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Hidden History of the Allegheny County Jail Library

Jody DiPerna

Dec 3, 2020

Book bans, e-readers and shifting policies

Three weeks ago, Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) officials announced they would no longer accept books from and That decision was reversed this week.

The county also inked a new contract with Global Tel*Link that would provide inmates with tablets they could use for entertainment purposes, to view photos and videos from their families, to have video visits, and to read from e-books.

Both decisions -- the banning of books from approved sellers, as well as the move to e-readers -- brought into focus the availability of books inside the jail.

Despite the recent reversal on permitting books from the two approved sellers, there is a long and storied history behind the availability of books within the jail, including claims made by officials that “leisure libraries” exist inside the walls, though their use of the term is vague.

Jail administrators have made additional changes to their policies regarding e-readers and physical books within the past 48 hours, adding to the lack of clarity and confusion around their books programs.

The Pittsburgh Current has spoken to a multitude of people to try to understand how many books are inside the jail, how accessible they are to inmates, and whether official descriptions of a leisure library on every pod are accurate.


When you hear the word library, you may think of the main branch of the Carnegie, with row after row of shelved books, with reading rooms, hard worn stairs, microfilm, computer stations and librarians at the ready. Maybe you think of a more humble community library close to home. Or your college or high school library. Perhaps you think of the grandeur of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in the nation's capital.

But it would stretch the word library to its very breaking point to define a shelf within a pod that has some books as a library, or what Warden Orlando Harper refers to as a 'leisure library.'

Nor does the word library conjure images of a walk-in closet with donated books, hand-me-down shelves and some Rubbermaid bins. But from 2016 to this past March, right before the pandemic changed all of our lives in unimaginable ways, Alex Friedman collected, stored and distributed books to people incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail from just such a set up.

Friedman started by teaching inside the jail through the Words Without Walls Program in 2014 while he was getting his MFA at Chatham University. There was no library at the jail and he saw what he described as a shocking undersupply of books available to incarcerated persons. He spoke to Sarah Shotland, co-founder and director of Words without Walls, and she connected him to another university librarian who was volunteering at the jail. Terra Merkey had already been laying the groundwork for getting free books into the hands of the people held in the ACJ.

For about eight months or so, Friedman and Merkey worked together on the project, first figuring out how to get books at no cost to Allegheny County.

"We had found that it wasn't terribly difficult to get books into the jail. The problems that arose were storage and distribution," Friedman said. To be clear, there were procedures and protocols in order to bring books in. He couldn't just walk up with books. There are strict requirements about what kinds of books can come into the jail; certain types of content or images are banned. The books have to come through a specific, approved loading dock; they have to be paperbacks, they are searched and so on.

But it was easy in the sense that books became available: individuals, organizations and booksellers were happy to donate books when they heard that prisoners were going without reading materials.

"I came up with a model that was essentially entirely cash-free. No money ever changed hands between anybody. We had zero budget and all of our materials were in-kinded and all of the labor was voluntary," Frieman told the Current.

Over a period of fits and starts, Friedman and Merkey worked with the ACJ Enrichment Department. Many volunteers who worked with that office had the sense that these were folks who were working as hard as they could within a flawed system.

"I'll put it this way, the problem isn't the Enrichment Department," Friedman said.

Eventually, the Enrichment Dept. found space for Friedman and Merkey to store books in a room behind some of the classrooms inside the jail. Friedman describes the space as a sort of walk-in, or double-wide closet. He was quick to point out that the foundation of his set up was laid by volunteers like Merkey and Sandra Gould Ford who had run educational programs before he ever volunteered there. He also did some digging around the lack of a library and found that there had been a library, but sometime between 2007 and 2010, that space was converted into a new pod which was used as a sort of half-way house unit.

"They took the space that had been the library and converted that space into the new pod. That coincided with the retirement of the previous library manager, the previous librarian. That effectively ended library services inside the jail," Friedman said.

Eric Boyd was incarcerated at the ACJ back in 2010 and 2011. There was no library in the jail then. During his time there, Boyd's girlfriend would sometimes send him a book using Amazon (they were the approved bookseller at the time) and he was aware that you could request a book from the Chaplain, but that was more catch as catch can -- you could maybe get the genre you liked, but not a specific book. Boyd said the lack of books was astonishing.

In fact, he was assigned to part of the work crew that was dismantling part of the old library.

"It's hard to say what was supposed to be what," he told the Current via email. "The only thing I know is the library was no longer in use and was slowly being dismantled. I don't think there was any plan--that I know of--for those rooms or anything like that."

By the final year of Friedman's MFA program in the fall of 2016, he was able to start getting books into the hands of people who needed them most. He tried to deliver books at least once every quarter to every pod.

"I was finally able to start distributing books via a book cart that would visit the Words Without Walls classes, thereby getting access to those people. As the donations kept coming in, I realized that I could send the books on a one-way trip to the pods, so I would pack a box of say 30 books and I would send that on a one-way trip to a pod. By send it, I mean that I had to physically deliver it myself," he said.


"The other thing specific to the jail, of course, is that somewhere between 70% to 80% of people there haven't been convicted of a crime. They're there because they can't pay cash bail. So, of course they can't buy their loved ones a book. That's not high on the priority list. Buying them a lawyer is what they're trying to scrape money together for," Shotland pointed out.

Those lucky enough to be part of the Words without Walls get reading material through the program -- books, anthologies and even photocopies of different essays or poems. Prisoners at the ACJ cannot even avail themselves of organizations like Book 'Em, a local nonprofit that sends reading and educational materials to prisoners for free. It is one of the very few cost-free ways that incarcerated individuals in Pennsylvania can obtain books, but the ACJ won’t allow it.

"We've never been able to send books to people directly at the ACJ," Jodi Lincoln, who helps to run Book 'Em, told the Current. Even though the program has a good working relationship with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, the ACJ would only allow Book Em to send books to the chaplain, but not individuals housed within the jail.

"There was a path to donate books through the chaplain's office, but those didn't go directly to individuals. We think it's the job of the jails and prisons to fund and operate those libraries with their budget," she explained. "Also, our mission is about direct service -- getting books directly into their hands based on their requests. Part of that is the care and the benefit people get receiving a book from a stranger -- that shows that people on the outside,who they don't even know, care about them and their well-being."

Ironically, the population within the jail is one that reads more than most, according to Sarah Shotland, of Words without Walls

"One of the things you learn when you're a teacher in these classes is that the books that you're bringing in are the only books they have access to. People are desperate to read," she said. "There are no libraries on their pods, just books taken around on a cart by Alex, who is just a very dedicated volunteer who ran around the city getting donations of books."

After Boyd helped dismantle the former ACJ Library in 2010-2011, the jail turned to tablets.

"They just got rid of it because they put an iPad in every pod, fixed to the wall near the lawyer visitation room," he said.

There is one table in each pod that constitutes a law library within the ACJ. While it is important to remember that many of the people in the ACJ have not been convicted, even convicted felons have a legal and constitutional right to access a law library.

The 1977 Supreme Court decision, Bounds v. Smith, led to the establishment of law libraries in most U.S. prisons. The Bounds ruling markedly enhanced a prisoner's ability to seek redress in the courts and to assist in their own defenses. Part of the decision reads as follows:

"The fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law."

According to Boyd, that law tablet arrangement was woefully inadequate.

"The iPad--which was often broken--had a legal encyclopedia on it and that was, I was told, all that the jail was legally required to provide inmates," Boyd said. "However, the commissary portal was also on that iPad so even if you did have legal work to look into the iPad was likely being used to order pouches of ramen and sardines."


Right now, the powers that be within the ACJ are weathering a self-induced tsunami of bad media around several things, including the move to eliminate physical books and wholly rely on tablets. Meet the new book ban, similar to the old book ban.

On November 16th, the ACJ announced a new policy to limit the acceptance of physical books while they transition to an online only option. Prisoners will use tablets to access books. When the news broke that prisoners were using tablets ill-suited to meet their needs with little access to paper books. It was not well received.

Even if the tablets were to work perfectly, which incarcerated persons say they don’t, and even if the wifi connection within the ACJ was great, which those inside the jail say it isn’t, the tablets are inherently limiting. They can only be used from 9:00 am until 10:00 pm. Inmates have to frequently log out and log back in in order to access content. They often have to stand by the door of their cell to get good service.

No such limitations exist with a physical copy of a book.

In the meantime, due to COVID restrictions, very few volunteers are inside the jail. Words without Walls is on hiatus. There is no dedicated, volunteer run ad hoc library system like Friedman's in operation, although some books remain in the common area of each pod and the Chaplain's office continues to provide some book deliveries.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the Current obtained a missive sent out to employees of the ACJ by a captain within the jail which read, "Every unit needs to conduct a count of all community books available" and "Any book that wasn't purchased by the inmate is to be counted."

A few days after the order to count all the books in common areas, storage and any other place where they might be, on November 27th, the Friday after Thanksgiving, Warden Harper issued a statement that the ACJ, in fact, has more than 10,000 physical books on hand for prisoners.

Friedman says that the storage space he used for years could hold about 6,000 books, if he had to guess. Another volunteer who worked inside the jail as part of book access says that there could possibly have been about 9,000 books inside, if you included in storage plus those that were already in pods in the count.

The Current telephoned the Chaplain's office. The person answering the phone did not want to provide her name, but indicated that they actually had "tens of thousands of books" available.

The books that constitute what Warden Harper refers to as leisure libraries are used by up to 50 people on each pod and they don't wear well over time, Friedman pointed out.

"Because they had to be softcover, we're not talking about library grade materials here. We're talking about a book that's going to survive maybe five reads," he said.

The American Library Association recommends that a jail or prison library be stocked with about 15 books per incarcerated person. The International Federation of Library Associations puts the number at a minimum of 10 books per person housed at the facility.

Are there 6,000 books inside the jail? Ten thousand? Many tens of thousands? It's hard to know with different figures coming out of every source, but as one volunteer said, this lack of transparency is classic ACJ, describing it as "strategic opacity."

If there are 10,000 books inside the ACJ, as officials have reported, that is still woefully inadequate for the population. For a population of around 1,800 people -- there should be at a minimum 18,000 books and probably closer to 27,000 books. That number would mean not just books that are housed there, but books that are housed there and which the prisoners have access to.

Though Friedman remains proud of his work and advocacy on behalf of incarcerated people, he was also wearied and disillusioned through the process.

"One of the reasons I gave up the project is that I couldn't remain complicit in that jail system. I couldn't be their little band-aid any longer. I'm proud of the organization and the amount of work I got done out of there. But it's not a real replacement for real library services."


On December 28th of this year, the Chaplain's office will stop accepting donations of books. The County has provided no further details on this point. Without new books coming in from either sellers or volunteers, the people housed inside the county jail may end up relying entirely on technology to read or research.

This was the thrust of Warden Harper's November 27th press release -- the jail will be partnering with Overdrive, which will provide more titles for reading on the tablets:

"With the help of OverDrive, a wide-ranging collection of eBooks will be added for the inmate population for free in early December. This collection includes a variety of genres, reading levels, authors and languages. The collection available to inmates will start with thousands of free titles and continue to grow as books are added on a yearly basis."

Right now, though, just 214 titles are available on the tablets. More books becoming available is, undoubtedly, better. What those titles will be, we have no way of knowing. Nor is it known how many titles will become available.

With open domain sources, what you often find are fusty old titles from the literary canon circa 1984. Newer, more popular titles are just not available for free, by and large. Some of the most easily available titles, according to Project Gutenberg, an open domain provider, include, "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens, "Pride and Prejudice" Jane Austen, "Moby Dick," by Herman Melville, and "The Scarlet Letter," by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The list sounds like it was lifted from a college literature course syllabus from the mid-1980s.

Jodi Lincoln, the volunteer with Book ‘Em, describes the open domain catalog as not culturally, educationally, or legally relevant.

"These are not bad books, but they are not relevant to the people who are accessing them," she said, pointing out that books in the public domain are generally several generations older. "Books that are outdated, because of the racism in literature, are often not going to be black authors. That's a really important piece of this because our system disproportionately incarcerates Black men."

Even though Book 'Em is not permitted to send books to people incarcerated at the Allegheny County jail, she does field requests from people all throughout Pennsylvania. She notes that many of the requests Book Em gets are from people in search of very specific books -- math and science textbooks, GED and SAT prep books, job and trade books.

Sarah Shotland has been teaching with Words Without Walls inside the jail for more than a decade and has seen this in her work, too.

"I get tons of requests from people who are like 'I want this very specific geometry book that is the class I left off on in my education.' These are people who deeply, deeply want to educate themselves because they see the consequences of living in a world without an education. I am sure that those 214 books are carefully chosen so that they don't really help in that aim. Also, that person's geometry book isn't going to be on that tablet," she said.

But the need goes deeper than pragmatic educational materials, according to Shotland.

"The other thing that is really interesting that I wonder if people know is that the number one requested book is the dictionary. These are people who are asking for help in naming the world, in explaining their circumstances."


Last night, December 2nd, the Allegheny County Jail announced that they were going to partner with the Carnegie Library system to make more e-books available to prisoners in the jail. It is very, very good news for prisoners. The Carnegie system has a much broader collection than most public domain services. It will take some time to get the new partnership going, though.

Within that press release, Warden Harper also announced the restoration of permitting books to come to incarcerated people through the approved sellers.

"... [T]he ability of family members and friends to order books for inmates from and has been restored effective today. It had been temporarily suspended on November 16 due to an ongoing investigation regarding safety and security concerns over contraband. While the investigation remains ongoing, additional staff training has been completed and other controls have been put in place related to the testing of printed materials to allow the program to resume. Approximately 30-60 books are sent to inmates at the facility in this manner each month."

Does contraband get into the jail? Surely. But at this time, officials at the Allegheny County Jail have provided no evidence of contraband making it into the facility through books, either purchased or donated.

As Jodi Lincoln of Book ‘Em told the Current, "There is a total lack of transparency around the contraband concerns."

What evidence is there that contraband had gotten in through books? Was contraband getting in via donated books? Was contraband getting in through books purchased from the above noted approved sellers? If so, that seems like a much bigger problem and one which should involve law enforcement at the level of the FBI or the DEA.

Alex Friedman questions all of the moves that the ACJ has made around book donations, purchases and the move to e-readers from the jump.

"This is conjecture based on my experience," he said. "In an effort to find a reason for the jail to implement the for profit tablets that are being brought in by private companies, they had to figure out a way to reduce the other enrichment that was getting in. They had to figure out a way to get rid of people's ability to do writing and to write back and forth to their family, so that they would have to rely on the tablet for that. They had to find a way to restrict people's reading to the tablet, so they could charge them for it. That's when the book ban started."

For years, Friedman and countless other volunteers have put a tourniquet on a wound that is the County's to address and fix -- the paucity of books and proper library access inside the jail. But the truth in reporting this story is there are more people at the ready. There are more volunteers, writers, academics, librarians, all ready and all willing to give freely of their time, their energy and their expertise to create a library or at least a more robust book distribution system within their facility. The administration of the ACJ would need to do very little beyond assigning a corrections officer to inspecting books. The donors and volunteers would do all the heavy lifting.

Here we are now. The move to tablets seems inevitable, despite their obvious limitations and despite the fact that so many people would provide books entirely for free. The administration inside the ACJ continues to drop press releases, changing their stance on physical books coming into the facility almost minute to minute, with little transparency around the rationale for their decisions.

In the meantime, people inside the jail just want to read.

This story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Current on December 3, 2020.

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