Slavery ended in 1865. Perhaps the Federal Bureau of Prisons did not get the memo. Various BOP facilities have issued policies stating that, “books from a publisher, bookstore, book club, or friends and family will no longer be accepted through the mail.” Incarcerated persons at these federal facilities are now required to submit electronic requests to staff, specifying the book title, author, edition, and International Standard Book Number. They are charged the retail price plus a 30% markup in addition to shipping costs. Given that the vast majority of incarcerated persons and their families are experiencing poverty, very few can afford to take advantage of this outrageously burdensome process to simply obtain literature. These new policies are unconscionable.
I immediately thought of slavery and the ripple effects that led to America’s addiction to mass incarceration. The United States has only 5% of the world’s population, but is home to 25% of the world’s prison population. There are more than 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States. 1 in 110 adults are incarcerated in a prison or local jail, and 1 in 35 adults are under some form of correctional control, counting prison, jail, parole, and probation. It is important to note that some of these people are innocent. Almost 2,000 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit. To me, these numbers are absolutely shocking and should not be tolerated.
Like slavery, incarceration is dehumanizing. In some places, once you are labeled a felon you cannot vote. You are denied access to employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. You have been released from prison, but you are not free.
The District of Columbia no longer has a federal prison, so incarcerated residents are sent all across the country to serve their time. In the District, Blacks make up 86% of the jail population – but Blacks are less than half (47.7%) of the District’s total population. By contrast, whites make up only 4% of the District’s jail population, but are 44.6% of the District’s total population.
Being able to receive books and other literature while incarcerated tremendously increases the chances of success upon release. Why would the BOP take away the most powerful mechanism that can improve the lives of incarcerated persons? During slavery, it was a crime for slaves to read and write because it was feared they would become educated and rebel. It seems BOP needs a reminder that slavery is over.
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Melanie Elizabeth Bates is an attorney and consultant based in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are her own.