In a recent piece for Protean magazine entitled “The American Prison System’s War on Reading,” Alex Skopic writes, “Across the United States, the agencies responsible for mass imprisonment are trying to severely limit incarcerated people’s access to the written word—an alarming trend, and one that bears closer examination.” From outright banning books and letting prison libraries fall into decay to the intrusion of for-profit electronic reading services that inmates have to pay for, the assault on prisoners’ ability to read books while incarcerated is one of many calculated cruelties that make the US carceral system so inhumane.
In this episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with Skopic about the American prison system’s war on reading and its deep (and racist) historical roots. Alex Skopic is a freelance writer from Springville, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Anthracite Unite, Current Affairs, and Vastarien: A Literary Journal, among other places.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. Reading among slaves have always been banned and forbidden, and now we find that reading in prison is also being banned and curtailed. Alex Skopic has written an article and has investigated this, and he’s joining me today to tell us what’s happening with books in prison. Alex, thanks for joining me.
Alex Skopic: Oh, thanks for having me.
Eddie Conway: Alex, can you just give us an overview of what’s happening in the prison-industrial complex in general?
Alex Skopic: Yeah, absolutely. I first started investigating this when I read some reports coming out of Iowa that the Department of Corrections there had banned donations of books completely from outside parties, so that’s charities, that’s family members. Nobody can send books into prison out there and that’s… The more I dug, the more I realized that’s happening in states all over the country and they’re making it harder and harder to get reading material from anywhere.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Some 50 years ago when I was in prison in the Maryland Penitentiary, when I arrived there there were like 4,000 people in the area that I was housed in, and there was no library. There was no library in the whole penitentiary in all the other housing areas and we actually created a library. We took two cells and got people to send us books in and we built the library. It embarrassed the prison and eventually the government actually funded our library. This was like 1971. So I thought about it then and I realized that prison officials don’t want prisoners to read. And why is that?
Alex Skopic: Well, in a lot of cases, what I found is that it’s a lot to do with the profit model in prison. It’s that these prisons are run for-profit in a lot of states and so their incentive is to keep people coming back and to keep recidivism up. If you read, you may educate yourself. You may get out of the cycle. So they want to take that opportunity away and keep the profit line basically.
Eddie Conway: Okay. That contributes to recidivism greatly because like eight out of 10 people end up back in the prison system within a year and a half. But you also pointed out in your article that there is another ulterior motive in terms of the profit system in terms of big book manufacturing distributors. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Alex Skopic: Yeah, absolutely. So, this is one of the more sinister aspects of it now, is that when they ban donations and they ban a lot of the ways of getting books they’ll leave one or two retailers. And usually it’s big companies like Amazon, big companies like Barnes and Noble. And they’ll leave them as the approved vendors, they call them, and charge the full retail price, full markup, just price gouge completely the people held captive. It’s a literal captive market.
Eddie Conway: Okay. And it seems like there’s also some stuff around ebooks and global tech. Could you talk about that a little bit? Because that seems kind of scary and I’m sure it’s probably used in the federal systems and in other places that use emails.
Alex Skopic: Yes. Yes. That’s one of the newer developments is that things are bad with physical books, like the old fashion kind, but they’re, if anything, even worse with ebooks. Because there’s this one company in particular called Global Tel Link and in a lot of states, they will provide what are supposedly free tablets for people to read on, but the catch is always that the content itself is charged for. And they don’t sell an ebook as a one time purchase, they actually charge by the minute to read. So every time you open your book you’ve got like a register running up money. Somebody did the math on this and I believe it’s $.05 a minute to read, which it doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider that the wage in prison could be $.25 an hour or less it’s days and days of people’s wages.
Eddie Conway: Yeah. And if you are a slow reader like me it would take me five minutes to read a page or two.
Alex Skopic: Yeah. And it discourages stopping to think and reflect.
Eddie Conway: Yeah. Yeah. Well, how does the prison system justify these bans? All of a sudden books are dangerous? How do they justify that?
Alex Skopic: Yeah. It’s really interesting. The language they use in a lot of places, like in Michigan especially, I dug into the law, and the language they use is that supposedly the books could be used to bring in dangerous contraband, they say. They will go as far to say there could be drugs in the books, there could be weapons. It’s a really flimsy justification because they can’t hardly ever point to a case of this happening, they just bring up the fear that it might.
Eddie Conway: The old hacksaw in the cake kind of scenario from the wild west. Okay.
Alex Skopic: Exactly.
Eddie Conway: When actually everybody realizes, and especially people that’ve been in the prison system, realize that most of the contraband is brought in by the guards.
Alex Skopic: Yeah.
Eddie Conway: Most of the contraband is brought in because the guards can be rich, I mean be enriched, and so it might be in their interest to ban things that they’ll have to end up bringing in surreptitiously. I’m wondering, because it seems like in looking at your article, it seems like there’s a racial disparity in what books are allowed in and what books are banned. Talk a little bit about that.
Alex Skopic: Yeah. There absolutely is. It’s a flagrantly racist system and they’re not even trying to hide it really. Even in prisons that don’t even have the blanket bans on bringing books in they’ll have what are called content specific bans, and it’s a certain title or a certain author that is said to be inflammatory, and it is virtually always a Black author that’s targeted. It’s people like Angela Davis, people like Elijah Muhammad are on the banned list and even things Mein Kampf are not, which is like not even subtle.
Eddie Conway: That’s like Hitler’s Bible, right?
Alex Skopic: Yeah.
Eddie Conway: I noticed you mentioned The Turner Diary and it should be mentioned because it’s one of the most racist, horrible kinds of books you could pick up that leads to a lot of violence against people of color, and that’s not banned.
Alex Skopic: No, that’s allowed and books about crime in white communities are allowed, but it’s along the racial line that they target this stuff.
Eddie Conway: How widespread is this? You pointed out a few states and I know it’s also probably in the Federal Bureau of Prisons also. How widespread is this ban? Is it growing? Is there resistance? Is there pushback? What?
Alex Skopic: Yeah, it’s scarily widespread. It’s way more than I expected when I first started researching this. Iowa is the latest state, but there are dozens. There’s Michigan, there’s Pennsylvania, there’s things in Washington. The good news is there has been resistance and some of these states, like Pennsylvania for example, have been forced to roll back the policies after people made noise about it.
Eddie Conway: The one thing that I thought was important… I mean, the whole entire time I was in prison, I read, and it was very vital to me. The loss of the ability to read at your leisure and stop and think and have multiple choices, what kind of impact do you think that will have on the prisoners?
Alex Skopic: Oh, I think it’s going… If it’s not reformed and if these policies aren’t checked it’s going to be devastating for people because we can look at pretty much any memoir of somebody who was in prison. I looked at Malcolm X’s memoir or Eldridge Cleavers, even in your own book, Martial Law, the solace that people get from books is one of the most important things for them to educate themselves and liberate themselves and be able to understand the system they’re in and stand up to it.
Eddie Conway: And not come back.
Alex Skopic: Yeah.
Eddie Conway: Yeah. Yeah. Honestly, certainly the support of thousands of people helped me survive my ordeal, but had it not been for books I don’t think I would have survived. Because books played an equally important role as people outside did because the times I couldn’t get the people outside, I had the book. I had something that gave me comfort or at least gave me agency. It concerns me that this is happening. What can people do about this?
Alex Skopic: Yeah, there are a few things people can do. Maybe the most important is to just educate themselves on what is going on in there because the biggest, I think, weapon that the administrators and the wardens have is that this issue is just kept out of sight for most of the population. So many people don’t even realize that this is going on. So education, hugely important. Getting in contact with people behind bars. There are groups that send books in and help to facilitate things like that. I wrote about the Appalachian Prison Book Project is one, Books Through Bars, a lot of different groups like that that are doing the work and we can always use more of those groups. People need to just get informed and get in contact and get organized, really.
Eddie Conway: Okay. You’ve pretty much covered everything. And I guess my feeling is, and I go back to slavery, obviously that’s part of a long history that I share with my ancestors, and I always realized that the most dangerous thing in the world for the slave owners was a slave that was reading. We talk about the 13th Amendment and talk about how that Exception Clause for being locked up and convicted means you can be held in slavery. And it seems to me now with all two-plus million people in this system, it seems like there’s a concerted effort to bring back slavery in all its forms, not just the work. In fact, you talked a little bit about it in your article about rehabilitation. There’s no sense of rehabilitation at all as far as I can see. Can you talk a little bit about that? You did point out the vice president is like a component of that. Talk about how they are framing this prison system? And yet, it’s doing exactly the opposite.
Alex Skopic: Yeah. The rehabilitation thing is really key there because that’s a lot of the time the story, or the lie, really, that’s used to justify these systems. And even the name penitentiary, it sounds like it’s a place to be penitent and reform and change your life. But in reality, that’s not what’s going on at all. In fact, that kind of reform and reassessment is a threat to the system because it’ll get people out of it eventually and it’s so ingrained in American society that like… Yeah, both parties, even our vice president, it has a history of just working to maintain this system and make sure that it’s never questioned. So really, anything we can do to question the basic logic of it goes a long way.
Eddie Conway: All right then, Alex, thanks for joining me.
Alex Skopic: Yes and thanks for having me.
Eddie Conway: Okay. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.