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After pushback, Allegheny County Jail makes some changes to their book policy

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

The Allegheny County Jail’s policies and procedures for sending books to the facility have been under increased scrutiny in recent months. Local activists and community members alleged that incarcerated people faced ongoing issues when trying to access reading materials at the jail.

This isn’t the first time jail officials have come under fire for book policies. In late 2020, jail officials briefly barred all book purchases due to an unspecified “security issue.” Incarcerated people could use the jail’s library and access books on their tablets, but their loved ones weren’t allowed to order and send books from pre-approved third-party vendors.

The ban lasted just over two weeks, but advocates and family members began to have difficulties sending books to the jail again early this year.

“I can tell you just in the last few months, approximately 30 books that I’ve purchased have been rejected,” said Jaclyn Kurin, a staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center. “And going back even to 2020, more than 60 books that I’ve sent to ACJ have either been rejected or confiscated.”

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She said titles she sent but never made it into the jail included the “March” books by congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and even the U.S. Constitution.

It’s unclear, however, whether those books were rejected by jail staff or failed to be delivered for some other reason. That’s because—at the time Kurin sent the books—the jail was not keeping track of which books had been rejected, nor was it reporting the status of book deliveries to the jail.

The jail’s book policy

Why some books were accepted and others rejected hasn’t always been clear, said Jodi Lincoln. Lincoln is the co-chair of the Pittsburgh Prison Book Project, a volunteer non-profit organization that sends books and other educational materials to people incarcerated throughout Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Prison Book Project does not send books to the Allegheny County Jail.

“It's hard to say whether books are being rejected because they're missing the invoice and receipt … or if it's because of the content of the book, or if it's a hardcover versus paperback,” Lincoln said. “There is not that data and transparency from jail that they're supposed to be to know why these books are getting rejected.”

According to the jail’s policy, books can be rejected for a few reasons. If the shipment doesn’t come from Barnes & Noble or — the jail’s two pre-approved vendors — or if there’s no receipt, mail room employees or other jail officials will return the package to the vendor.

In a statement, Barnes & Noble said “B&N sends a packing list with every purchase shipped from one of our warehouses but some orders may be filled by third party vendors (Ingram, Bookazine, etc.) and we cannot guarantee a packing slip will be included by these third party vendors.”

But books can also be rejected based on content. Books that include “obscene” material like sex, weapons or drugs are banned, as are any books that could be “detrimental to the security, good order or discipline of the institution.”

And jails have a lot of leeway when defining a security threat.

“The Supreme Court… established a significant deference to prison officials in deciding how they would restrict the First Amendment rights of prisoners,” said Kevin Goldberg, a first amendment specialist at the Freedom Forum.

A series of Supreme Court cases in the 1970s and 80s upheld the restriction of prisoners’ first amendment rights when it’s “reasonably related” to a legitimate interest, such as deterring crime or maintaining the internal security of the prison.

“So basically, if there's any good reason for restricting the First Amendment rights of a prisoner, that will be recognized as valid by a court,” Goldberg said.

Allegheny County Jail officials have declined to publicly define what constitutes a “security risk,” though they do say the policies are in place to prevent contraband from entering the facility.

Conflicting guidance

Conflicting policies shared by officials at jail oversight board meetings and posted online seemed to further confuse those attempting to send books to the jail.

For a period of time, the webpage offering guidance on what can and cannot be sent to incarcerated people included incorrect information. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine shows that through May 2022, the county website read, “Books must be sent only via U.S. mail, not UPS or [FedEx].” Official policy allows books to be sent through the United States Postal Service, UPS and FedEx.

In response to comments at multiple jail oversight board meetings, the website was updated in June to include a slightly more detailed book policy, but still noted that “Books shipped through UPS or FedEx will be returned to the distributor.”

As of Nov. 10, the page included contradictory rules: one paragraph reads “Magazine, books and newspapers must be sent directly from the publisher and only via U.S. mail, not UPS or [FedEx].” Just a few lines later, the policy notes that books can be sent via USPS, UPS or FedEx.

Public commenters at multiple jail oversight board meetings reported that their efforts to send books to people incarcerated at the jail ultimately failed.

“I’ve spent a lot of time and money having to re-order books that met the jail’s guidelines, but were still returned,” a commenter named Pete Davidson wrote to the board in April. “A banned books list would save time for families purchasing the book since they would know which to avoid and save time for staff because there would be less books to return.”

At a July oversight board meeting, deputy warden of administrative operations and employee development Blythe Toma told the board that officials record instances when a book is denied, but they do not track the title or the reason.

A Right to Know request revealed that officials began tracking book returns in July 2022. Of the 98 unique books rejected between then and Nov. 22, 13 were rejected for either “Violent imagery/content” or not having a receipt. The rest were sent without a receipt or included too many books in the order.

Existing policy has required jail officials to alert both incarcerated people and the sender if a book or writing material is rejected. They’re also supposed to have a chance to respond to the rejection and make an appeal.

But advocates like Jaclyn Kurin say that hasn’t been happening. She noted that books can be lifelines to family, friends, and even moments of hope and joy that can be hard to come by in jail.

“So, it might seem kind of simple, that you’re just talking about books. But a book means someone’s identity. It’s an opportunity for them to feel like a human being again.”

Jail oversight board involvement

At the November jail oversight board meeting, Allegheny County Council member Bethany Hallam introduced five motions meant to make it easier to send books to incarcerated people.

Two of the motions were reiterations of existing policies that advocates accuse jail officials of ignoring. One would require jail officials to accept book deliveries from USPS, FedEx, and UPS. The other would require officials to send a rejection notice in writing if a book is declined. They’d also have to provide a reason why the book was rejected and give the incarcerated person a chance to appeal the decision.

“It’s so disheartening to me that when I go into the jail and I’m talking to people who are incarcerated in there, I say, ‘Is there anything I can get for you?’ And it’s never, ‘Get me out of jail.’ It’s never ‘I’m innocent, I need to go home.’ It’s, ‘My mom is trying to send me a book and they keep taking her money and I’m never getting the book.’ It’s, ‘I need headphones to be able to listen to a book on my tablet.’ It’s such simple requests,’” Hallam told WESA in an interview earlier this year.

She also noted that some incarcerated people do not have access to the tablets. The jail’s tablet policy stipulates that “Segregated inmates and/or special population inmates may have limited access, each day, to use the tablets.”

“Jails are supposed to be rehabilitative,” she said. “These are folks who are trying to read to educate themselves.”

At the time, Toma told the board the jail had “ID’d and closed the loop” that resulted in rejected shipments from UPS and FedEx. She also said the jail has “programming in place” to tell people about rejections but was uncertain if it was up and running.

Another motion would expand the number of pre-approved booksellers to include six additional local and national options, bringing the Allegheny County Jail more in line with the state’s Department of Corrections, which allows books sent from any vendor to the DOC’s Security Processing Center.

The last two motions would bar the jail from refusing book shipments that lack receipts and require jail officials to share a list of “all book titles that the Allegheny County Jail bans or confiscates” with the oversight board.

The board voted to create a new subcommittee dedicated to digging into book-related issues, but ultimately tabled all five motions.

Goldberg said despite the fact that jail officials can legally set limits on the types of books and even subject matter allowed into the jail, incarcerated people still have first amendment rights.

“I’m sure there will be some people that will say, ‘Well, these people are imprisoned. Their rights should be limited.’ I’m not going to pass judgment on that statement other than to say they still have fundamental constitutional rights,” he said. “Books offer a link to the outside world. They offer that lifeline and incentive to get back to society. They offer a chance for educational rehabilitation, which is part of the incarceration process.”

At the jail oversight board’s December meeting, officials said they added the appeals process to the tablets in November. They also said they’ve established a book review committee, which overturned all of the previous rejections.

In a statement, Jesse Geleynse, a spokesperson for the jail wrote, “Getting books into the facility is relatively easy when directions are followed. The policies and directions in [place] are needed to prevent contraband from entering the facility.”

He added that the jail’s eBook library contains “more than 9,000 eBooks, graphic novels and audiobooks available on the tablets,” and said “the jail is in the process of moving and reorganizing its physical library to more efficiently accommodate requests.”

An overhaul of the jail’s book policy has been announced, but not finalized or implemented.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at