Texans send books to incarcerated people, ultimately aim for abolition

Aaron Boehmer, Life & Arts Reporter

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the August 2, 2022 flipbook.

After sending a New York Times article about prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Ph.D., to a few people they knew who were incarcerated, Jaden Janak said they received no response.

“Guards can throw out any sort of correspondence, but in particular, books that they find to (have) language about inciting a riot or questioning the existence of prisons,” Janak said. “Folks have no idea that you were trying to send them (the books). (When) I didn’t hear back from them for months, I thought something happened.”

Months passed until Janak finally found out that their friends never got their original correspondence. The Black Studies Ph.D. candidate said this stands as just one example of the many cases of censorship witnessed within the Texas prison system.

Janak works with incarcerated people in multiple ways, including through Texas Abolitionists and as an educator for the Texas Prison Education Initiative at UT. As a part of both, Janak said they provide books and educational materials and teach college courses to people in prisons, aiming to meet the current needs of incarcerated individuals while working toward their long-term goal of prison abolition.

“Prisons cut off people’s connection with the outside world to make it seem like you are forgotten and not even a person,” Janak said. “As we’re working towards this vision to disrupt (and) destroy prisons and jails, part of our work is to provide for people’s needs in the here and now, and one of those needs is human connection.”

Texas Abolitionists raises funds to send books to prisons as one way to provide human connection to incarcerated people, according to their website and Janak. Partnering with Abolition Apostles Texas, the non-hierarchical group organizes a monthly book club online, sending free copies to people in prisons so they can read along. Discussing “Solitary” by Albert Woodfox in July and Danielle Sered’s “Until We Reckon” in August, Janak said Texas Abolitionists aims to promote political education inside and outside of Texas prisons.

However, Janak said, getting books to incarcerated individuals can be difficult. Texas Abolitionists cannot send books directly, but instead must raise money to purchase books via online bookstores such as Alibris.

Additionally, as of 2021, nearly 9,000 books remain banned from entering Texas prisons, according to a list retrieved from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice by Marshall Project reporter Keri Blakinger.

The TDCJ can reject publications sent into prisons for containing contraband, promoting the breakdown of prisons, containing information about explosives, drugs or weapon manufacturing, graphic presentations of sexual behavior that violate the law, material regarding the operation of criminal schemes and more.

Whether a book, magazine, newspaper or other publication makes it to incarcerated people is left to the discretion of the Mail System Coordinators Panel, unit officers and the Director’s Review Committee within the TDCJ.

Sean Adams, who works with Janak at Texas Abolitionists, has around 16 years of experience sending books and corresponding with incarcerated people. Formerly incarcerated for 10 years in Texas prisons, Adams said he witnessed censorship firsthand, varying from mailroom to mailroom based on the discretion of each unit.

“Anything (from) starting a riot, to LGBTQ+ material, to anything that they decided was overtly sexual, they (would) ban,” Adams said. “You don’t get to have (those books) because they feel that it somehow offends their moral sensibilities, but really, they don’t want to allow you to explore your humanity, the nature of the situation or how to better yourself out of it.”

In the last four years of his sentence, Adams said he accumulated a higher volume of books than in the years prior. From bell hooks to Assata Shakur to Albert Woodfox, Adams said reading about human nature, abolition and revolution gave him strength while behind bars.

“Books and education allow us to not just reclaim parts of our humanity that were taken, but to grow, become stronger and overcome even if we are still locked behind the walls and wire,” Adams said. “I felt stronger, more resilient (and) like no matter what that place did to me, they would never break me.”

The TDCJ only allows approved vendors to send books, newspapers and magazines directly to incarcerated people, which includes the Inside Books Project. The Austin-based volunteer organization receives and fulfills written requests from people in prisons for books and resource guides. Inside Books coordinator Scott Odierno said he sees providing such a service as a way to reduce recidivism.

“(Providing books) helps people educate themselves while they’re in prison, so when they get out, they might find a better job and improve their lives so they won’t go back,” Odierno said.

Janak also provides education to those incarcerated as a TPEI educator at the Coleman unit in Lockhart. TPEI is a volunteer-run organization offering free, credit-bearing UT courses to incarcerated people in Texas through University Extension.

However, Janak said one of the program’s issues he is working to change is its overwhelmingly white faculty. According to The Sentencing Project, Black people are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white people.

“(When) we’re doing work within the Texas prison system, or any prison system, we know that the primary folks who are affected are Black and brown people,” Janak said.

According to TPEI Program Coordinator Max Lubell, a predominantly white staff does not reflect the program’s current roster of volunteers. However, Lubell said TPEI can always improve its inclusion of Black and brown people.

“Given our volunteers are unpaid, we strive to balance accomplishing these goals with not placing an additional burden on BIPOC students and faculty,” Lubell said. “Nevertheless, as our program continues to grow, we are actively working to ensure Black and brown voices are included in our organizational mission.”

Despite what they see as a lack of representation within the program, Janak said it is a highlight to meet with their UT students each week and witness their growth within each course.

“It (is) really cool to see people who came into the class (thinking) prisons serve an important purpose and walk out of the course with a new spirit towards abolition and away from reform,” Janak said.

Looking to the future of prison education work — from sending books to teaching courses — Janak said they hope to continue to advocate for the lives of incarcerated people until incarceration becomes obsolete.

“(I) hope that there’s no need for prison education because there are no prisons to do education in,” Janak said. “I hope that as we’re working towards that, that we continue to smuggle whatever resources we have — whether that’s money, books, human connection (or) whatever it is — inside of (prison) walls.”