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Pittsburgh jail makes unprecedented move to limit book access for inmates
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Pittsburgh jail makes unprecedented move to limit book access for inmates

The inmates of the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have received notice from Warden Orlando Harper that books from the outside would no longer be allowed inside the jail. Instead, the incarcerated population will have limited access to around 250 free books on tablets made available to the inmates.

The jail’s previous policy allowed inmates to receive books only directly from Barnes and Noble or the Christian Book Store. Under the new policy announced Monday, they will only have access to 214 books and 49 religious books through the ACJ’s tablet program. The tablet program began earlier this year after Allegheny County entered into a contract with Global Tel*Link. The program allowed inmates to have access to tablets for entertainment purposes, to view photos and videos from their families, and to have video visits. ACJ provides the inmates with roughly an hour-and-a-half of free credits. After that, the inmates are charged anywhere from three-to-five cents per minute to access the tablets. Additionally, inmates can only access the tablets to read the books for 90 minutes each day.

According to the county, the new book policy was enacted for safety reasons but inmates and advocates are worried that there are other issues with the new mandate. First, there is concern that the new policy will have a detrimental effect on inmates’ mental health by restricting the inmates’ access to one of their only sources of leisure at the jail.

Some inmates also raised First Amendment concerns. The inmates feel as though they are being told what they can and cannot read due to the limited variety of books. It is typical for jails to have book policies banning specific content. For example, prison officials will rule out some books if they contain sexual content, descriptions of criminal behavior, or language that might prompt people to try to escape from prison.

However, it is unusual for a policy to ban all books except for a very limited electronic reading list. The list of works that are available to the inmates includes only those that are in the public domain. Some of the books include the works of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll. A constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Jerry Dickinson, said that whether the policy violates the First Amendment would depend on a court’s interpretation of whether the policy is related to a legitimate government interest.

ACJ Warden Harper addressed the policy by saying is not permanent. He added that the facility is working with the provider of the tablets to add more books.