Allegheny County Jail transitioning to eBook system, accepting book donations through December | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Allegheny County Jail transitioning to eBook system, accepting book donations through December

Last week, the Allegheny County Jail announced to inmates that the facility would no longer be accepting books from previously-approved outside sellers Barnes & Noble and, as part of a transition to digital system where inmates can access books on tablets. But the initial announcement of the eBook policy only offered a limited number of about 200 titles to choose from.

Today, ACJ warden Orlando Harper announced that the jail is partnering with eBook provider OverDrive to expand access and give inmates option to read "thousands of free books" on the tablets.

PublicSource reported last week that on Nov. 16, inmates received a message that "effective immediately, books from the outside would no longer be allowed inside the jail." Inmates told PublicSource that they were only able to read on the provided tablets for 90 minutes a day. Inmates are held at the jail if they can't make bail and until they receive a trial or their charges are dropped. The median stay at the jail is several days, though some inmates are held there much longer. Prisons are where convicted people are held to serve out sentences.

Both inmates and their advocates on the outside expressed concern about how this might affect the mental health of people in the jail, especially amid the pandemic when the time inmates are allowed outside their cells each day is extremely limited. This policy change led to significant outcry from many Pittsburghers, who said it was cruel to limit inmates' reading options, including Pennsylvania Second Lady Gisele Fetterman.
According to the Allegheny County website, the tablets are available to inmates from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and while certain services on the tablet require a per-minute fee, like watching movies, or having a video call with friends and family, eBooks fall under the free category. The inmates also still have access to the library of physical books currently at the jail, which officials say offers more than 1,000 books that are rotated.

While the jail is phasing out the use of physical books inmates can order in favor of digital ones, citing "an ongoing investigation regarding safety and security concerns over contraband," the jail is still accepting donations of paperback books through Dec. 28. According to a press release, those interested in donating can contact Hope Chaplaincy Services at [email protected] or 412-350-2057.

"“The safety and security of our inmates and employees will also be our priority,” said Harper in the press release. “That being said, the value of education, recreation and mental health stability cannot be understated. It is particularly true during this pandemic where additional measures are in place to protect the health and welfare of those we serve. Ensuring a robust library with a broad variety of reading material is an importance piece of the services provided at the jail.”

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By Mars Johnson