Written by Lily Ross

Books, cards and letters are an essential part of Prisoners Abroad’s overseas services; helping to tackle isolation, loneliness and boredom amongst detainees and in turn, start to assist with their reintegration back into society. Yet the Florida Federal Prison, FCI Coleman, is banning prisoners from receiving any books as well as greeting cards and letters that are written in crayon or marker.

The prison’s education opportunities are lacklustre, so access to books is one of few means through which prisoners can stimulate their brains and acquire information. Books provide detainees with an opportunity to think outside of their repetitive prison lifestyle and find solace in another world, creating an escape from dominant prison cultures of boredom, hopelessness and violence. According to Chandra Bozelko, who served six years in prison in Connecticut, “to live vicariously through [books] was important. It’s a temporary escape – especially a novel. Because it’s a different person’s life, when yours isn’t great.”[1]

Low literacy is prevalent amongst prisoners, thus as well as being an escape, books offer a crucial opportunity for prisoners to develop their literacy and improve a skill during incarceration. This in turn will improve employability and re-integration in society, helping to reduce reoffending. Charles Robin Woods, who had never finished high school, taught himself to read whilst incarcerated in a Maryland prison.[2] Another prisoner in HMP Pentonville who took part in The Reading Agency’s Six Book Prison Challenge last year, designed to encourage reading and improve literacy amongst prisoners, wrote that "You get a sense of achievement, of doing something positive. In your cell reading, it's like meditation. You can shut off the rest of the world, your problems, and just focus."[3]

Alongside the prohibition of books, banning greeting cards and letters will have a further detrimental impact on the wellbeing of prisoners. S.V.S. a prisoner we have supported in America, said “thank you so much for the birthday and Christmas cards you sent year after year. It’s so uplifting to get that token of support and kindness.” Communication through visits, phone calls, cards and letters is not only essential to maintaining positive relationships and combatting isolation whilst incarcerated, but also in assisting prisoners in returning to civilian life on release and forging meaningful relationships with family and friends on the outside.

Florida Federal Prison authorities have not even detailed why the changes are taking place but warden R. C. Cheatham, who is pioneering the change, asserts that the sole way inmates can now access books will be through purchasing them from internal prison suppliers, which charge a 30% tax. This change is evidently part of an attempt to extract profit from prisoners in any way possible.

Such changes might also be a part of the fight against drugs in prisons. Yet although outside books, letters or cards could contain contraband, there are systems in place to ensure that mail is thoroughly searched to prevent illegal items entering the prison. The relationship between drugs and prisons is a complex issue; surely books, an outlet for creativity, imagination and culture, cannot take the blame for this?

The costs of visits and phone calls, the only other forms of outside communication, are often very expensive, rendering the poorest in prison unable to purchase these to engage in communication with family or friends. This, coupled with the fact that books will only be accessible from libraries and in-prison purchases, means that it is the poorest individuals who will suffer from restrictions on books, cards and letters and so further perpetuates the cycle of criminality amongst the poorest in society.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida have stated that the plan is destructive and backwards, and are investigating how to fight the decision. The Families Against Mandatory Minimums Foundation (FAMM) are also opposing the ban. They emphasize that it is cruel to prevent kids from sending cards to their parents for birthdays or holidays, arguing that it does nothing at all to improve either prisoner or civilian safety and will merely damage attempts at rehabilitation. 

In the past year Prisoners Abroad have sent out 2,942 books, 1,007 birthday cards, 283 foreign language materials, 197 ‘Coming Home’ resettlement handbooks to encourage people to plan for their resettlement and 1, 968 copies of ‘Rebuild’ magazine, which contains advice about UK resettlement. Getting mail into FCI Coleman for the prisoners we support there has often been difficult, yet we have been working hard with consular authorities to do so. For British citizens detained overseas, books, cards and letters are crucial. Whilst language barriers are not an issue for British citizens in Florida, they are in many other countries and mean that foreign prisoners may not be able to access prison library and rehabilitation services. Distance from home means that the costs of family visits and phone calls are extremely high; cards and letters may well be an overseas prisoner’s only interaction with family and friends.

Support Prisoners Abroad to ensure that we can provide detainees with vital resources of books, cards and letters to improve their welfare and wellbeing during, and after, incarceration.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2018/jan/19/the-book-that-changed-my-life-in-prison

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2018/jan/19/the-book-that-changed-my-life-in-prison

[3] https://readingagency.org.uk/news/blog/the-impact-of-books-and-reading-in-prisons.html

Read the full article here.

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