(originally posted on Alex's blog which he is updating from prison via mail and phone)
I have been in prison for 10 weeks, and I have still yet to see a library cart come around the unit. I have been led to believe that at the Central North Correction Centre (CNCC), due to the education program here, access to books was better than at the Toronto Detention Centres, but this does not seem to be the case. Neither this prison nor the provincial government seems to care whether or not prisoners have access to books. In fact, both the CNCC and the Ontario Ministry of Public Safety and Correctional Services seem to be actively preventing books from getting to prisoners.
There was a rumour here that there had been a large donation of new books to the CNCC library, and that the librarian was nearly ready to start getting these books into the hands of prisoners. However, one of the guys on my range who, through the education program, was able to get to the library last week – his first time in over six months in prison – reported that there is no sign of any truth to the rumour.
“The library is garbage,” he tells me. “There is nothing there [but] low level, low grade old, old books.” It seems that my hopes had been misplaced– a recurring theme in my endeavours to secure access to books inside the prison system.
In the second of two articles on the lack of library services at the Toronto East and West Detention Centres, the Toronto Star proclaimed hopefully on July 14th that “prisoners may soon access library books.”
Following up on the issues, a community-based agency contacted the Toronto West Detention Centre (TWDC), where the deputy superintendent in charge of programming confirmed that there had not been access to library services there “for a period of at least 2 years.”
On July 17th the Ministry responded to the agency, reiterating what their spokesperson Brent Ross had said to the Star, blaming a “lack of volunteers”. The Ministry added that “You will be pleased to know that the staff at the TWDC are currently in the process of exploring avenues to replace the volunteer librarian with a part-time librarian.”
The TWDC deputy superintendent then confirmed that a work order for a part-time paid librarian had been submitted to the Ministry. Unfortunately, they turned down the work order, and the Ministry has offered no alternative solution. At present, the jail is in the process of training a volunteer librarian in absence of a consistent, paid staff.
The Star quoted Ross as saying that “If the (John Howard) Society wishes to provide those services free, we would encourage them to contact the volunteer coordinators at those institutions.” The John Howard Society had in fact already made that very offer. But still the library carts lie dormant.
At the CNCC there is already a part-time librarian, though I have no explanation for why we have such impoverished access to books here. At the TWDC it appears to be an intentional decision on the part of the government to deny prisoners access to books. Here it seems to be the management.
As I have previously reported, I have had some success getting books sent into me from the outside. At the time I was writing the first draft of this piece I had managed to receive one novel while at the TWDC, and here one novel and a couple of comic books. Before I proceed I want to extend my most sincere appreciation to the friend who sent in those comics, and also especially to my mother who sent in those novels and who has spent hours on the phone with the administration at both institutions. She has been the crucial factor in my having any success in being able to get these places to follow their own rules regarding prisoners’ ability to receive books from people on the outside. Since first drafting this piece I’ve gotten them to give me two more of the books that have been sent in.
The policy is this: prisoners are supposed to be able to receive outside books provided that they arrive directly from the publisher or distributor, that the individual titles are approved by the superintendent, and provided that we supply the name, phone number and address of the person ordering the book for us, and also provided that the content is considered neither a security concern nor pornographic.
I have had it confirmed that this is in fact the policy by the security manager, as well as the superintendent’s assistant, the intelligence officer, a classification officer and by multiple unit managers (also known as captains). And as far as I can tell this is the policy of all provincial correctional institutions, and it is supposed to be the same policy for newspapers and magazines subscriptions as it is for books. It is also the case, however, that each prison is granted a great deal of discretion as to how they implement this policy.
At this point I should mention that, almost without exception, nobody has ever seen other prisoners actually be able to get books sent in to them, and people are now regularly asking me for advice on how to get this done. Their requests for permission to receive books go unanswered and magazine subscriptions pile up in people’s property bags in A and B (arrivals and departures), leaving prisoners unable to access reading materials until after they get released.
On August 28th, the morning after I wrote the first draft of this piece, a captain brought me two of the books I have been waiting for, over a month after they arrived at the prison. Like with the previous books I have received, they were not delivered until after my mother called the prison numerous times (to inquire as to why I was not getting the books). She left several messages with the security manager, and eventually got through to someone in the superintendent’s office, and after several conversations someone actually had the books delivered to me.
It had also required multiple phone calls from the outside when I first received books here at the CNCC on July 18th, two days after my second blog post on the issue went online. That time they were brought to me personally by the security manager here, Martin Krawczyk. When I met with him he confirmed that my understanding of the policy is in fact correct, but informed me that the CNCC is “still trying to work out” how to implement it.
I told him that I expected to receive lots of books, and that requiring a written request-based pre-approval process for each one seemed like an absurdly bureaucratic waste of time. He agreed to forgo that process, but not the security screening of each book once they arrive. I told him that while I have no problem with this – it seems reasonable – in accordance with another policy (the one that says we are supposed to be informed about any piece of mail that for security reasons they choose not to deliver to us and why) I would be posting a list of the books that were deemed to be a security threat. Krawczyk said he had no problem with that. He also told me that I would only be allowed to keep a maximum of 6 books in my cell at any given time. We agreed that when the total exceeded that number I could share books with other prisoners by giving them away and/or donating them to the library.
Unfortunately, that was the last time I heard from security manager Krawczyk. I had sent him several requests to try and get the books most recently sent in, and my mother left several messages on his institutional voicemail, he replied to neither of us.
A few days before I finally received the two most recent novels – Octavia E. Butler’s Mind of My Mind and Pasha Malla’s People Park – a friend called the CNCC to look into the matter. She was told by a receptionist (who refused to give their name) that the CNCC does not accept books for prisoners.
One of the problems here is that individuals in various positions of power simply do whatever they want on any given day, regardless of policy. To me, that constitutes an arbitrary abuse of authority.
On July 21st I sent a request to the superintendent (as discussions with the security manager had confirmed is the proper procedure) asking for permission to receive subscriptions to ‘The Economist’ and to ‘The Guardian Weekly’. Three days later I received a reply from the assistant to the deputy superintendent in charge of operations that stated “only approved magazines from Canteen list” [sic].
On July 28th I followed up by sending a request to the deputy superintendent’s office asking “to discuss the decision to contravene policy regarding receiving appropriate reading material”. Less than three hours later I received a reply from an operational manager (also known as a sergeant) that said “CNCC provides library books to the Unit. If you have a specific request for a book or magazine that the librarian can provide they will give it to you. You are allowed to order books, however, they are held in your property until you are released.”
Subsequent requests to the operational manager, to the deputy superintendent, and to security manager Krawczyk have all gone unanswered. It would appear that they have decided to try to ignore me.
My mother did, however, get through to the superintendent’s office and I did end up getting the two books that had been in the building the longest. There are still others that have yet to be delivered to me.
One day before those two books were delivered, when writing the first draft of this piece I wrote that
“regardless of whether I am able to continue getting books or not, it would seem that without the extreme privilege of having access to people on the outside who are willing and able to talk to the prison administration and even to exert some pressure, the polices that facilitate a prisoner’s right to have access to books mean very little. And while there is no official ‘no books for prisoners’ policy here or at any other Ontario correctional facility, because of the decisions of the Ministry and the arbitrary abuse of authority by prison management there seems to be little hope for access to books for prisoners.”
The next day, after receiving the books, I added:
“it would seem that with enough persistence from both the inside and the outside it is possible to get the prison to adhere to its own institutional rules about having books sent in. However, that does nothing about library access for prisoners not privileged enough to have family and friends outside who have credit cards (necessary to order books from online distributors) and who are able and willing to repeatedly call and talk to prison administration.”
This week I will be helping a fellow prisoner start the process of trying to get a book he wants to read sent in. We’ll see what happens.
With enough persistence from both the inside and the outside maybe the library cart will even start bringing some books for prisoners.