An incarcerated writer speaks out on Pennsylvania’s extreme new prison rules
by Stephen Wilson
In this letter from State Correctional Institution Smithfield, Stephen Wilson writes to his friends outside prison, explaining the impact of new Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) rules limiting mail, books and publications. We are grateful to Mr. Wilson for giving the Partisan permission to publish his letter, and we are grateful to activist scholar Dan Berger for sharing it with us. The DOC rushed to make these changes after a mass psychogenic illness (caused by anxiety) among prison guards in August. Now, if you mail something to a loved one or comrade in a Pennsylvania prison, you have to send it to a private company in Florida, which makes a profit scanning mail to the tune of $4 million in public money. The survival of educational programs like Address This!, Prison Health News, and The Movement human rights magazine is threatened. Amistad Law Project and the Abolitionist Law Center are preparing a legal strategy to roll back the changes. Visit Books Through Bars to learn about what you can do!
I am writing to inform you that the PA DOC has implemented a new onerous mail policy. The putative reason for the policy change is to prevent drugs from entering into the system. The real reason is to further monetize incarceration. There were policies in place that worked. There were no reported incidents of drugs being smuggled via books, magazines, journals or newsletters. These publications are directly sent from stores, businesses, organizations or educational institutions. This policy has effectively precluded prisoners from obtaining knowledge.
The PA DOC will begin to warehouse books in bulk. Inmates and their families and friends must purchase books, magazines, journals, and newspapers from this PA DOC warehouse. If the warehouse doesn’t stock it, prisoners will have no access to it. How will the stock be determined? The only books that will be purchased are those ordered in bulk, after a number of prisoners request it. If an inmate wants a book that isn’t popular or known to other prisoners (ie, they haven’t requested to purchase it), it will not be available. Marginalized groups, especially LGBTQ and disabled folk, are significantly impacted.
Magazines, newspapers and journals will be handled the same way. If a large number of prisoners haven’t requested it, it won’t be available. Prisoners will no longer be able to participate in outside educational programs, receive free publications (eg, Books Through Bars programs) or outside religious instruction or support. Prisoners can no longer receive checks in the mail. People who don’t have internet access but desire to purchase a book for prisoners will not be able to. The PA DOC will require our families and friends to create an account through which they can purchase books in the DOC warehouse for us. And only those books.
The PA DOC is touting its switch to ebooks, but it fails to say that access to the ebooks is predicated upon prisoners purchasing a new $155 tablet. The books will cost between $3 and $25. Prisoners make 19 cents an hour and work four to six hour shifts, five days a week. We are effectively being prevented from learning, making connections to and communicating with the outside world. The constitutional rights of prisoners and their families, friends and supporters are being violated. You have a constitutional right to communicate with us. The barriers being placed upon your doing so are unlawful.
In the past, I have communicated with you and hope to continue to. Your support has been critical to my growth and development. I thank you for your support and ask that you continue to support me as I fight this egregious violation of my and your rights. I intend to contact the ACLU. They have already begun to fight this policy. You can call the PA DOC and ask them how you are going to be able to exercise your right to communicate with me through your publication, if you publish materials. You can ask them how poor prisoners are going to afford access to ebooks. You can ask them how marginalized groups will access materials, seeing that stocking is based upon numerous requests by prisoners.
Please join me in this struggle. The walls are here not only to keep me in, but to keep you out. Don’t allow the PA DOC to cut off communication and knowledge. Please support this struggle. I thank you and hope to hear from you soon.
Ps. Any mail sent to me between 8/29 and 9/10 using the old address will be returned to you.
Editor’s note: If you’d like to correspond with this writer, please send a letter to the following address:
Smart Communications/PA DOC
Stephen Wilson LB8480
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733
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