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When I served time in prison, I was lucky enough to have the money to buy a television from the prison store, which is commonly called the commissary or canteen. In addition to spending time at my job or at the rec yard, I could pass the time by turning on my favorite show, catching a movie, or watching my favorite sports team.
However, not everyone has the money to buy their own television, and that means some inmates have to find other ways to pass the time. A prisoner’s security level has a lot to do with what kinds of activities they are allowed to participate in, as well as the facility.
So, how do inmates make the minutes, hours, days, and years go by? Is reading an option? People often ask me: can you read in prison?
This blog post will cover:
While every prison is different, one of the few things they all have in common is access to books. Nearly every prison – whether state or federal – has some kind of library where inmates can go to check out different kinds of reading material. Not only can you read in prison, but prisoners are encouraged to do so.
According to most state statutes, inmates must also have access to a law library where they can research various legal issues like appeals. But, for this post we are going to focus on recreational reading.
Officials tend to avoid hardcover books in prison because they can be used as a weapon, but this rule varies between facilities. There are also limits on content, so no stories about rape, or books with pictures of guns. Children books are scarce with the exception of the kids area in the visiting room.
The library I had access to provided both fiction and non-fiction books that focused on a variety of different topics. They had everything from classic literature to contemporary fiction. The library was also loaded with self-help books and materials to help prisoners who were working towards their GED or attending vocational and college classes.
Some of the most popular books that had insane waiting lists included: Stephen King novels, Harry Potter books, the Janet Evanovich book series (One for the Money, Two for the Dough, etc…), and Gillian Flynn novels. Gone Girl came out when I was incarcerated, and you were better off having a loved one send it to you than trying to get your hands on the library copy.
Oh, and how can I forget Orange is the New Black? That book made its way through every inmate in the prison. I have to be honest, though. That famous Piper Kerman book is less than accurate, and don’t get me started on the TV show – about four percent of that show is real.
Anyways, back to reading. At most prisons, inmates are allowed to have family and friends send them books, but they have to come directly from vendors like Amazon to prevent attempts of sending in contraband.
Did you know it’s possible to send illegal drugs in the pages of books and in greeting cards? No? Me neither. That was something I learned in prison.
A way prisons are fighting that problem is by switching over to e-books instead of paperbacks, but they have their own share of issues, like price and available content.
If there was any positivity coming from being in prison, I would say it gave me the opportunity to read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Both books are thousands of pages long, and I read them both from cover to cover. I love Ayn Rand books.
I also read a ton of biographies, so now I consider myself an expert on Steve Martin, Melissa Gilbert, and Willie Nelson.
Of course, some people in prison can be mean and find it funny to tear out the final pages of a book. That was frustrating.
Also, it should be noted that while books are quite accessible in prison, that’s not the case for county jails. It can be extremely difficult to find reading material in county jails. The one I was held in before being transferred to prison had absolutely nothing, so my parents had to send me some books to help pass the time.
Prison inmates who are on death row or in supermax facilities may not be allowed to go to the library, but a selection of books to choose from are usually delivered to those inmates in their cells.
Newspapers and magazines are also available in the prison library. I was incarcerated in a state facility, so they had newspapers from all of the counties throughout Missouri. There was also national publications available, like USA Today.
Another option for prisoners is to have their loved ones buy them a subscription to their local newspaper so they can keep up with what’s going on in their hometown. The same thing goes for magazines. Inmates can get magazine subscriptions while they are incarcerated, but there are limits on titles.
Often times, publications like Cosmopolitan were not allowed because of the sexual content in them, but copies of People Magazine and Us Weekly were everywhere.
Being in prison is how I discovered that they still print TV Guide because that was a popular subscription to have. There was no other way to find out what was on TV, since the cable system did not have a guide channel.
Prisoners could also receive catalogs from companies that still have a mail-order option. They are few and far between, but companies like Eastbay still have paper catalogs. The women I was incarcerated with were allowed to order bras and tennis shoes. There are few things in life worse than a DOC-issued bra.
So, the answer to the question, Can you read in prison? is a hardcore Yes! From books to newspapers to magazines, reading material can be a lifesaver when you are spending time behind bars.
If you were locked up, would you take the opportunity to catch up on some reading? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Prisons Are Switching to E-Books, But That’s Not A Good Thing https://qz.com/1399330/prison-inmates-will-soon-be-reading-ebooks-but-thats-not-a-good-thing/
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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