy Chan of the Seattle-based Books To Prisoners says that limiting access to literature undercuts efforts to reduce recidivism.

"Certainly this infringes on civil rights. Not to mention trampling on the good sense that decreasing access to books equals decreasing access and opportunity to learning equals decreasing one of the best tools to decrease recidivism," Chan wrote in an email to IPR. "Reading as part of education is one of the biggest keys to decreased recidivism."

"Certainly this infringes on civil rights. Not to mention trampling on the good sense that decreasing access to books equals decreasing access and opportunity to learning equals decreasing one of the best tools to decrease recidivism."
-Andy Chan, Books To Prisoners

Organizations blocked from sending materials to prisons in other states under related bans include the Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes books and magazines focused on the human rights of incarcerated individuals, including reference and self-help books that may not be available through mainstream publishers.

Whether an incarcerated Iowan is researching the laws they were sentenced under, studying a religious text, reading a novel with their child for a school book report, or simply reading for pleasure, Tager says that ensuring broad access to literature is a moral issue.

“Literature offers a connection to the outside world, it offers an opportunity to learn and grow, it offers an opportunity to connect with loved ones,” Tager said.

“All of this is fundamental to the human experience, which is to say it's fundamental to human dignity," he added. "And that's what we're talking about when we're talking about access to literature. And that's what is affected by this provision that seems to dramatically restrict access to literature for incarcerated Iowans.”