A ban on buying books for people incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail was lifted Wednesday. The policy prevented people at the jail and their loved ones from purchasing books from approved third party providers. The ban lasted a little more than two weeks.
Officials have yet to share specific details about why the ban was instituted in the first place. Messaging consistently characterized the ban as temporary, and officials alluded to a contraband investigation in a statement announcing the ban. A county spokesperson declined to further elaborate on the situation, saying the investigation was ongoing.
The ban ends one day after The ACLU of Pennsylvania, Abolitionist Law Center and PA Institutional Law Project sent a letter to jail officials demanding the policy be rescinded. Sara Rose, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the groups are pleased with Wednesday’s announcement.
“That’s a real hard thing for people who are incarcerated, being closed off from the outside world,” she said. “Allowing people to access more information is always a good thing.”
The county also announced an expanded partnership between the jail and The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh that would provide individuals inside the facility access to more eBooks and audiobooks. Those at the jail can access the Library’s catalogue of more than 160,000 eBooks, magazines, audiobooks and videos.
The jail announced last week a new partnership with Overdrive, a digital distributor of eBooks, which increased the number of books available via tablet to people at the jail to more than 6 million.
Rose commended the lifting of the ban and the expansion of online materials, noting access to reading carries more weight for individuals incarcerated because of restricted visitation and recreational activities amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“That means people are spending more time in their cells, and limiting the ability of people to read while they’re in their cells ... just seems very heartless,” she said.
The jail and the Carnegie Library previously collaborated on work-readiness programming, movie and book discussions and read-alouds at the jail’s family center before the coronavirus pandemic.
The book purchasing ban drew criticism online soon after it was enacted on Nov. 16. Activists organized calling campaigns to demand the ban be lifted. Incarcerated individuals could still access the Jail’s 10,000-book library and a limited number of books through tablets, but books could not be purchased or sent by outside parties.
The jail’s policy before the ban already limited purchasing to two providers: Barnes & Noble and ChristianBook.com. It’s not clear if either provider played a role in the security issue to which officials alluded. In a statement announcing the end of the ban, the county said staff underwent additional training and other controls have been put in place related to the testing of printed materials. No further details about the new protocol were shared.
The statement noted between 30 and 60 books are purchased and sent to the facility each month through the purchasing program. Book donations to the jail were permitted during the purchasing ban. The facility is currently hosting a book drive through Dec. 28 through HOPE Chaplaincy Services. Those who wish to donate books can call 412-350-2057. All donated books will be subjected to a physical review to prevent contraband from making its way into the facility.
The county also announced expansion of the free, daily phone calls for incarcerated individuals from five minutes to ten minutes per call beginning Wednesday. Officials said the extended call offering will cost the jail about $40,000 per month. The calls may be made through tablets or by using phones located on each housing unit.