This white paper covers relevant literature published from January 2020 to December 2022. It glosses emerging and continuing trends in the use of technology in carceral facilities. It provides an overview of trends in recent publications in library and information science and similar fields about how technologies inside shape people’s experiences of incarceration and reentry. It closes by highlighting work by libraries that may indicate possibilities for supporting incarcerated people and people in reentry through making library services and programs that utilize technology available within facilities, and by offering some examples of how libraries can support patron’s digital literacy development after they are released.
ITHAKA S+R has released a report that brings together and analyses the content restrictions and media review practices of prison systems in the United States. The post announcing the report highlights that:
Key terms and language are common across DOC censorship policies. Despite strong similarities in language and framing, however, the policies and procedures related to common terms differ greatly across states.
Forty-two of 51 media review directives limit the vendors from which materials can be purchased. This type of “content-neutral” restriction limits the availability of information and may increase costs and logistical burdens on higher education in prison programs, students, and autodidactic learners.
Forty-four of 51 media review directives have clauses addressing and limiting access to sexually explicit or obscene content. The reasons for this are historically complicated, but these policies are currently intended to maintain an environment free of sexual harassment. In some cases, however, these policies explicitly target LGBTQ+ content. Such policies can affect access to educational materials from art history and biology to contemporary queer literature.
The legal power of DOC to surveil and censor is grounded in the protection of “security, good order, or discipline.” In practice, the term frequently serves as a catchall, providing broad latitude to censor media. This covers a startling amount of ground, justifying everything from banning books on community organizing or union history, to prohibiting access to fantasy novels that have maps of fictional lands.
Content protection clauses or carve outs exist and primarily allow access to educational or culturally significant content. While such provisions ostensibly allow access to publications that might otherwise be censored, the way these policies are framed often narrowly limits application.
Publication review and censorship appeals processes are addressed to some extent in nearly all policies. However, appeals processes often inequitably burden people who are incarcerated and the programs that seek to serve them.
The full report includes a media review policy that can be used to craft a more transparent and less arbitrary review process for materials.
The 1982 Library Services in Federal Prisons survey is a treasure trove! (This survey was conducted by the Federal Prisons Committee of the Library Services to Prisoners Section of the American Library Association.) In addition to an analysis of contemporaneous library services in federal prisons, it includes a comprehensive history of library services in federal prisons. That history led me to these 1933 passages–
Excerpted from Jones, E. K. (1933). Institution Libraries Round Table. Bulletin of the American Library Association, 27(13), 706–715.
These types of discoveries help me to position my own work within the larger, often difficult to locate, scope of library services for people who are incarcerated. They also attest to the great need for more services. The new millennium imagined in 1933 has not yet arrived.
Despite this, there is a renewed energy within the profession and among LIS students for attention to library services for people who have been incarcerated. Change may still be on the horizon.
Chelsea Jordan-Makely and I have been collaborating to locate information about academic, public, and special library services for people who are incarcerated or in reentry. Today, our article summarizing these services–Outside and In: Services for People Impacted by Incarceration–went live through the Library Journal website. It will also be available in print later this month.
We doubt that we’ve located everything, and can’t wait to find out about other libraries providing books, programs, or other library services for people who are incarcerated or in reentry. That’s why we’ve teamed up with the Library Research Service at Colorado State Library to create a survey about this type of service!
Academic, special, and public librarians and staff are encouraged to respond.
I’ve previously published in First Monday on mail digitization through Smart Communications, particularly in the instance of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC). That research shows that moves toward ICTs in carceral facilities introduce new forms of information control and are typically utilized for surveillance that affects people inside of jails, prisons, detention centers, and other facilities as well as their families, friends, and other contacts on the outside. This means that new ICTs in prisons not only increase coordinated surveillance of people already most likely to experience the brunt end of racism in policing, but also that the algorithms utilized in these new forms of surveillance are refined through compulsory applications in carceral facilities. Due to bias in policing and incarceration, these “data pools” include more Black, Indigenous, and people of color than there are in the general population of the United States. By refining surveillance technologies in jails, prisons, and detention centers, companies create increased opportunity for racism in policing and incarceration, often while working under the guise of neutrality.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) interest in Smart Comunications technology is particularly of note. At the time of my research, the Federal BOP had maintained the same mail policy for at least 20 years. It is not a system prone to change. Policies created in that system are likely to not only bolster the income and perceived prestige of Smart Communications, but also will increase the likelihood that mail digitization technologies are implemented in carceral facilities across the country. As a system that serves as a model for carceral practices, a change to mail policies in federal prisons will have lasting consequences on how smaller-scale and more local systems are able to surveil people who are incarcerated and their connections in the general public. While Smart Communications claims that mail legal mail is not digitized, there is existing precedent for monitoring digital attorney-client communications. The Federal BOP already potentially monitors all electronic communications, legal and personal, made through TRULINCS, though there is political effort underway to create a new software that does not monitor legal communication. (An aside: the Federal BOP is also a system that does not trust its own employees to have consistent internet access at work.)
Physical mail in prisons is already highly regulated. For example, in California, some prison issued envelopes contain a list of materials that will be rejected —
Even as facilities across the United States implement similar restrictions as those printed on this envelope, the physical mail has allowed for people to maintain meaningful relationships and access information. Aside from issues with mail loss, delays, and scanning failures (also here), digitizing and surveilling by-mail communications will effect how people express themselves and maintain their shared humanity through the physical mail.
Libraries across the country receive information requests from people who are incarcerated, and formal Reference by Mail services are proliferating. These services are necessary because information is increasingly born-digital and available only online, and people who are incarcerated have (aside from a few sparse examples) no sanctioned access to the Internet. From a librarian perspective, it is important to note that a watchful eye has a cooling effect on all types of information requests, be they related to pop culture, a passing moment of curiosity, reentry planning, personal and collective identity, or academic pursuits. It is within our professional concerns to resist efforts to digitize and surveil the mail to and from people who are incarcerated.